The Melbourne Cup: a unique tradition

By Paul Mulvey/AAP with AG Staff 2 November 2010
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The first Tuesday of November is a day of legends spanning back more than 150 years. It’s the race that stops the nation.

“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 seen in Australasia elsewhere,” said American writer and social observer Mark Twain in 1895.

“The grandstands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy; everybody bets…”

Tuesday may be more than 150 years of running of the Melbourne Cup, but in the century since Twain made those observations on the first Tuesday in November 1895, little has changed. He was as captivated by the Melbourne Cup then as visitors are now: “Cup Day is supreme – it has no rival,” Twain said in 1895. “This is the greatest racing event on Earth,” British trainer Luca Cumani said this week.

Allure of the Melbourne Cup

The filly Auraria won the Cup at 33/1 during Twain’s visit, five years after Carbine became the first superstar of Australian racing and 34 years after Archer won the first Cup in front of a crowd of 4000. By 1880, the first crowd of 100,000 had flocked to Flemington to see Grand Flaneur win the Cup. From a city with a population just pushing 300,000 at the time, it’s a lasting testimony that the allure of the Melbourne Cup is no modern trend.

Grand Flaneur’s win set off the first golden decade of the Cup, which was capped off in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Carbine who won carrying a record 10 stone 5 pounds. He emerged just before the stock market crash in the 1890s demoralised much of Melbourne, but Carbine became an image of strength for a beleaguered population, a third of whom had lost their jobs.

Forty years later, Phar Lap gave the nation similar hope and a little piece of certainty as the Great Depression gripped the world. But before Phar Lap and the depression, came a boom time for Australia and racing and the 1920s is regarded by many as one of the great eras of the Melbourne Cup.

Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup Race on 5 November 1930. (Photo: Picture Australia/Argus)

Phar lap drama

Historian and author Geoff Armstrong rates the 1925 Cup as the best race of all when Manfred and Windbag went stride for stride all the way down Flemington’s home straight until the four-year-old Windbag edged ahead to win in race record time. An out-of-sorts Spearfelt finished well back but won the following year, while 1927 winner Trivalve and New Zealander Nightmarch in 1929 were both great horses.

But it all led up to Phar Lap’s 1930 triumph. “Phar Lap’s win in 1930 is the pinnacle of all Melbourne Cups,” Armstrong says. It was not just the fact Phar Lap is the most revered horse in Australian racing history and carried the hopes of a desperate Australia through the depression, but the drama surrounding his only Cup win bordered on theatre.

The shortest priced winner in Cup history at 11/8 on, Phar Lap was reportedly shot at days before the Cup, so was spirited away to a secret and unfamiliar stable in Geelong. He only arrived at Flemington an hour before the Cup, faced a wet track, nearly fell at the home turn, but still won easily to be the first and still the only odds-on favourite to triumph in the race.

Legends of horse racing

In 1950, the first human legend of the race had his initial taste of Melbourne Cup glory, and he obviously liked it. A 22-year-old Bart Cummings was the strapper for his father Jim who trained Comic Court to victory over Chicquita. Fifteen years later, Cummings junior trained the first of his 12 Cup winners and, at the age of 82, is well placed for a 13th on Tuesday.

His triumph with Light Fingers in 1965 came in another of the Cup’s golden decades and, having scored his first win, he won the next two as well, taking out the 1966 Cup with Galilee and 1967 with Red Handed. Rain Lover broke his run in 1968 and became the first horse since Archer won the first two Cups to win in successive years. But Cummings didn’t take long to match the feat, guiding Think Big in 1974 and 1975 with jockey Harry White on board.

White teamed up with Cummings again in 1979 to win on Hyperno to claim his fourth Cup and equal the jockeys’ record with Bobby Lewis who won in 1902, 1915, 1919 and 1927. Think Big was one of the New Zealand horses who dominated the Cup in the 1970s, but the word was spreading and by the early 1990s, the international raiders came from further afield.

Irish trainer Dermot Weld scored the first Cup win for a British prepared horse when Vintage Crop made the breakthrough in 1993. His win opened the floodgates for the overseas raiders. Weld did it again with Media Puzzle in 2002 and the Japanese took the quinella with Delta Blues and Pop Rock in 2006.

The race that stops a nation

But those intervening years belonged to one horse. Phar Lap captured the nation in the 1930s, but few sporting stories, let alone racing tales, matched that of mighty mare Makybe Diva, who treated Australia to a hat trick of Cup wins in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

The span of the Cup’s appeal and power gives it an essential place in Australia’s social and sporting fabric, but it also vindicates Twain’s status as an astute social observer. Cup day was “unique, solitary, unfellowed,” he wrote in 1895 … and likely to hold that high place a long time.”