Melbourne Cup Carnival Week: Why the 'race that stops the nation' is well-worth hopping across the ditch to see live

Composite of images of Sofitel Girls Day Out at Flemington Racecourse on September 16, 2023
Lana Andelane got a preview of what's to come during Melbourne Cup Carnival Week at the Sofitel Girls Day Out, the first day of spring racing at Flemington. Photo credit: Photo illustration - Newshub; Images - Getty Images; @flemingtonvrc / Instagram

Spring has officially sprung, meaning 'tis the season for daylight savings, deep-cleaning, and much to Miranda Priestly's chagrin, digging out your favourite "groundbreaking" florals.

Spring also heralds the return of racing season, with a string of highly anticipated racedays and events scheduled over the coming months: the most renowned of which is the annual Melbourne Cup Carnival Week, which takes place across the ditch at the iconic Flemington Racecourse.

In September I attended the Sofitel Girls' Day Out for a preview of all the fashion, food, and fun that will be on offer during the Melbourne Cup in November. As a racing novice, I was unsure of what to expect: what little expectations I did have were heavily influenced by Peaky Blinders, but thankfully, there was no gang warfare to be seen.  

There was, however, a tangible excitement in the air as thousands gathered to celebrate the return of the races by enjoying a glass of bubbly, donning their finery, and mixing and mingling with punters, fashionistas, families, and friends alike.

While it's easy to write off the races as a pastime enjoyed by the old and affluent, I was surprised by the diverse crowd of attendees and array of activities on offer, from delicious dining options to beauty treatments and on-site stalls selling stunning headwear by local milliners. There was even a DJ and live music to end the event, with the stragglers (including ourselves) dancing into the evening.  

But let's backtrack a little. First and foremost, what is the Melbourne Cup? In a nutshell, the Cup is an annual thoroughbred horse race conducted by Victoria Racing Club at Flemington. Known locally as "the race that stops the nation", the Melbourne Cup - the main event of Melbourne Cup Carnival Week - draws tens of thousands every year, presenting a spectacular equine showcase set against Melbourne's skyline.

Punters can drink in the races (and the fashion!) trackside as new champions make their mark in racing folklore, or enjoy a fine dining sit-down lunch as part of several hospitality packages on offer. You can peruse the grounds, take a trip to the stables, or place a bet or two if you're so inclined - but of course, always gamble responsibly.

While the Sofitel Girls' Day Out was only a preview of what's to come during Cup Week, hosts Victoria Racing Club still put on a show for their 11,700-plus attendees: conversation and drinks were flowing as exquisitely dressed women and dapper lads mixed, mingled and cheered as their champion battled it out. As the day went on, groups started splitting off into cosier tête-à-têtes: it's easy to see how Flemington could be a great facilitator for spring flings, with its stunning setting, effervescent atmosphere and palpable excitement. So, begrudging singletons - the races could just be the meet-cute for your next romance. 

Flemington itself is a beautiful racecourse, and the blue skies made the perfect backdrop against the sprawling grounds and lush greenery. Even if you're not a racing enthusiast, the setting itself, coupled with the celebratory ambience, is highly enjoyable. Whether you're heading along with friends, family, a significant other or colleagues, it makes a great day out that's even better with good people.

We were lucky enough to be treated to a delicious six-course degustation at Flemington's signature Terrace Restaurant. The experience takes place within a refined dining area with one of the best vantage points of the track and Winning Post, while groups can see all the action unfold on individual televisions. Plus, there's sweeping vistas of the cityscape to drink in, alongside a tasty cocktail. This is one of the more expensive packages - and has already sold out throughout Melbourne Cup Carnival Week - but if you were lucky enough to secure your tickets, you're in for a treat. 

Hold your horses, though - before thinking about attending, be prepared to dress to the nines. Fashion is almost as integral to the races as the horses themselves. Gals, headwear is a must - headbands are acceptable, but in my book, embracing the experience means leaning into the races' sartorial heritage and rocking a fascinator or flamboyant hat.

Back in 1985, the late Princess Diana drew some criticism for her outfit du jour, with Australian designer Prue Acton telling Channel Seven: "Someone could have briefed her better to know that this is our most important day for fashion." Yes, this was almost 40 years ago, but it provides some insight into how fashion and Flemington go hand-in-hand.   

