The Melbourne Cup. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria Racing Club.
Melbourne Cup Day is Australia's most famous Tuesday. At 3.00 pm AEST, on the first Tuesday in November, Australians everywhere stop for one of the world's most famous horse races—the Melbourne Cup.
It's a day when the nation stops whatever it's doing to listen to the race call, or watch the race on TV. Even those who don't usually bet, try their luck with a small wager or entry into a 'sweep'—a lottery in which each ticket-holder is matched with a randomly drawn horse.
Since 1877, Cup Day has been a public holiday for Melbourne, and crowds have flocked to the track. By 11.00 am on the first holiday, the Flemington grandstand was packed to its 7,000 capacity, and by 3.00 pm, 150,000 people were estimated to have gathered—thronging the hill beyond. The party atmosphere often means that champagne and canapes, huge hats and racetrack fashions overshadow the business of horse racing.
American writer Mark Twain said of a visit to the Melbourne Cup in 1895:
Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me.
Fashions and race culture
Prue Acton, Melbourne Cup, 1983. Photograph courtesy of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and National Library of Australia: nla-pic-vn4082853-v.
The Melbourne Cup has long been known as an urban fashion parade. The race track was one of the few places in colonial Australia where high society and the lower classes came together socially. The first Australian race meet, held in 1810, established the culture of the Melbourne Cup and was organised in Sydney by Governor Macquarie as part of a plan to improve the cultural life of Sydney.
The racecourse was designed as a neutral meeting place for colonists of all classes—military officers, convicts and free settlers. The Subscriber's Ball, organised with the 1810 race meeting, was attended by 'all the Beauty & Fashion of the Colony' (Sydney Gazette, October 1810).
At Flemington, from the 1880s onwards, the crowds transformed the race meetings into a fashion spectacular.
During the 19th and early 20th century... while the wealthy dressed in their finery and rode in carriages out to the racecourse, ordinary working people (including milliners, dressmakers, tailors and bootmakers) made the expedition on foot to see their handiwork on display.
Fashions in the Field
With waning crowd attendances in the 1960s, the Victoria Racing Club Committee held the first Fashions on the Field competition at Flemington in 1962 to encourage female racegoers back to the races. The cut of frock which has had most influence on Australian fashion was the mini skirt worn by English model Jean Shrimpton at Derby Day at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne on 30 October 1965.
Prizes, sweeps, bookies and the 'tote'
The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861 at Flemington Race Course and was won by Archer, a horse from Nowra, New South Wales, beating the local favourite, Mormon. The prize was a gold watch and 170. Dismissed by the bookies, Archer took a lot of money away from Melbourne, 'refuelling interstate rivalry' and adding to the excitement of the Cup.
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Carbine dominated the racing scene, and carried the greatest winning weight ever in a Melbourne Cup. Only a few horses have won the Melbourne Cup twice: Archer (1861, 1862), Peter Pan (1932, 1934), Rain Lover (1968, 1969) and Think Big (1974, 1975). Makybe Diva became the first horse to win three Melbourne Cups with wins in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
J Fitzpatrick, Bookmakers taking bets at Broken Hill, 1948, b&w, acetate. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A1200, L11443.
Even through wars and depression, the Melbourne Cup racing carnival has been one of the stayers of Australian cultural experience. Australia is one of the few countries where bookmakers are allowed to operate on course offering starting prizes (SP). This was legalised in 1882 and 1896 in an attempt to stamp out off-course SP 'bookies' who paid out on prices being quoted on the racecourse. Before the telephone, on-course prices were signalled with flags.
This legislation did not stop SP bookmaking off-course. It is said that every second Australian household in the 1880s and early 1900s, on every Saturday afternoon, the average punter went to a local pub, corner grocer, barber or milkman and placed a bet with their SP bookie. From 1916, the bookies competed against a 'totaliser' machine, known as the 'tote', invented by George Julius, an engineer working in Western Australia. The machine calculated changing odds and the paying of dividends to winning punters. As the world's first automatic totalisator, Julius's company designed and supplied racecourse betting equipment throughout the world.
The spirit of the Melbourne Cup was captured in a series of Australian Women's Weekly covers during the 1940s and 1950s by staff cartoonist, William Edwin Pidgeon (1909-1981) known as 'Wep'. The 1950 illustration shows office workers crowded around a radio to hear the race call. In 1953, a family is seen making their 'sweep' draw in their lounge room, and in 1959 the innovation of television was illustrated.
Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike riding at Flemington race track. Photograph courtesy of Australian History.org.
Phar Lap is perhaps Australia's most famous racehorse, combining stamina and speed. Foaled in New Zealand in 1926 by Night Raid out of Entreaty he grew to 17 hands. Over his career he won more than £65,000 in prize money and won 37 of his 51 starts. From September 1929 he was the favourite in all but one of his races. Phar Lap became the darling of Australian race crowds during the Great Depression of the 1930s—winning all four days of the 1930 Flemington Spring Carnival including the Melbourne Cup carrying 62.5 kg.
