At 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, all eyes turn to Flemington Racecourse for the Melbourne Cup. In about three-and-a-half minutes, legends are made, dreams realised and fortunes won and lost as the field of 24 thunders across the finish line. First held in 1861, the 3200-metre race has a prize pool of about $6.2 million, and there’s much more to be made at the bookies.

Australians wager an estimated $400 million on the cup – the world’s richest handicap race – but the blockbuster sporting event is about so much more than horse racing. Indeed, the fillies off the track attract as much attention as those in the starting barriers, and the excitement extends well beyond the manicured lawns and primped rose beds of Flemington.

If you are in Melbourne during the Spring Racing Carnival, prepare to be swept up in the excitement as cup fever grips the city. On cup eve Swanston Street comes alive with thoroughbreds, jockeys, trainers and racing royalty for the annual Melbourne Cup Parade. This is the curtain raiser for race day, which traditionally kicks off with the sound of corks popping for champagne breakfasts across the city.

The Melbourne Cup public holiday

Cup Day is about frocking up and being fabulous, so be sure to to take advantage of Melbourne’s enviable array of designer labels, boutiques and milliners before making your way trackside with more than 100,000 other spectators. Hats and fascinators are de rigueur, or go in costume and make an impression. If you are seriously dressed to impress, ladies, join the the Fashions on the Field for a shot at a $75,000 Lexus and thousands of dollars’ worth of prizes.

If you’re looking to get in the money, have a flutter on the race (few can resist on Cup Day) and nab a spot on the lawn by the track to cheer on your horse. Bring a picnic and beat the queues by self catering (no BYO alcohol), or choose from the tasty morsels on sale. If you want to avoid the worst of the cup crush, reserve a spot in the car park (a cup institution) and enjoy the race atmosphere from your private patch of ground with BYO food and furniture.

The cup is the people’s race, and if you don’t make it to the track (or aren’t lucky enough to be on the guest list in the VIP Birdcage marquee), there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the action away from the turf. Barbecues with family and friends are a Cup Day tradition; grab some gourmet nibbles, a form guide and loose change for a sweep, and you’ve got yourself a party without the pretence. Alternatively head to a restaurant or gastro pub for a lively cup atmosphere or enjoy the big race on the big screen at Federation Square.

If you back a dunce, not to worry; there’s always next year.