Celebrating 160 Melbourne Cups

It is a race for which the nation stops, and stands united. The Melbourne Cup has endured adversity throughout its history, and in 2020, one of its most challenging years yet. Since its first iteration at Flemington in November 1861, with Archer as the winner, the Melbourne Cup has been part of the Australian story – for better and for worse. When it is run and won this year, the 160th Melbourne Cup will hold a unique place in the history of Australia's greatest race, as the celebrated tradition endures once again.

The War Cups

It is a sobering fact that in the three decades from 1914 no fewer than eleven Melbourne Cups were contested in a time of world war. These were years of hardship, uncertainty and grief. Some wartime Cups were run on Saturdays instead of the first Tuesday in November. Some were devoid of trophies.

But each year, somehow, the show went on. The Cup – and news of the Cup, and the very fact that the Cup was being run, as ever, at Flemington – boosted morale among Australians at home and abroad.

 

"In the three decades from 1914 no fewer than eleven Melbourne Cups were contested in a time of world war"

 

In both the First and Second World Wars, racing in Australia was restricted, but never entirely ceased. In World War I, the tradition of the First Tuesday lapsed only in 1916. The Melbourne Cup was postponed to the following Saturday – but only because torrential rain had inundated the racecourse. Sasanof was the winner.

During World War II, the Cups of 1942 (Colonus), 1943 (Dark Felt) and 1944 (Sirius) were run on Saturdays after the government suspended midweek public holidays. And in each of those years, no traditional three-handled cup was presented. The winning owners received ‘War Bonds’ to the value of the trophy.

View across the Flemington racetrack, c. 1910 (Public Record Office of Victoria)

Australian Women's Weekly cover, November 9, 1940. (National Library of Australia)

The Depression Cups

The legendary Carbine won the 1890 Melbourne Cup carrying the record weight (65.77kg) in the largest ever field (39), earning an unprecedented ten thousand pounds in prize money. Yet Melbourne was already in the depths of profound economic depression. Things only got worse. By 1894 (Patron’s year), the Cup prize fell by half. It did not fully recover until the 1920s.

Similarly, the great Phar Lap won his famous Cup victory just as the depression of the 1930s began to take hold. His triumph was a shining moment in the Great Depression. Phar Lap was such a short-priced favourite that no-one except his owners made a fortune, but his victory cheered the nation.

The Melbourne Cups that followed saw prize money diminish again. The very trophy itself shrank in size and value. In fact, the trophy never returned to its Phar Lap dimensions until the 150th Cup in 2010 (Americain).

Shorter economic shocks have accompanied particular Melbourne Cups over the years. The 1961 ‘credit squeeze’ is associated with Lord Fury, the 1987 stock market crash with Kensei, the 1990 ‘recession we had to have’ with Kingston Rule and the 2008 global financial crisis with Viewed. Each time the question was asked – would we ever recover? Somehow we did.

1930 Cup Day race programme (VRC Collection)

Fundraising for the war effort. Ladies sell raffle tickets to win a racehorse, Flemington Racecourse, 1945.

The Fashion Cups

Crinolines were the height of women’s fashion when Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in 1861, but these hooped skirts were not so practical for ladies crowding into the train from the city to Flemington. Yes, the direct railway was up and running for the first Melbourne Cup.

By 1876 when Briseis became the first filly or mare to win the Cup, visitors were flocking to the spring races as much to see ‘the fine dressing of the ladies’ as the best Australian racehorses. All eyes were on the vice-regal party – the wife, daughters, or special guests of the Governor of Victoria. They set the standard. Critics complained about the extravagance, some Sydney papers sneering at ‘tinsel trash’. But Flemington in Cup Week was the place to see and to be seen.

Fashions evolved through the Edwardian era, with its flamboyant hats, into the flapper era of the 1920s and the post-war elegance of the 1950s.

On the Members' Lawn (Public Record Office of Victoria)

The swining sixties come to Flemington. Visiting English models wearing the latest London fashions, 1967. (Colin Griffin, VRC Collection)

The Cup Parades

 A festive Melbourne Cup parade through the streets of the city the day before the big race has been a tradition of its own for nearly four decades. It became the chance for Melburnians and visitors to get close to the jockeys and trainers with horses competing the next day – and to cheer some of the former four-legged winners.

