A portrait of the artist as a virgin on Auckland Cup Day
When the New Zealand Racing Board asked me to be a guest on the Champagne Lawn at the Barfoot and Thompson Auckland Cup Day, the panic set in.
I emailed the board’s event specialist, Amanda Cox: “What do people wear to these things? I do not own a giant hat.”
“Big hats are not compulsory,” she assured me.
I cover the racing industry for the National Business Review and although I can talk all day about exports of thoroughbreds to China, the NZ Racing Board’s annual results and who bought the most expensive horse at Karaka’s last auction, I had never partaken in one of these fancy affairs.
So I grabbed my boyfriend, and asked him to wear a suit and chew with his mouth closed. We were off to the races!
Stop-and-go traffic on the motorway, a sea of red brake lights and one engine stall - we sort of limped our way to Ellerslie.
I didn’t buy a hat. Not because I didn’t want to but because fancy-hat stores apparently close at 5pm. I’m guessing most people who buy fancy hats don’t have jobs.
Upon arrival we saw hats that looked like Tonto’s headdress from the Lone Ranger, a hat with a crocheted teacup and saucer on top and hats so big they looked as if they had miniature baby hats growing out of them.
I did not, however, see any sombreros. That just would have been weird.
By the time we arrived, I was so exhausted from the wardrobe anxiety and sitting in Auckland traffic, I really couldn’t be bothered with learning how to place bets.
Learning about the intricacies of horses and jockeys is a lot like learning about a new wine region. It’s a lengthy process full of explanations about how the grapes are grown, the soil’s composition, winemakers’ backgrounds and the types of oak used.
When I am unfamiliar with a wine region and feeling lazy, I pick my bottle off the shelf purely based on the label.
So Wednesday afternoon I had resolved to place bets based on the horses’ names.
Seeing the roster of horses reminded me of the year I spent teaching at a university in Shenyang, China. Chinese students pick their English names at a young age and they generally stick through their university years. It’s not uncommon to see a classroom full of students named Purple, Achilles and Cherry.
To my chagrin, we arrived at the Ellerslie Racecourse too late to place a bet on Pussy O’Reilly. Grown men wearing suits and holding champagne flutes were even giggling at the name.
But for me the next race was all about Luxury Liz and Apache Fireworks.
My great-great-grandmother was born on an Apache Indian reserve and my boyfriend’s aunt Liz likes all things diamonds, Mercedes and Louis Vuitton, so this was a no-brainer.
Placing bets, I found, was a good way to keep me from staring at people’s hats and interjecting myself into the many conversations scattered about the Champagne Lawn on cosmetic surgery.
But, much like New Zealand’s showing at the Sochi Olympics, my horses Luxury Liz and Apache Fireworks didn’t even place.
Next up was the 2100-metre race and I knew Hot Rod was up for it. “Hot Rod’s” is the name of my favourite hot dog restaurant in the gay district of Sacramento, my hometown. During my 20s, I spent many nights stumbling home from pubs with a brief stop at Hot Rod’s for a delicious late-night snack.
If there is a name that can’t let me down, it’s Hot Rod.
Hot Rod won me $26 bucks on a $10 bet, which is enough to take Colin Craig out for a delicious hot dog if he’s ever in my hometown.
As the time inched towards 5:55, the big Group 1 race was approaching. When I read the list of names, I knew there was only one thing to do: place bets on Travolta and Black Stockings.
In the best movie ever made, Grease, John Travolta (Danny) and Stockard Channning (Rizzo) were always meant to be together. Haven’t you ever wondered what would have happened if Olivia Newton-John (Sandy) went back to Australia and never showed up for the first day of school at Rydell High?
I lay awake at night thinking about these things.
So I texted Aunt Liz to run the idea past her and she replied “My money on Travolta running like Greased Lightning.”
It was on.
By this stage, I was so enthralled with betting I almost missed my boyfriend shoveling obscenely large blocks of cheese into his oral cavity.
After breaking up the two hunks of cheese left on his plate, I excused myself to place bets and fill up my glass of bubbles. I bet $10 either way on Travolta and another $10 either way on Black Stockings.
We secured our spots near the finish line and the 3200-metre race commenced. I couldn’t see the horses but the crowd went wild. The last time I saw that many well-dressed men hugging each other was the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade back in 2008.
By the time I figured out what was going on, the race was over. Neither Travolta nor Black Stockings placed.
There were no more bets to place and the cheese was all gone, so I thanked the racing board for the invitation and we headed back to the city centre.
I consider my first New Zealand racing experience a success, even though I made money on just one of my five bets.
If anything, the experience provided clarity on an age-old mystery of the universe: Sandy should have stayed in Australia.