On this day: The Melbourne Cup begins

By Lauren Cella 7 November 2013
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The world’s richest handicap race, the Melbourne Cup, was first run at Flemington in 1861.

ON 7 NOVEMBER 1861, some 4000 people gathered at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse amid a carnival atmosphere for the first running of what would become the world’s richest handicap race.

“The race attracted a lot of inter-colonial attention even in its first running, as it had a big prize and was the object of a lot of advance betting speculation,” says Cup historian and author Dr Andrew Lemon.

“It was popular because Melbourne was a gold-rich city by 1861 and already had an established reputation as a centre for horse racing. Flemington Racecourse was an ideal amphitheatre for horse racing and was close to the town.”

Nervous start to the Melbourne Cup

On the day of the first Melbourne Cup there were 21 entrants, but four were scratched leaving only 17 at the starting line at 3:35pm. However, before the flag was able to drop, one of the horses, Twilight, bolted. She ran the full length of the course without her jockey before she was caught and lined up again.

When the flag finally dropped, it proved to be a memorable start to the now world-famous event. “The first running was marred by an accident in the early part of the race when two horses fell,” says Andrew. Both horses had to be put down and one jockey broke an arm.

In the end, however, a horse from NSW, Archer, stole the show. Mormon, a Victorian local, was the favourite to win before the race, while the odds were longer on Archer. To the local crowd’s elation Mormon was ahead on the home turn, but Archer would become the first winner of the Melbourne Cup, putting in a final burst and winning by a margin of 8 lengths (around 15m). The prize was a gold watch and a purse with £930 pounds (around $141,800). A gold trophy was not introduced until 1916 with the current trophy worth $175,000 and a total prize pool of over $6 million.

The race that stops the nation

Run on the first Tuesday in November the Melbourne Cup now draws crowds of more than 100,000. The day was declared a public holiday in metropolitan Melbourne by the state Governor in 1877 and various towns and regions followed suit over the years. But it was only in 2008 that the whole of Victoria was given the public holiday, so everyone in the state could celebrate the event.

It draws socialites, politicians, and the rich and famous from Australia and around the world. In 1895 American writer Mark Twain, on his visit to Melbourne, proclaimed: “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.”

It’s also now synonymous with fashion. Fashions on the Field was introduced in 1962 to encourage more female racegoers, and celebrates 50 years in November.

With more than 3 million Australians and an estimated 700 million people in 120 countries tuning in to watch the race, the Cup’s place in the social and sporting fabric of Australia is likely to be around for a long time to come.