Considering the Melbourne Cup virtually demands a trace of hyperbole, the contrarian view is surprisingly well rehearsed. Certain folk, seemingly less than entranced, have been known to deride the event as ‘just a two-mile handicap’. Maybe so, but on that basis Lennon and McCartney were just a couple of Scousers who knocked out a few tunes.
Let us be frank: there is nothing in the racing world quite like the Melbourne Cup, an Australian sporting and social institution that holds a unique place in the national consciousness. No other horse race quite captivates a population to the same extent; not the Grand National nor the Kentucky Derby, though they are the most obvious comparisons given their status as ‘People’s Races’.
The Melbourne Cup, though, dials it up to 11, as they said in Spinal Tap. “Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation,” suggested Mark Twain after a worldwide lecture tour in 1895 to pay his creditors. “The Cup astonishes me,” he went on, aghast at the magnitude of what he had seen.
Given that the Huckleberry Finn author visited Flemington only 34 years after the race had been established in 1861, it is clear how swiftly the Melbourne Cup had become a national obsession.
Fast forward to the modern era and it is a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Almost overwhelmed with international horses, in sporting terms the race is a vastly different beast from that witnessed by Twain, the richly endowed centrepiece of a Spring Carnival that contributes millions of dollars to the local economy when tourism and ancillary services are taken into account. Just try booking a decent hotel or restaurant in Melbourne during the carnival and you’ll soon appreciate that fact.
Now worth A$7.3 million (about £4m/Euro4.6m), the Melbourne Cup remains a two-mile handicap (well, 3,200 metres, to be precise, since Australia went metric) run around the pear-shaped circuit at Australia’s premier racecourse lurking just to the north of the city centre, a skyscraper backdrop at odds with the historic wrought-iron gates through which every Cup winner must pass.
Not for nothing is it called ‘The Race That Stops A Nation’. With racing dominating front and back pages, the first Tuesday in November remains a public holiday for everyone working in metropolitan Melbourne and public servants across the state of Victoria. Moreover, there is a noticeable spike in sickies elsewhere as vast swathes of the population cease activities ready for the 3pm start
Flemington will be mobbed with about 100,000 spectators – haute couture fashionistas and fancy-dress frolickers alike, the place drunk dry in a jamboree atmosphere – and Cup celebrations are held the length and breadth of the country.
The Cup is etched deep in the DNA of Australia’s racing community (and New Zealand’s, for that matter) and beyond to wider society.
Indeed, the supremacy of horses and trainers coming in from New South Wales in its earliest years (including the first winner, Archer, who for good measure followed up in 1862) did much to focus the intense rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne that prevails until this very day. Sydney being the cool laid-back surfers’ paradise compared to stuck-up, European-style Melbourne. They even race in opposite directions, with Sydney city tracks all right-handed, compared to Melbourne’s left-hand drive. The cliché goes thus: Sydney’s got the weather, Melbourne has the culture.
They both have Cups but even the most ardent Sydneysider would be forced to concede through gritted teeth that the Melbourne version is in a totally different league. The true greats of Australian racing have left their mark on the Cup down the ages, from the great Carbine and his almost implausible weight-carrying record in 1890 through the mighty Phar Lap dodging gangster’s bullets to the legendary ‘Cups King’ Bart Cummings and the magnificent Makybe Diva’s unprecedented hat-trick from 2003-05.
However, the most significant Melbourne Cup of recent years was the 133rd, precisely 25 years ago in 1993 when the pioneering Dermot Weld achieved what was considered near-impossible by sending Vintage Crop to win the Cup from Ireland.
Headlines in British and Irish papers paraphrased the famous Star Trek split infinitive in saying Weld had “boldly gone where no man has gone before”; short of winning a race on the moon, it really did seem as if the final frontier had been crossed.
A new era of global racing was ushered in with a stampede of horses from the Northern Hemisphere attempting to follow in his footsteps, sometimes to the chagrin of the locals who have seen the Cup marked for export several times since (though never to a British-based trainer).
Others may have been sceptical but Weld, who was to win again with Media Puzzle in 2002, knew what was going on. “International racing is the future of the sport, and that's what stimulated me to come here,” he said. “This is probably the furthest anyone has brought a racehorse to win a race, and I'm sure the Melbourne Cup will now develop into the top international two-mile race in the world.”
He probably never said a truer word. An Australian institution is now a global phenomenon.
SIX HISTORIC MELBOURNE CUPS
A race for the annals. Carbine, one of Australian racing’s all-time greats, established a weight-carrying record by shouldering 10st 5lb to victory in record time over a 39-runner field, the biggest ever.
1930 Phar Lap
Even allowing for Black Caviar and Winx, and though he was bred in New Zealand, the depression-era hero remains the most celebrated horse in Australian racing history, a sporting icon to rank alongside Don Bradman. Despite carrying 63kg, ‘Red Terror’ won at odds of 8/11, making him the shortest-priced favourite the Cup has ever seen. Drama surrounded his participation, as he had to be trained in seclusion at Geelong after gangsters shot at him during a workout.
1993 Vintage Crop
Though it was only a quarter of a century ago, racing in Australia felt light years away. Not that such matters have ever bothered Dermot Weld, who duly registered a famous pioneering victory for Ireland. Vintage Crop won going away by three lengths under Mick Kinane and the floodgates were opened.
2005 Makybe Diva
Took the roof of the Flemington stands when completing her unprecedented Cup hat-trick under topweight in 2005. “A champion becomes a legend,” cried racecaller Greg Miles, while trainer Lee Freedman was in no doubt about the significance of what had happened. "Go and find the youngest child on the course,” he said, “because that's the only person here who will have a chance of seeing this happen again in their lifetime."
Having acted as ‘strapper’ (attendant lad) for his father Jim when Comic Court won in 1950, it wasn’t until 1965 that Bart Cummings won for the first time as Light Fingers led home a one-two for the soon-to-be-legendary trainer. The ’Cups King’ won his 12th and final Melbourne Cup some 43 years later when Viewed touched off the Luca Cumani-trained Bauer by a pixel.
2015 Prince of Penzance
Driven out to beat the Willie Mullins-trained Max Dynamite by a half-length, this six-year-old duly became the fourth 100/1 shot to claim the Cup. Moreover, Michelle Payne was the first female jockey to win Australia’s greatest race. As feisty as they come, she did not mince her words in post-race interviews. “It’s such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off,” said Payne. “Everyone else can get stuffed [who] think women aren’t good enough.”