The oldest horse in the first parade in 1983 was Gatum Gatum, the South Australian horse who had won the Cup twenty years earlier, along with his winning jockey, Jim Johnson. Also parading that day were the grey Baghdad Note (1970), the Tasmanian Piping Lane (1972) and Victoria’s own Gala Supreme (1973).

 

"A festive Melbourne Cup Parade through the streets of the city the day before the big race has been a tradition of its own for nearly four decades"

 

Australia’s bicentenary year in 1988 was celebrated with 26 Melbourne Cup-winning jockeys joining the parade, ahead of Empire Rose’s win.

In recent years, the parade became a kind of mobile party, with a portable DJ, bicycle riders, dancers, jazz players and stilt walkers accompanying the cavalcade. But always the biggest attractions are the old Cup winner themselves (human and equine). None has been more popular than the recently passed veteran grey Subzero, retired Clerk of the Course’s horse, and winner of the 1992 Melbourne Cup.

The Broadcast Cups

Flemington is where it happens, but from the very first Melbourne Cup the excitement has been eagerly shared around Australia. When New South Wales hero Archer defeated Victoria’s Mormon in 1861 (they repeated the quinella in 1862), the news instantly travelled by electric telegraph to Sydney and by a line, just opened, to Brisbane. Newspapers in every colony swiftly gave detailed accounts of every year’s race – augmented from the 1890s with telegraphed photographs of the crowds and the racing action.

It was the advent of the wireless in the 1920s that allowed Australians to hear for the first time, direct descriptions of the Melbourne Cup. Spearfelt’s win in 1926 was broadcast direct to radio sets around the nation when reception allowed. It was acclaimed as a miracle. Frustrated listeners in Lismore NSW complained that they heard nothing but static during the race, but some radio enthusiasts in Perth picked up the broadcast loud and clear.

In the same era, cinema-goers saw newsreels of the running of the Cup, sometimes within hours of the race. The film was immediately flown interstate, even air-dropped to regional centres.

But it was not till television came to Australia that the picture could be seen at home. Straight Draw’s win in 1957 was the first to be shown on TV – on the evening of the race.

Hi Jinx’s 1960 victory was the first direct telecast, relayed to Sydney and regional Victoria. Melburnians could not see the Cup live on television until 1978, Arwon’s year. The Irish horse Vintage Crop’s win in 1993 was relayed to overseas destinations. When Almandin won in 2016 it was the first time the race was streamed by internet to all parts of the world via Twitter.

The Celebrity Cups

Some Melbourne Cups stay in the mind because of their association with visiting celebrities. The 1985 Cup, the first to be commercially sponsored, was won by What A Nuisance, but the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, made this a specially memorable occasion.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was the VRC’s guest in 1988, the year when Empire Rose won the Cup.

The very first royal visitor to the Melbourne Cup was Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria. On his initial royal tour of the Australian colonies in 1867 he arrived a fortnight too late to see the Cup, but he was back in 1870 on a semi-private visit and saw Nimblefoot win. The Prince liked a bet, but picked the wrong horse and lost five pounds to an on-course bookmaker. The bookie framed the cheque, rather than cash it at the bank.

Long-term Cup goers sometimes list the years by the celebrity association rather than the race winner. For them, 1965 was The Shrimp’s year (Jean Shrimpton), not Light Fingers’. And – for many – 1977 was when Governor General Sir John Kerr met a hostile reception at the Cup presentation, not Gold and Black’s year.

In recent decades, guest stars from the world of media, music, and modelling have had their moments in the Flemington sun, from Paris and Nicky Hilton (2003), Snoop Dogg (2006), Enrique Iglesias (2010), Joan Collins and Liz Hurley (2011) and Naomi Campbell (2013). Which horses won in those years?

The Wet Cups

Melbourne’s weather is notoriously unpredictable. There have been hot, dry, windy, and wet Melbourne Cups. Two years ago, thunderstorms drenched Flemington all morning – but somehow the skies cleared before Cross Counter won the big race in the sunshine.

