Racing Through Dreams – Banjo Paterson’s Vision of the Melbourne Cup
This early Paterson poem uses vivid racetrack imagery and Australian vernacular to provide a humorous firsthand depiction of the Melbourne Cup horse race.
Paterson playfully exaggerates the speaker overindulging in food and drink in hopes it will induce prophetic Melbourne Cup dreams. Through evocative descriptions, he places readers in the heat of the action – hearing the “hoof-strokes roar”, feeling the nervous tension of punters, and experiencing the race’s culminating excitement.
By rendering the race in such animated detail, Paterson reveals a talent for narrative verse that he would soon master in iconic ballads like “The Man from Snowy River.” The raucous shouts of bookmakers, the horses charging down the “straight together,” and the narrator’s frenzied betting all contribute to an absorbing, cinematic scene.
Paterson also affectionately satirizes some quintessential Australian characteristics like excessive gambling and boozing. The speaker’s bold wager and indignation at not being paid out typify the Aussie larrikin spirit.
With humor and rich sensory imagery, the poem captures the national fascination with the Melbourne Cup. Paterson brings to life both the inimitable atmosphere of the race and archetypal Aussie personalities it draws.
A Dream Of The Melbourne Cup
Bring me a quart of colonial beer
And some doughy damper to make good cheer,
I must make a heavy dinner;
Heavily dine and heavily sup,
Of indigestible things fill up,
Next month they run the Melbourne Cup,
And I have to dream the winner.
Stoke it in, boys! the half-cooked ham,
The rich ragout and the charming cham,
I’ve got to mix my liquor;
Give me a gander’s gaunt hind leg,
Hard and tough as a wooden peg,
And I’ll keep it down with a hard-boiled egg,
‘Twill make me dream the quicker.
Now that I’m full of fearful feed,
Oh, but I’ll dream of a winner indeed
In my restless, troubled slumber;
While the night-mares race through my heated brain
And their devil-riders spur amain,
The trip for the Cup will reward my pain,
And I’ll spot the winning number.
Thousands and thousands and thousands more,
Like sands on the white Pacific shore,
The crowding people cluster;
For evermore is the story old,
While races are bought and backers are sold,
Drawn by the greed of the gain of gold,
In their thousands still they muster.
And the bookies’ cries grow fierce and hot,
“I’ll lay the Cup! The double, if not!”
“Five monkeys, Little John, sir!”
“Here’s fives bar one, I lay, I lay!”
And so they shout through the livelong day,
And stick to the game that is sure to pay,
While fools put money on, sir!
And now in my dream I seem to go
And bet with a “book” that I seem to know,
A Hebrew money-lender;
A million to five is the price I get,
Not bad! but before I book the bet
The horse’s name I clean forget,
Its number and even gender.
Now for the start, and here they come,
And the hoof-strokes roar like a mighty drum
Beat by a hand unsteady;
They come like a rushing, roaring flood,
Hurrah for the speed of the Chester blood;
For Acme is making the pace so good
They are some of ’em done already.
But round the track she begins to tire,
And a mighty shout goes up “Crossfire!”
The magpie jacket’s leading;
And Crossfire challenges fierce and bold,
And the lead she’ll have and the lead she’ll hold,
But at length gives way to the black and gold,
Which right to the front is speeding.
Carry them on and keep it up,
A flying race is the Melbourne Cup,
You must race and stay to win it;
And old Commotion, Victoria’s pride,
Now takes the lead with his raking stride,
And a mighty roar goes far and wide,
“There’s only Commotion in it!”
But one draws out from the beaten ruck
And up on the rails by a piece of luck
He comes in a style that’s clever;
“It’s Trident! Trident! Hurrah for Hales!”
“Go at ’em now while their courage fails;”
“Trident! Trident! for New South Wales!”
“The blue and white for ever!”
Under the whip! with the ears flat back,
Under the whip! though the sinews crack,
No sign of the base white feather:
Stick to it now for your breeding’s sake,
Stick to it now though your hearts should break,
While the yells and roars make the grand-stand shake,
They come down the straight together.
Trident slowly forges ahead,
The fierce whips cut and the spurs are red,
The pace is undiminished
Now for the Panics that never fail!
But many a backer’s face grows pale
As old Commotion swings his tail
And swerves, and the Cup is finished.
And now in my dream it all comes back:
I bet my coin on the Sydney crack,
A million I’ve won, no question!
“Give me my money, you hook-nosed hog!
Give me my money, bookmaking dog!”
But he disappeared in a kind of fog,
And I woke with “the indigestion”.
The Bulletin, 30 October 1886