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From Taylor Swift to Megan Gale, celebrities are ditching the Melbourne Cup – but billionaires and big business aren't batting an eyelid

Jack Derwin
  • The 2019 Melbourne Cup is facing the most pressure in its history from animal rights groups concerned by its track record.
  • Taylor Swift dropped out of performing at this event, with Megan Gale and Lana Condor also turning their back. Anthony Callea meanwhile will donate his entire performance fees and Victoria Racing Club will donate 10% of ticket sales to horse welfare groups.
  • Public pressure hasn't been enough to deter corporate sponsorship however, with none of the Cup's partners boycotting the event.

It's the race that stops the nation, and the race that parts of the nation would very much like to stop.

On the first Tuesday of every November, millions of eyeballs flick towards screens broadcasting the Melbourne Cup. It's not just Australia either. More than 700 million viewers from some 160 countries are expected to watch the two-mile handicap race, the richest of its kind in the world. Locally, it delivers $447.6 million to the Victorian economy alone.

However, 2019's event faces unprecedented pressure and it's little wonder. Last year's event was the literal end of The Cliffsofmoher. The Irish Thoroughbred was euthanised after it fractured its shoulder on the very racetrack it had minutes prior set off to blitz. Put down in front of the Flemington grandstand, it helped take the fizz out of punters' champers, with a worse PR event difficult to imagine.

It certainly put the racing industry's form on trial. With a racehorse killed in Australia every three days, according to the activist group Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

It was a theme further fleshed out by the ABC current affairs program 7:30 simultaneously exposed how many of Australia's horses seem destined for abattoirs and knackeries -- premises that slaughter animals for pet food -- once they leave the starting barriers behind.

Those sorts of revelations have helped shift public opinion somewhat. Singer Taylor Swift dropped out of performing this year after sustained pressure from animal rights groups and an online petition garnered thousands of signatures.

Victoria Racing Club (VRC), however, maintains the decision to pull out was due to scheduling rather than newfound ethics.

The ten-time Grammy-award winner was replaced by Australian Idol runner-up Anthony Cosmo Callea who quickly promised to donate his entire performance fee to horse rehabilitation organisation. A little later, supermodel Megan Gale and actress Lana Condor both turned their back on the Cup. VRC meanwhile will donate 10% of ticket sales and 5% of its members fees to an equine wellbeing fund.

But while individual celebrities might deem the Cup, and horse racing generally, damaging to their brand, big money remains invested in it. This year's purse, paid to the top horses, has jumped to $8 million – around 10% higher than last year's $7.3 million. That's been driven by strong corporate sponsorship, and particularly with the support of the automaker Gale represents, Lexus, which owns the naming rights to the event.

"Lexus is thrilled to be entering its second year as naming rights sponsor of the Lexus Melbourne Cup, and the 17th year of our relationship with the VRC," Lexus Australia CEO Scott Thompson said in a release announcing this year's sponsorship.

Clearly, the value of the cup hasn't been diminished in its eyes, or indeed for any other business. 7:30's revelations were largely condemned by corporate sponsors of Australian horse racing and the Melbourne Cup, but despite offering platitudes, none have actually chosen to boycott the event or pull their sponsorship.

"AAMI will always promote the importance of equine welfare and is closely monitoring the industry’s response to this issue," a spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) after the 7:30 episode aired.

Indeed, fellow sponsors Myer and NAB said they would "review" their sponsorship but have made no further indication that they'll pack up their money and go elsewhere.

Dating app and sponsor Bumble, which was to host Condor in its marquee, donated $130,000 to VRC's welfare program, doing its best to thread the needle between support of the event and support of the horses, according to the SMH.

The decision not to do anything is likely made easier by the resilient commercial value of the event. It's one of the few times of year Australians appear to begrudgingly spend money as well, splashing out nearly 20% more in 2018 than they did just four years prior.

In fact, the Cup combined with other top tier races puts Australia near the pinnacle of horse racing worldwide in terms of prize money, only really surpassed by the US and Japan internationally.

It demonstrates the pull horse racing retains in this country, among the ordinary Australians who punt on the race through to the billionaires who own the horses. That includes the likes of Dubai ruler and owner of last year's winner Cross Counter Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Saudi prince and owner of Finche Khalid Abdullah. They'll be joined trackside by Australia's own Crown founder Lloyd Williams.

The race may be diminished but as long as that money sticks around, it doesn't look to be going anywhere.