It was the same when the chestnut Peter Pan won his second Melbourne Cup back in 1934. The Argus newspaper described the soggy scene as ‘a symphony in grey, seen through a wall of rain’. Yet an hour before the race, the clouds cleared, ‘as if ashamed’.

Among the wettest Cups was 1892. Glenloth’s trainer tied the horse’s tail into a knot to keep it out of the mud – a winning move.

 

"Somehow the skies cleared before Cross Counter won the big race in the sunshine"

 

The wartime Cups of 1940 (when Old Rowley won at 100 to 1) and 1942 were both wet, as was the 1947 Cup (Hiraji).

Never forgotten by those who ventured to Flemington that year was the Cup of 1976. No shame for the clouds this time! The downpour accompanied the race itself. New Zealand’s Van Der Hum, ridden by a mud-spattered Bob Skelton, relished the going. A wall of rain, indeed.

Battling the elements, Melbourne Cup Day 1976. (Fairfax Syndicates)

Kerrin McEvoy's win on Cross Counter came just after more than 50mm of rain feel at Flemington in the hours leading up to the race.

The Epidemic Cups

 Pneumonic Influenza, known as the Spanish Flu, saw races abandoned around Australia in the early months of 1919, just after the end of World War I.

The worst of that pandemic affected Melbourne early in the year. Slowly, life went back to normal – face masks gone, border restrictions between the states lifted, travel resumed – but the national death toll from the disease exceeded 10,000. By November in Melbourne, it belonged to the past. Artilleryman won the Cup in front of a record Flemington crowd.

It was Equine Flu, not the human kind, that imperilled the 2007 Melbourne Cup. The race went ahead (won by Efficient), but strict quarantine prevented many interstate and overseas horses from competing.

The Fairytale Cups

 Wet or sunny, every Melbourne Cup is a fairytale come true for someone. Often, fairytales for us all. Triumphs of sentimental favourites are treasured forever. The Barb (1866). Carbine and Phar Lap, as mentioned. Rising Fast in 1954. Makybe Diva’s third-in-a-row Melbourne Cup of 2005.

A young winning jockey or a courageous comeback by a veteran makes a fairytale. Ray Neville was 15 when he won on Rimfire (1948), Harry McCloud 17 on Colonus (1942). Kerrin McEvoy had just turned 20 when he won his first Melbourne Cup on Brew (2000). Other teenage jockeys have won the race. Peter ‘St Albans’ (Bowden) was the youngest ever to win the Cup, on Briseis (1876). It used to be thought he was 13 at the time. We now know he was not quite 12 years old!

Damien Oliver’s brave victory in 2002 on Media Puzzle, days after he was mourning the racetrack death of his brother Jason, was a classic fairytale Cup.

No happy ending will ever surpass the win in 2015 of outsider Prince of Penzance with Michelle Payne becoming the first woman ever to ride the winner of a Melbourne Cup.

Michelle Payne's historic win in 2015 rewrote the history books and inspired women everywhere

Portrait of Peter "St Alban's" Bowden by F. Woodhouse. The youngest jockey to win the Melbourne Cup (Australian Racing Museum)

The Perfect Cup

 There have been close Cups (Dunaden versus Red Cadeaux, 2011, Viewed and Bauer, 2008) and easy victories (Artilleryman 1919, Rain Lover 1968), all-the-way wins (Newhaven 1896, Might and Power 1997), whirlwind finish Cups (Kiwi 1983), heartbreak Cups (Lord Cardigan beating Wakeful 1903, Hi Jinx in 1960 with Tulloch unplaced).

And there are Melbourne Cup Days when the sun shines just as it should, when temperatures are comfortable all day and the breeze light and refreshing, when crowds arrive and leave without complication, when the horses’ coats gleam and the best horse wins. In 1888 Melbourne and Victoria felt especially prosperous. The well-fancied Mentor won the Cup. It was said, ‘the sky never was of a clearer blue’.

There have been perfect Melbourne Cups. It has happened. It will happen again.

Lexus Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse

The Melbourne Cup Carnival Parade bringing the excitement and festivities to the city streets.