Phar Lap is the only horse to have started favourite in three successive Melbourne Cups. He came third in 1929, won the race in 1930 and ran eighth in 1931.
The jockey who rode Phar Lap to victory in 1930 was Jimmy Pike. Pike was born in New South Wales in 1892 and did his apprenticeship in South Australia. He is best known for his partnership with Phar Lap on whom he won 27 races from 30 rides. Pike also won two Caulfield Cups, six VRC Derbies (four of these in a row) and two Cox Plates, and was so renowned as a jockey that even to this day, racing experts and punters often say of a jockey that he 'rode it like J. Pike'.
In 1932 Phar Lap was sent to Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap, the world's richest race at the time. Sixteen days later he died in San Francisco in suspicious circumstances, some believing he was poisoned. The opinion of the University of Sydney's School of Veterinary Science in 1932 was that he died of colic of unknown causes. The debate about how Phar Lap died continues today. In 2006, a report by the Australian Synchotron Research Program stated 'arsenic in the horse's hair structure was consistent with a large, single dose of arsenic'.
After Phar Lap's death, his bones were donated to Dominion Museum in New Zealand (now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), and his hide was mounted and put on display at Museum Victoria. In April 2008, Museum Victoria also acquired Phar Lap's tonic recipe book, which details 30 recipes used by Phar Lap's trainers to prepare him for races. Many ingredients in these recipes include poisonous substances such as arsenic and strychnine. Dr Robin Hirst, Acting Chief Executive Officer Museum Victoria said 'The significance of this exceptional book lies not only in its origins, but also in the evidence it potentially provides about Phar Lap's untimely death.'
Phar Lap's big heart now resides at the National Museum of Australia. Phar Lap's heart was remarkable for its size, weighing about 6.2 kg, compared with a normal horse's heart at 3.2 kg. Since then, the phrase 'Has the heart of Phar Lap' as a way of describing what it was to be Australian and proud, has become part of Australian slang.
In 2005, Makybe Diva made history by being the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup three times, winning consecutive races in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Jockey Glen Boss rode Makybe Diva in all three of her Melbourne Cup wins.
Makybe Diva's trainer, Lee Freedman, says the mare has proved herself to be 'one of the all-time greats ... I don't think the country has seen a better horse in the past 30 or 40 years'. As well as the three Melbourne Cup wins, Makybe Diva won a Sydney Cup, an Australian Cup and the BMW at Rosehill Gardens in Sydney.
In July 2006, Makybe Diva was inducted into the Australian Racing Museum Hall of Fame. In October 2006, a bronze statue of Makybe Diva was unveiled in the South Australian city of Port Lincoln, the home town of her owner Tony Santic.
Etienne L de Mestre trained five Melbourne Cup winners between 1861 and 1878, including the first Melbourne Cup winner Archer.
Bart Cummings is known as the 'Melbourne Cup King', as he has trained a record number of Melbourne Cup winners since 1965. Bart has won 12 Melbourne Cups, and in five of those wins he also trained the runners-up.
Lee Freedman, from a well-known racing family, trained the winners of the Melbourne Cups in 1989, 1992 and 1995. Lee also had success at the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup and the Golden Slipper.
One of the world's most challenging horse races
Racing action. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria Racing Club and Getty Images.
The Melbourne Cup is one of the world's most challenging horse races and one of the richest, and is the highlight of the Spring Racing Carnival.
The race is run over 3,200 metres and is a handicapped race. This means that the better the horse is, the more weight it has to carry in the race. The greatest weight carried to victory in a Melbourne Cup was Carbine, who carried 10 stone, 5 pound (66 kg) in the 1890 Melbourne Cup and was ridden by Bob Ramage. Phar Lap carried a greater weight, but not to victory. Phar Lap, in his last Melbourne Cup campaign in 1931, carried a 10 stone, 10 pound (68 kg) handicap. Even a horse with a heart as big as Phar Lap's couldn't overcome the extra weight, and the race was won by White Nose.
The Cox Plate, a weight-for-age race run late in October at the Moonee Valley race course, also in Melbourne, is considered the race most likely to provide an insight into a horse's form. But even this is unreliable as a predictor of likely Melbourne Cup performance.
The distance and the handicap ensure that the Melbourne Cup is a horse race in which the occasional punter has as good a chance of picking the winner as those who follow the form. It is a day when all Australians are considered to have an equal chance on the turf as well as on the lawn.
Racing history and culture
- Australian Racing Museum and Hall of Fame
- Cyberhorse - Everything to do with horses
- Department of the Environment and Energy, National Heritage Places - Flemington Racecourse
- Makybe Diva
- Museum Victoria, Phar Lap: Australia's wonder horse
- National Museum of Australia, Phar Lap's heart
- Phar Lap: Australia's Famous Race Horse (the Phar Lap story)
Last updated: 13 November 2013