Only Sydney Could Stuff Up An Event Like This

Can you imagine Melbourne poisoning the Melbourne Cup?

Could you possibly envisage the race being on TV bulletins and the front and back pages of the papers for all the wrong reasons?

Wouldn’t happen.

The Melbourne Cup goes off without a hitch every year and everyone always has a good time, give or take a few drunks who end up in the rose bushes and/or paddy wagons.

Alas, things are rarely so simple in Sydney.

When racing NSW invented a horse race called The Everest, which it hoped would rival the Melbourne Cup, everything started well.

It’s not easy to invent a new concept in an old sport, but Racing NSW chief Peter V’landys did just that. 33,512 people attended the inaugural Everest at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse. That’s more than have watched any of the 17 wins by champion mare Winx at the same venue.

The race itself was a stunning success.

The winner Redzel was part-owned by a lifelong racetrack battler, Peter Piras, who was stricken with leukaemia, kidney disease and other complications.

"I’m not in any pain now. Thank you Doctor Redzel," Piras unforgettably said after the race.

Any way you look at this race, it’s new exciting and bold -- and we haven’t even mentioned the $13 million prize pool, which is almost double that of the Melbourne Cup.

But this week, no one was talking about any of that, and for that we can primarily blame radio broadcaster Alan Jones.

If you listen to his interview with Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron (for which he later apologised), it's unbelievable. Three seconds and nine words in, he interrupts her, deciding she's had enough of a say.

Three seconds and nine words in.

Bear in mind, that’s for a guest Jones invited on his show. You'd hate to see him work with someone he didn’t want on.

Within 54 seconds, Jones was calling for Herron's sacking for her reticence to display the barrier draw of The Everest on the sails of the Opera House.

Australia's most famous billboard, formerly known as a house of The Arts.

Herron had only spoken about 30 words at this point, but Jones had already heard enough. And then the interview deteriorated yet further into a two-on-one shouting match, in which Jones was joined by Peter V’landys in arguing with Herron.

People were outraged. Though this was cast primarily as a sexist tirade, the real point was that the level of rudeness was unacceptable, full stop.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian then fanned flames of public discontent when she instructed the Sydney Opera House to allow its sails to be lit up with horse colours and numbers at the barrier draw. This later happened, while Sydneysiders protested en masse.

Meanwhile things went weird, as they so often do these days.

Because of the heavy-handedness of Jones, and what was widely perceived as a capitulation by Berejikilian, and because of the vibe and everything else, the protests took on not just a “Protect Our Opera House” flavour, but an anti-gambling twist.

Suddenly, The Everest was the villain in all of this.

Again, ask yourself: could you imagine anyone in Melbourne orchestrating a series of events that somehow turned the Melbourne Cup into everyone’s most-hated thing?

Wouldn't happen.

Purple and green: the colours of the feminist revolution. Which is not exactly what happened on the Alan Jones show.

Maybe you hate horse racing, which is fine.

Maybe you hate the big gambling interests which quietly line the pockets of political parties through donations, which is also fine.

But whatever your personal likes or dislikes, one thing we surely all value is a thriving economy. The Everest is filling hotel rooms in the city and hospitality tents at Randwick. It is exactly the sort of big annual event utilising existing infrastructure that cities need.

It's actually a really great sporting event in its own right too. Consider this: the Melbourne Cup is dominated by overseas horses now who win it more years than not. Aussie sprinting horses are the best in the world -- remember Black Caviar? -- and The Everest is a sprint.

Is the race broken forever now?

No. Ticket sales this year appear on par with last year, despite a prolonged Sydney rainy spell, and there will be a genuine international superstar on course, in the form of One Direction singer Liam Payne.

But for now, and probably for a while, The Everest is a little tarnished. For a long time, it will be THAT race associated with THAT Opera House fight and THAT Jones interview.

That’s a shame, because in this writer’s opinion, The Everest is a terrific Sydney event deserving of public support, not derision.

Redzel wins last year's race. He's running again this year.

JUST HOW IS THE EVEREST DIFFERENT FROM OTHER RACES?

  • In most big races like the Melbourne Cup, horses qualify through other races.
  • The Everest doesn’t work that way. Instead, wealthy people or commercial entities buy "slots" for $600,000.
  • Slot owners then go looking for a horse, any horse, which they think is fast enough to win the 1200m equine dash.
  • They then do a deal to split prizemoney with the horse’s owners, who in most cases could never afford the $600,000 entry.
  • "The criticism of the Everest is that it’s a race for the rich but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Peter V’landys has said. He’s right, too.