Melbourne Cup, “The race that stops a nation” is Australia’s most famous thoroughbred horse race. Conducted as a part of Melbourne’s spring racing carnival, this 3200-metre race is the richest two-mile handicap in the world. Began in 1861, the story of Melbourne Cup is also the story of horse racing in Victoria. As Melbourne evolved from a rudimentary town of few thousand people to a cosmopolitan city of Millions, its love for the sport of horse racing also grew with it.
Origins of the Race and Melbourne’s history of racing
There are not many details about the first horse race held in Melbourne apart from a Newspaper report.
The Tasmanian published from Launceston reported on March 10, 1837, “The first race was run on a beautiful racecourse on February 8. The only match, which was well contested, and which afforded interest, was between horses, the property of Dr Cotter and Mr Brown-which was won by the horse of the latter gentleman.
On 15th January 1838, a meeting of sporting gentlemen was convened at John Fawkner’s hotel in Melbourne, the purpose was to organise a race meeting. The chair was occupied by Henry Allen and Henry Arthur and William Wood, Francis Noden and David Morley were appointed as Committee members. The meeting also decided that no horses should be entered unless they were the real property of a subscriber to the race fund of £2.
The locality selected for the course was Batman’s Hill, where the Southern Cross Station now stands, then one or the beauty spots of Melbourne. The running track was outlined by a few stake, saplings, and broad palings lashed together. The Grandstand was formed by the lashing together of two large bullock drays. The jumps were made of few logs and gum tree branches. Refreshment booths consisted of trucks surrounded by wooden uprights into which old sails and bags were nailed.
The Jockey’s outfits were red and blue flannel shirts, cabbage-tree hats, and leather leggings, combined with spurs and a piece of knotted whipcord. Jockeys rode the race for the owners and most newspapers completely ignored the identity of the jockeys. For the race, most of the organisers being expatriates from Hobart copied the ways and means of Town plate in Hobart. Prize money for Town plate was 100 sovereigns and Melbourne offered 25 sovereigns, not a small amount considering the population of Melbourne at that time. The attendance was large at the race. The starting post was near where the North Melbourne Railway Station now stands, and the horses ran a semicircular course.
It was a handicap race and the committee set out a weight for age scale. Three-year-old colts and fillies carried the lowest weight and six-year old’s and older carried highest.
Two of the earliest publicans, John Fawkner and Michael Carr, put up refreshment booths, formed out of small carts or trucks, and rum, brandy, ginger beer, and bottled Porter were retailed at one shilling a glass. The Town Plate attracted three entries. the winner being Robinson’s Postboy.
On 9th February 1839 another meeting was held at Lamb inn in Collin Street for the purpose of electing stewards for the Melbourne Races. These were eventually held on March 15th and 16th as per the English Jockey Club rules. The town plate went to Mr Brown’s mare Mountain Maid.
Another meeting at Lamb Inn on October 1839, began preparing for the race planned on March 1840. But before that a private race was run at Flemington and the superiority of this place for a racecourse suggested itself so forcibly that it determined to hold future races there. (Appeared in ‘Examiner’ published from Launceston on 18th March 1922).
But during that time Flemington was getting mapped by the surveyor for being sold as farming lots. But at the request of the stewards, Lieutenant Governor Charles Latrobe agreed to keep five of those lots aside for being used as Racecourse. But they belonged to the crown and never alienated as freehold. Even today they are crown land on lease to the Victoria Racing Club as trustees.
Many complained about the distance from the city centre to the racecourse. Racing at Flemington, then known as Melbourne Racecourse, began on 3rd March 1840. The Town Plate was on 4th March and on 5th March Tavern Plate sponsored by the Hotel owners. The grandstand was a rough scaffolding near the riverside. There were four booths three of which were small tents. The mode of transit for the public to the racecourse were horseback, bullock dray or raw by river but majority of spectators simply walked.
Since then the spring gathering on the banks of Maribyrnong River has become a Melbourne pastime of rejoice.
Even after the first organised horse racing in Flemington in 1840, Melbourne didn’t have an annual committee to run 1841 race meeting. Racing was controlled by a temporary committee formed for each annual racing. Need of the hour resulted in William Verner, honorary secretary of Melbourne Club to take the initiative to form “Port Phillip Turf Club” to organise annual race meetings. The club organised race meetings in 1841 and 1842 but didn’t last after that. The first race meeting by Port Phillip Turf Club was on April 1841. Port Phillip Turf Club which lasted two years is considered as the first racing club in Melbourne. For the next few years, temporary committees arranged annual race meetings. The 1851 race before the discovery of Gold was marred by many incidents of drunkenness.
In 1851, Gold was discovered in Victoria. All roads were leading to Gold towns of Victoria and Melbourne was deserted. Victoria Turf Club was formed in 1852 to organise horse racing at Flemington. To reduce the risk of drunkenness, liquor was banned from booths at the 1852 races.
Victoria Turf Club was spreading its wings and tried to strengthen its control over Melbourne racecourse by preventing others from using the racecourse. This resulted in the birth of Victoria Jockey Club in 1856. Argus reported that around 80 gentlemen assembled at Tattersall’s Hotel for the purpose of establishing a Victoria Jockey Club. Victoria Jockey Club ran its inaugural race meeting on 18th February 1857 at the Melbourne Racecourse.
Another private race in 1857 caught the imagination of the settlers of Victoria. Andrew Spencer Chirnside, a wealthy grazier, so proud of his mare Alice Hawthorn’s abilities boasted no horse can beat his mare. His challenge for a ‘Championship of the Colonial Turf’, to be run over three miles at Flemington on 3 October 1857 for a prize money of £1000 was taken up by George T. Rowe of Liverpool, New South Wales.
