Saturday, March 04, 2006

Editorial: Let's hope Cup Week catches on

Some hardy souls will be recovering right now from last night's races at Alexandra Park and be preparing to spend today at Ellerslie.

They may have arranged leave from work all next week to ensure they make it back to Alexandra Park on Tuesday, then Ellerslie again on Wednesday for the Auckland Cup. And next weekend, if they are still upright and solvent, they hope to do it all again.

This is "Cup Week", a social whirl well known in Christchurch but new to Auckland. If the racing clubs' dreams are realised, this will become a red-letter day on the Auckland calendar, the beginning of an 8-day carnival every year in the first full week of March. They have moved the Mercedes Derby from Boxing Day to make it the feature event at Ellerslie this afternoon, the Auckland Cup has forsaken New Year's Day to see if it can be a midweek drawcard like the Melbourne Cup and the New Zealand Trotting Cup in Christchurch.

Many Auckland business owners will hope a Cup Week catches on here. It is practically impossible to find an empty hotel room or restaurant table in Christchurch during the second week of November. The race-goers spend not only on the horses but on themselves, lavishly.

It is a week to indulge in high dressing, cocktail breakfasts, salubrious afternoons and safe taxi rides.

Racing needs it, but the city needs it too. Since the loss of the America's Cup and the city council's failure to embrace the V8 street race, Auckland has been in need of a big party. This could be it. Ellerslie and Alexandra Park are fine venues and horses have an appeal to far more people than those who follow their racing form.

There is no better catalyst for getting together with good friends than a day at the races - unless it is several days at the races. Those who really want to make a week of it can include dog racing too, at Manukau on Sunday, Thursday and next Sunday.

It will take a year or two, or three, to establish Cup Week in the Auckland consciousness. The Auckland Racing Club says it has no idea what numbers to expect this week; much will depend on the late summer weather. With temperatures cooling now, particularly in the evenings, the organisers might wonder whether March is a little late for the carnival. They have put all their big eggs in this basket and need to get it right.

Getting it right, the organisers frankly admit, means attracting women. Racing can probably survive but not prosper on its serious, betting, largely male following. To increase its public and corporate appeal, which translates into the higher stakes and revenue to support the bloodstock industry, the clubs need to see that their occasions are more like a visit to the Viaduct than a seedy public bar on a Saturday afternoon.

Racing is now well accustomed to competition from lotteries and casinos for its share of New Zealanders' gambling cash, and racing is beginning to win. The amount spent on gambling overall fell last year, probably from the impact of anti-smoking law on bars and casinos, but racing and sports betting bucked the trend. Both the big cups of the coming week - the Auckland Cup and the Auckland Trotting Cup - have attracted increased stake money this year, ironically with the backing of Sky City casino, which makes perfect sense.

The casino, like every other leisure business in Auckland, stands to gain if Cup Week can be established. But those who have most to gain are the Aucklanders and visitors who have forgotten how to have a real dressed-up day at the races and hardly know yet what they will do with a week of it. It will be fun to find out.


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