There is the national adoration for the punt to keep alive our spring traditions. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Throughout history and all over the world, spring festivals have tended to be joyful and ingenuous affairs, steeped in colour, fertility symbols and invigoratingly silly behaviour.
Think northern Europeans prancing around maypoles, Indian Hindus dousing one another in gaudy solutions during Holi (''the festival of colours''), and Japanese picnic parties cooing with appreciation despite being crammed, sake-flushed cheek by jowl, beneath canopies of cherry blossom.
Here we do things differently, celebrating this season of miraculous renewal with champagne and Red Bull-vodka-fuelled equestrian gatherings, and lots of gambling. Diminutive persons in colourful silks race rich folks' thoroughbred horses around a track while crowds of youths in tight suits and bristling decolletages quaff liquor, make bets and Instagram themselves. The mainstream media is filled for the duration with spring carnival fashion edicts and photographs of orange people in mid-guffaw, holding glasses and wearing hats.
Rather than the resilient beauty of the natural world, the focus of our vernal festivities is money and its slippery bedfellow, glamour. And while the rituals being played out at the racecourses of Flemington, Caulfield, Geelong and Moonee Ponds during the weeks that precede the Melbourne Cup may be the preserve of society's most rarefied echelons, the racing industry itself, the corporately entertained and the young and excitable, the first Tuesday of November marks the point at which proceedings snag the attention of pretty much everyone.
The claim made by one betting agency in 2000 that 80 per cent of Australia's population would that year be placing a bet on the ''race that stops a nation'' may have been an exaggeration, but hardly a gross one.
Even if it's for one day only per year, there seems to be something about the gee-gees that sets our hearts aflutter. Visit Melbourne Museum and you'll find that the only permanent exhibition devoted to an individual does not display the life of John Batman, Joseph Reid or Dame Nellie Melba, but that of Phar Lap.
Besides our evident soft spot for a long face, gentle eyes and shimmering hindquarters, there is the national adoration for the punt to keep alive our spring traditions.
The prominence of the Crown Casino complex on our city's leisure landscape, the recent ubiquity of Tom Waterhouse's grinning face and the $12 billion a year we gormlessly shove into pokie machines are evidence of the rise and rise of the gambling industry, currently casting a dark shadow over hundreds of thousands of Australian lives near you.
At this stage I should profess my immunity to the bug, gambling being alone among the popular vices in holding no appeal for me. I'm as much a sucker as the next man for Sean Connery in a tuxedo and the homoerotic frisson between Clooney and Pitt in Ocean's whatever-the-hell-number-they-got-to, but I've never been sold on the idea that losing large amounts of money very quickly to the house, the bookie or the slot machine would necessarily make my life more exciting, or bolster my cool. And I find even spending money on useful stuff frankly agonising, so giving it away on the roll of a dice or turn of a card is not something I could ever perceive of as fun.
That said, part of me understands what drives greying men with binoculars around their necks and form guides under their arms trackside every weekend, obsessively tinkering with their systems. The notion that with enough attention to performance data and jockey and trainer backgrounds, perhaps an eye for equine behaviour or a head for probabilities, it just might be possible to be a smart punter, to beat the odds and get ahead, appeals to my intellectual vanity, if not to my innate laziness.
Like the rest of the country, I'll be having a flutter on Tuesday, probably settling for some no-hoper with a name that resonates for me, besides the mandatory workplace sweepstake I was roped into, like the rest of the country, last week.
Perhaps more than our horse infatuations and gambling problems, it is actually our need to share communal experience that drives the continued popularity of the spring racing carnival. While we can't all participate in the hoopla, we can watch it on the TV, read about it in magazines and be glad it's going on, provided we are not directly affected by episodes of violence, vomiting or incontinence (and sometimes all three) around the streets of Flemington in Melbourne Cup week.
The odd thing about traditions like seasonal festivals is that, besides connecting us to our past, they also lead us to contemplate the future, and how these rites that bind might play with generations to come. If it is possible to detect, squinting if we must, an increase in levels of compassion among our species through the glacier-like movement of social progress, it stands to reason that the dubious ethics around breeding animals for sport will someday seem unbearably anachronistic. And the fact that so many of these sensitive, intelligent, living creatures will end their lives at the knackery will seem entirely unacceptable and shameful.
But apparently not just yet.
Ian Rose is a Melbourne writer.