“The Age” published a report on the race on 5th October 1857,
“Unexceptionable weather, and a programme of unusual interest, brought together some fifteen or twenty thousand people, some say, more to witness the great match for two thousand guineas, between Mr G. T. Rowe’s ch. g. Veno, the champion of New South Wales, and Mr Chirnside’s g. m Alice Hawthorn, the champion of Victoria. For some hours before the commencement of the race, every available vehicle was chartered by anxious sight seers, and the road from end to end presented one unbroken line of horses, cabs, and carriages of every description.
Mahon rode Alice and Higgerson Veno. When brought on the course, the latter stared about him with a confident air, the former seeming as calm as usual. The betting at starting was 6 to 4 on Veno. On the flag being dropped the horse took the lead to the first turn, when his rider drew him back in favor of the mare, who ran for about a quarter of a mile at a good pace. After this, the competitors were head and head till they readied the straight running, when the horse took the lead. During the second round, the mare attempted to make way but ultimately the horse won by three length. Alice Haw thorn ran well throughout, but from the very outset it was manifest she was not equally matched, and on her arrival at the winning post she was found to be severely punished, while her competitor did not seem a whit the worse. Time, 6 minutes 12 seconds.”
The 1859 Championship race at Melbourne racecourse was a forerunner to Melbourne Cup. The Argus reported, “The race for the championship of the Australian colonies is over, witnessed by 35,000 people and won by a Victorian horse, Flying Buck, when the prospects of Victorian pre-eminence were dubious, came to the rescue, saved the national reputation, and achieved a victory. “
The racecourse trustees reaped a good profit from Championship race and decided to invest some of it to make Flemington Racecourse better. The Racecourse was remodelled, repositioned the finishing post, new grandstand was built and fenced off 14 acres as spectator’s enclosure. Now the spectators could obtain a bird’s eye view of the whole course. The railways reached till Flemington by then making the transport easier from the city to Flemington.
In February 1861, Victoria Turf Club advertised for entries to the first “Melbourne Cup” modelled after Chester Cup in England. Chief Police Commissioner Captain Frederick Standish and his fellow committee members of the Victorian Turf Club are credited with the idea of Melbourne Cup. The event was on Thursday 7th November 1861.The Bells Life in Victoria on 9th February 1861 published,
“In our advertising columns this week may be found the conditions of the Melbourne Cup, which is to be run annually at the spring meeting of the Victoria Turf Club. It will be there seen that the club adds 200 sovs to a handicap sweepstakes of 20 sovs, half forfeit, or 5 sovs if declared, the payments to be made at convenient times and the distance to be two miles. We wonder much that such a race has not been established long since by the metropolitan racing clubs, especially after the Ballarat Turf Club showed them the example, and we venture to predict a big stake and a large field for the first ‘Melbourne Cup.’ We like both the unostentatious name, and also the conditions of the race, and it is not at all out of the way to expect that the prize will reach a thousand pounds.”
The race was a handicap based on the weight for age scale. The two-mile race was the perfect race Melbourne ever hosted. In November 1861, “The Age” published a short report on the race
The occurrence of the Turf Club Races has made the past month an important one with colonial sportsmen. Upon the whole the meeting was a success, and the Melbourne racecourse has seldom witnessed more legitimate racing. A cloud, however, was thrown over the proceedings at first by an unfortunate contretemps in the “Melbourne Cup,” a handicap race, after the model of the “Chester Cup,” for which the best stock of this and the sister colonies were entered, and the result of which was looked forward to with much interest. A field of eighteen horses started, the largest number ever brought together in Victoria. Immediately after the start the favourite, Dispatch, tumbled, and two other mares, Medora and Twilight, fell over her. Dispatch and Medora were injured so as to necessitate their being killed, but the jockeys, though severely injured, have escaped with life. Twilight is also comparatively unhurt. The race was won by a Sydney horse “Archer,” after a good race with our own “Mormon,” the winner of the two thousand guineas stakes during the previous month.”
The prize handed out to Archer was 710 gold sovereigns and a hand beaten gold watch. The first trophy cup to a winner of Melbourne Cup was awarded in 1865. The owner of the winning horse Tory Boy, Mr Marshall, described the trophy as a monstrosity and sold it to the Flemington Hunt Club. Flemington Hunt Club rebranded it as the trophy for its annual cup and inscribed on it, “The Flemington Hunt Club Cup awarded to the 1873 winner, Babbler”. It was sold by Christies in 1970.
There was a crowd of around 4000 for the first Melbourne Cup and it increased steadily thereafter. Melbourne Cup was initially run on the first Thursday in November until the carnival of 1875 and from then onwards it was switched to the first Tuesday in November.
The Cup day gradually became an unofficial holiday for Melbournians and as early as 1865, Cup day was a half day holiday for Public servants and bank officials. The Government Gazette of 31st October 1837 declared it as bank and public service holiday and since then it remained a holiday in Melbourne.
In 1864 Victorian Turf Club and Jockey Club amalgamated to form the Victoria Racing Club which came to be the controlling body of racing in Victoria from its headquarters at Flemington.
From a mere 4000 spectators in 1861, Melbourne Cup now attracts over 110,000 people and watched by millions in mini screens around the globe. In 2003 the crowd reached a record of 122,736.
Race day fashion, makes an even bigger news item every year and it all began with the media attention received in 1965, when British model Jean Shrimpton appeared at the races wearing a white shift dress which ended 13 cm above her knees wearing no hat, stockings or gloves, and sporting a man’s watch.
With the increased coverage of the race around the world, the prize money also skyrocketed. The total prize money for the 2019 race is A$8,000,000, plus trophies valued at $250,000. With more than 150 years of history behind it, one thing is certain, Melbourne Cup is here to stay, probably for few more centuries or forever.