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The Melbourne Cup - the Race That Stops a Nation

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On the great annual day of sacrifice... business is suspended over a stretch of land and sea as wide as from New York to San Francisco, and deeper than from the northern lakes to the Gulf of Mexico; and every man and woman, of high degree or low, who can afford the expense, put away their other duties and come. They begin to swarm in by ship and rail a fortnight before the day, and they swarm thicker and thicker day after day, until all the vehicles of transportation are taxed to their uttermost to meet the demands of the occasion, and all hotels and lodgings are bulging outward because of the pressure from within. They come a hundred thousand strong, as all the best authorities say, and they pack the spacious grounds and grandstands and make a spectacle such as is never to be seen in Australasia elsewhere...
- Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World Thus begins another Melbourne Cup.

It is one race that embraces at once the prestige of the Epsom Derby, the glamour of Ascot and the common carnival appeal of the Grand National. At 3:00pm (AEDST) on the first Tuesday in November, all over Australia, work stops, play stops, even parliament stops, so that members can listen. It is, as they say, the race that stops a nation.


The first Melbourne Cup was added to the Victorian Turf Club's spring meeting in 1861, the brainchild of club committeeman Captain Robert Standish, erstwhile VRC Chairman and former Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria. 17 horses contested the inaugural event, racing for £170 cash and a hand-beaten gold watch.

At the time, the idea of a stayer's handicap1 was dismissed by elements of the media: 'Its effect would be to make any brumby bought out of a mob for 30 shillings the equal of the finest horse in the land. It is a mad idea, doomed to failure.' And so it seemed. In just its third year, the race was in a sorry state with only seven starters. However, a merger between the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club to form the Victoria Racing Club in 1864 saw a revival in the race's fortunes.

In 1875, the race was run for the first time on a Tuesday and was already attracting carnival crowds as if it were a public holiday. This came to fruition in 1877 when Cup Day was declared a public holiday for Melbourne: it is a template for success that has changed little in over a hundred years.

The Race

The Melbourne Cup is a race is for three-year-olds and over, and covers a distance of 3,200 metres. It is generally regarded as the most prestigious 'two-mile' handicap in the world.

It is run anticlockwise around the picturesque Flemington racecourse:

  • The first straight is a long run past the main grandstand to the first bend. While being drawn to start close to the rail and thus having less distance to run might be considered an advantage, there's a 1,000m straight to sort it out. It's important to establish position before exiting the straight. If you're trapped out wide, you'll need to decide whether to maintain position and stay wide or drop back to find the rail. There's no need to be in the lead this time past the post.

  • After the first bend you've got 2,000m to run. The field is now settled, stretched and most likely a procession no more than two horses wide.

  • At a mile out (1,600m), you start the long sweeping bend past Chiquita Lodge to the home straight. If you're at the back, it's time to think about moving forward before it's too late: you don't want to have too much to make up on the leaders.

  • At a kilometre to go, there's still a lot of bend in front of you before you hit the home straight. By now you'll know whether or not you're going to be in the finish.

  • At 450m from home, you hit the home straight. If you're in front, you need to keep looking over your shoulder for the cool-as-mints jockey who's saving his burst to the absolute last. Whatever chance you've got, you'll kick for home from here. You've got 450m to give it everything.

  • Pass the winning post in front of the rest and, barring a steward's enquiry, there's a Melbourne Cup cheque for your efforts (which is handed of course to the horse's owner). And then there's the small matter of AU$5million (2007) ...

...That Stops A Nation

It's a holiday for some, many of whom go to the race: about 110,000 trackside is normal. The rest of the nation, not so fortunate, downs tools for those three minutes and 20 odd seconds to watch the nags complete their circuit of the Flemington Track. It's unlikely there's no sweep nearby, and the bookie does a roaring trade, opening early to take the bets. Hats and the finest finery are the order of the day in the unlikeliest of places. Truly, the nation stops.

Those we Remember most Fondly

They're all mighty, but this short collection holds special value:

  • Archer, of course, because he won the first race in 1861 and followed it up with a repeat in 1862. The list of horses to win the event twice is short indeed.

  • Briseis, in the space of six days in 1876, won the Derby, the Melbourne Cup and the Oaks piloted by 13-year-old aboriginal boy Peter from St Albans, who remains to date the youngest jockey to have won the Melbourne Cup.

  • Carbine, 1890 winner, won under the heaviest weight carried in 146 years: a massive 10 stone 5lb (65.8kg).

  • Phar Lap, to many the greatest racehorse of them all. He won the race in 1930 carrying a not inconsiderable 62.5kg including his jockey Jim Pike. It was one of four wins in eight days.

  • Peter Pan who with his contrasting chestnut coat and flashy sliver mane won the race in 1932 and 1934.

  • Rain Lover, another dual winner, backing up from 1968 with a repeat in 1969.

  • Think Big, defended the Cup he won in 1974 in 1975.

  • Makybe Diva. A legend. Phar Lap was, like Bradman, the apex of Australian sporting excellence. Nobody ever thought there would be another Bradman or another Phar Lap. And then in 2003, 2004 and 2005 there was the Diva. No other horse has won the race three times.

1ie, a long race in which the stronger horses are handicapped by having to carry extra weight.

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