It started with sludge and ended with rain but for many all that mattered was the Melbourne Cup was back

Activists dumped 1,000 litres of an oily substance on the track at Flemington Racecourse during an illegal break-in on Tuesday morning, but the action failed to stop the Melbourne Cup. Nevertheless, it was a sombre start to a day tainted by growing backlash and impassivity towards the “race that stops the nation”.

A media release issued by the alleged perpetrator identified them as a “problem gambler” who has been disaffected by the harms of racing.

“The existence of this industry means that a select few get richer whilst normal punters go broke,” they wrote. “The Melbourne Cup is the super-spreader event for the virus of gambling addiction.”

The show went ahead after a last-minute track assessment and remedial cleaning and repair work.

The Victoria Racing Club said it was “disappointed” by the actions of protesters who had caused “minor damage” to the track’s 1,500 metre mark.

“Stewards deemed the track to be safe and there was no impact to racing,” the club said. “A police investigation is under way.”

But spirits were – figuratively and literally – dampened. The track was downgraded to a soft seven prior to the main event, with further rain forecast in the late afternoon.

After a brief shower between the first and second races, the conditions deteriorated at about 12.30pm. Steady rain and gusting winds had those who braved the conditions looking for any cover they could find. At that stage, tickets were still available at the entrance.

The downpour proved too much for a quartet of young women who hailed a ride-share vehicle once the burst stopped and directed the driver to take them to Chapel Street.

Of those who remained, many opted for plastic ponchos to shield themselves from the torrent.

While the rain cleared for the marquee event, the track remained sodden as Mark Zahra guided Gold Trip to victory, seizing the lead 300 metres from the finish line and holding off Emissary.

A Melbourne Cup Carnival partnership with GIVIT to support flood-affected communities – which received a $500,000 donation off the bat – was dismissed by some as a cynical move.

Lingering anger over a controversial 2.5-metre flood wall that spared Flemington Racecourse during the recent floods remained. Some local people displaced by the Maribyrnong River’s worst flood in 50 years believed their homes wouldn’t have been flooded in October if it weren’t for the wall.

The fundraiser came after the chair of the Melbourne Racing Club, Mike Symons, tweeted – and quickly deleted – a comment lauding investment in the wall as preventing “the 100 year flood event from impacting the Melbourne Cup carnival”.

Climate activist group Extinction Rebellion said it “fully endorsed” the message of the morning’s disruptors, who it described as “friends”.

While the wintry conditions had a significant impact on the crowd, both inside the track and away from it, even under cover it felt less crowded than before the pandemic.

Some had turned elsewhere for entertainment. Across the road from Flemington, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) ran its seventh “Nup To The Cup” event, complete with a “human race” and “farshans on the field”.

The associated #NupToTheCup hashtag was trending on Twitter, as thousands expressed animal welfare concerns and disaffection with the industry.

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said the social licence of the racing industry was “clearly fading”.

The latest Guardian Essential poll found almost half of those surveyed (45%) believed the race promoted “unhealthy” gambling behaviour, with a third (34%) saying it normalised animal cruelty – echoing similar findings in Greens-commissioned research.

“Young people, in particular, are switching off,” Faruqi said. “They understand the cruelty and toxicity of racing.

“You wouldn’t know that, though, from the massive marketing campaigns from the racing and gambling industries that are designed to make events like the Melbourne Cup appear universally loved.”