The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s main thoroughbred horse race. This annual event, often described as The Race That Stops The Nation, is for horses aged three years and above. It is held at 3.00 p.m. on the first Tuesday of November by the Victoria Racing Club, and is seen as the most prestigious handicap race in the world. It is an official public holiday in Victoria, but is also a day of festivities for virtually all other states in the country. The event is held on the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, and covers a distance of 3,200 metres.
The first Melbourne Cup was held in 1861, after the Victoria Turf Club wanted to put on a good “handicap” race, to outdo the one held by their rivals, the Victoria Jockey Club. Seventeen horses competed in the first Cup, which is thought to have lured an estimated 4,000 spectators. As with other horse races across the world, the Melbourne Cup has become a firm fixture on the social calendar of much of Australia’s social set, politicians and rich and famous.
Today the race is still seen as one of the greatest challenges in the horse racing world, as well as being one of the richest with a prize money of AUS$1 million. For a list of horses and trainers who have won the Cup since it started see The Melbourne Cup Website.
The Melbourne Cup trophy that is awarded today, referred to as the “loving cup”, has been in existence since 1919. It is a three-handled 18 carat gold loving cup, that is estimated to be worth around $80,000. The first trophy that was awarded in 1861 was a gold watch, and for the years leading up to 1919, various different trophies were awarded to the winners (see The Melbourne Cup Website for details of these trophies).
However, in 1919 there was a consensus that there needed to be one trophy for the Melbourne Cup which would become symbolic of the race. A gold bowl with two handles decorated with a horse and jockey on each, referred to as “The Loving Cup”, was designed by James Steeth and manufactured by Drummond Jewellers, especially for the 1919 Melbourne Cup, replacing all previous trophies. The cup is made from 34 pieces of gold, which are all hand beaten for over 200 hours. A replica of this is awarded to the jockey and trainer who win, and the strapper is given the Tommy Woodcock Trophy. The Loving Cup is one of the most identifiable sporting trophies across the world, and has become iconic of horse racing as well as being a national emblem for Australia.
The Melbourne Cup has undergone many changes in the last few years, most notably being the introduction of foreign-trained horses into the competition. Many of these have failed to cope with the different conditions of the country and the course, meaning that foreign entries have often not fared well. Originally, women were not allowed to compete in the cup, so when the trainer Mrs. Allan MacDonald won the Cup, her husband’s name had to be recorded as being the winning trainer. Unbelievably the first woman who officially trained a Melbourne Cup winner was Sheila Laxon in 2001, who trained the horse Ethereal. Makybe Diva made history in 2005 by becoming the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup three times in a row.
The race is run as a handicap race, meaning that the weight of the jockey and their riding gear is altered to a nominated figure. Older horses are given more weight than the younger ones, and the horse’s previous results are taken into consideration, when the jockey’s weight and ridding gear are adjusted.
Twenty four horses take part in the race, and they must all satisfy the strict criteria that are set for entrants, to ensure that only the best stayers who have a proven record, are allowed to compete. The final list of entrants is not known until after Victoria Derby Day, which is on 3rd November. Although the race is obviously over in a few minutes, TV stations and commentators will play reruns and make observations on the race throughout the rest of the afternoon, as well as conducting interviews with the trainers and jockeys who took part in the race. Virtually the whole of Australia will tune in to watch the race, and even proceedings in Parliament are halted so that they can watch the race.
The Melbourne Cup Carnival
The Melbourne Cup is just one of four races that comprise the Melbourne Cup Carnival. The other three races are the AAMI Derby Day, which is considered one of the most prestigious days on the racing calendar, the Crown Oaks Day, which is seen as Ladies’ Day with a big emphasis on who goes and what they are wearing, and the Emirates Stakes Day, which is seen as the carnival’s family day. The Melbourne Cup falls between Derby Day and Crown Oaks Day, but is still the highlight of the whole carnival.