Mostly Cloudy (IRE) ridden by Wiremu Pinn returns to the mounting yard at Flemington Racecourse on September 16, 2023.
Mostly Cloudy (IRE) ridden by Wiremu Pinn returns to the mounting yard at Flemington Racecourse on September 16, 2023. Photo credit: Reg Ryan / Racing Photos via Getty Images

If you're considering hopping across the ditch for a week of equine excellence, here's an overview of what you can expect for Melbourne Cup Carnival 2023:  

  • November 4: Penfolds Victoria Derby Day  
  • November 7: Lexus Melbourne Cup Day  
  • November 9: Kennedy Oaks Day  
  • November 11: TAB Champions Stakes Day.   

Different tickets and packages secure access to different areas, all at varying price points, so do a bit of research to see what is right for you. The all-inclusive options on Cup Day have already sold out, but general admission - which includes access to entertainment, bars and food outlets - starts from AU$95. Some areas and privileges are exclusive to Victoria Racing Club members. 

Mostly Cloudy (IRE) ridden by Wiremu Pinn wins at Flemington Racecourse on September 16, 2023 in Flemington, Australia.
Mostly Cloudy (IRE) ridden by Wiremu Pinn wins at Flemington Racecourse on September 16, 2023. Photo credit: George Sal / Racing Photos via Getty Images

Where to stay  

Melbourne has an excellent array of accomodation on offer, from luxury five-stars to boutique hotels and thrifty but nifty hostels. The Sofitel Melbourne on Collins is a fantastic bet (pardon the pun): a luxury hotel with a distinctly French feel, the Sofitel boasts 363 rooms and suites in a great location, a stone's throw from malls, designer boutiques, great dining options, parks, and attractions. I woke up in my king bed feeling deliciously snug to a great view of the city before heading out to enjoy a short walk into Melbourne's CBD. It's also just a 20-minute drive from Flemington Racecourse, making it an ideal spot for enjoying what the city has to offer after a day at the races. 

Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Superior Bay View Room.
Sofitel Melbourne on Collins Superior Bay View Room. Photo credit: Sofitel Melbourne on Collins

Where to eat  

Any seasoned traveller will know Melbourne's reputation as a foodie destination precedes it. With a rich café and culinary culture (and great coffee to boot), there's no shortage of places to eat, drink and be merry during your stay, from hip eateries to high-end fine dining. If you're a fan of delicious fish, grilled goodness and arguably the best mashed potato I've ever eaten, consider The Atlantic. Located at Crown Casino on the city's bustling Southbank, the seafood restaurant sits a short walk from the city's riverfront bars if you wish to continue into the night, and makes a great place for group dining with plenty of shared plates and tasty cocktails. I had the Queensland trout with jus, brussel sprouts and fondant potatoes (plus a side of mash) and it did not disappoint. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny, however - mains alone start around the AU$40 mark.

The Atlantic's woodfired Aquna Murray cod with kohlrabi, edamame, and sake beurre blanc.
The Atlantic's woodfired Aquna Murray cod with kohlrabi, edamame, and sake beurre blanc. Photo credit: The Atlantic

Horsin' around  

To complete your Melbourne Cup experience, I'd highly recommend paying a visit to Living Legends, a 'retirement home' for former champions of the racecourse - 29 at the time of our visit. The heritage property, situated on a stunning 700 hectares of lush green land at Woodlands Historic Park, allows you to get up-close-and-personal with equine royalty. Champion horses have been owned, bred and spelled on this property since the 1840s, making this unique al fresco activity very appropriate for a week at the races - five of its current residents are actually Melbourne Cup winners. 

Visitors can meet, feed and pat the horses in a safe and controlled setting, with guided tours and photo opps also on offer. There's also a tasty Devonshire Tea at the Homestead Cafe daily, spanning sandwiches and scones. If you're coeliac like me, never fear, as the kitchen whips up a delicious gluten-free scone complete with jam and clotted cream. The Homestead also houses an extensive art collection, historic artifacts and racing memorabilia relating to its golden girls (and guys), as well as other Australian racing legends. This really is a must-do for any racing enthusiast. 

Living Legends CEO and veterinary director Dr Andrew Clarke with Might and Power
Living Legends CEO and veterinary director Dr Andrew Clarke with Might and Power, a New Zealand bred, Australian owned and trained Thoroughbred racehorse who was named Australian Horse of the Year in 1998 and 1999. Might and Power died in 2020. Photo credit: Living Legends

Queue Thomas Shelby: "We're going to the races."   

Melbourne Cup Carnival Week will run from November 4 to November 11 at Flemington Racecourse.   

Lana Andelane travelled to Melbourne for a two-night stay at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins and attended the Sofitel Girls' Day Out at Flemington as a guest of Victoria Racing Club.