The Race That Stops A Nation

On radio they were asking "was there any other city in the world that turned a horse race into a public holiday?" Melbourne did way back in 1861 and continues to, the race that stops a nation, and now the world...



The Melbourne Cup


The Melbourne Cup is a Group 1, handicap horse race run over 3200 metres on the first Tuesday in November at 3.10pm.

Cup Day is also the 'carnivale' centrepiece of the four race-days of Cup Week, with race goers taking a festive approach to the day.

Just before the main race, the National Anthem is performed and for many Melburnian's, Melbourne Cup Day is the penultimate sporting day of the year.

Melbourne Cup History


There's a story that an English couple who had just emigrated to Australia wondered why Melbourne was such a quiet city, because there seemed to be nobody on the streets. They had arrived during the running of the Cup. This is probably just a good yard, but there is some truth to it. Ever since the running of the first Cup, the race has been popular with the public. Melbourne gives itself a holiday on Cup Day (as hardly anyone is likely to turn up to work) and a strange, eerie quiet settles over the city while the race is being run.

The Melbourne Cup is rare among famous horse races for being a handicap event. This means that the best horses must carry not only their jockey, but extra weight in the form of lead bars in their saddle bags. Horses with a lesser chance of winning carry only their jockey. This has always been part of the Cup's popularity because it means, in theory, every horse has an equal chance, so it's possible for an unknown horse with a lightweight jockey to streak past the post and beat the favourite. It sits well with our national philosophy of giving the "little Aussie Battler a "fair go".

Captain Frederick Charles Standish came to Australia as Assistant Commissioner to the goldfields in 1852. He later became Chief Commissioner of Police (1858 - 1880). It was thought Standish came up with the idea for a Melbourne Cup. If that's true then he was involved in three significant events in Australia's history: the Eureka Stockade, the first Melbourne Cup and the arrest of Ned Kelly.

The first Melbourne Cup was run on a Thursday, not a Tuesday as it is now. In 1861, fifty seven entrants were reduced to seventeen starters. The horses waited for the starter to drop a flag, which was the signal to start racing. A fixed barrier, where horses line up at the start, was introduced in 1925. Today's "cage" system came later.

No trophy was awarded for that first Cup. Etienne de Mestre was presented with a hand-beaten gold watch and a cheque for 930 pounds. The second and third placegetters received nothing.

The following day, Archer won another race of over two miles, the Melbourne Town Plate. Then in 1862 he returned to win a second Melbourne Cup, carrying 10 st 2 lb (64.4kg) but this time he was a short-priced favourite at 2-1. He again beat Mormon, by 10 lengths, in the faster time of 3 mins 47 secs. The record of the same two horses coming first and second two years in a row has never been broken.

The record of the same horse winning two Cups in a row was unbroken until Rain Lover won in 1968 and 1969. In 2005 Makybe Diva broke the record by winning her third Melbourne Cup in a row (2003, 2004 and 2005). Who knows? If Archer had been allowed to run a third Cup, he might have made it three in a row. But then, he would have had to carry (with lead bars) a massive 11st 4lb (71kg). Thankfully horses no longer have to carry such weights and Makybe Diva carried only 58kgs.

Victoria had separated from New South Wales in 1851. The annual public holiday marking the event, Separation, or Secession Day, prevented Archer from running a third Melbourne Cup in 1863. When the telegram entering him arrived, the Victoria Turf Club's offices were closed for the holiday, so his application was rejected as "too late".

Etienne de Mestre was understandably furious. He claimed it was "sour grapes" on the part of Melbourne and refused to attend. Other Sydney trainers boycotted the Cup in support, so that year only seven horses raced, all Victorian. Mediocre horse, Banker, won.

When Archer was prevented from running a third Cup, de Mestre vowed never again to enter a horse in the race. He later relented, however, and won with Tim Whiffler in 1867, Chester in 1877, and Calamia in 1878. His record of five wins by one trainer was broken only by Bart Cummings with his amazing string of eleven Cups that started in 1965.

As a result of the tragic fall in the 1861 Cup, the Victoria Turf Club moved the starting post back to allow horses a straight run of four furlongs before they came to the sharp river turn.

Horses that have won the Cup include 60 bays, 37 browns, 34 chestnuts, 5 greys, 5 bay/browns, 3 blacks and 2 brown/blacks.

A horse named Old Rowley won the Cup in 1940. I 'borrowed" the name for the farm horse that Sam rides.

Racehorses come from all over the world to race in the Cup. Overseas entrants travel by plane in luxurious quarters. It was far more risky taking them by ship to Melbourne. In September 1867, the City of Melbourne was hit by a gale, almost a cyclone, off Jervis Bay. On board were eleven racehorses traveling to the Cup; nine died. Five of those eleven horses had been trained by de Mestre.

In 1972, the Melbourne Cup went metric. Before that it was measured in Imperial standards. In Imperial measures, 3 feet equalled 1 yard, 220 yards equalled a furlong, and 8 furlongs equalled a mile. The Melbourne Cup was 2 miles (or 3520 yards) long. In metric terms, this equals 3218.7 metres. However, the modern Cup has been "rounded back" to 3200 metres, so it is now 18.7 metres shorter than the race Archer ran.

Archer was foaled in 1856. He was a bay horse by William Tell out of Maid of Oaks. William Tell was sired by an English St Leger winner, Touchstone, out of Miss Bowe. Maid of Oaks was by Vagabond from a Zorab Mare. Touchstone was also an ancestor of the champion Carbine. Carbine won the Melbourne Cup of 1890 from the largest field ever, thirty nine starters. Any more than twenty four starters is now considered too dangerous. Carbine also carried the heaviest weight on record, 10 st 5 lb (65.7kg).

The story that Archer walked from Nowra, New South Wales, to Melbourne and then won the Cup is only a story. It seems to have started as a good pub yarn, but was later picked up by a Melbourne newspaper, probably in the Cup's centenary year. It has been reprinted many times since in books and newspapers and there was even a full-length feature film based on the tale.

He is said to have walked because there was no rail link from Nowra to Melbourne at the time. In fact, there was no link from Sydney to Melbourne until a railway bridge across the Murray was opened in June 1883.

Had Archer walked, he would have had to trek through the snow-covered Snowy Mountains in mid-winter. There is proof, too, that he and his stablemates Inheritor and Exeter travelled to Melbourne on the steamer City of Sydney. The trainer Etienne de Mestre and the jockey John Cutts were listed among the First Class passengers.

According to the story, the stable foreman who was supposed to have 'walked' Archer the more than 500 miles to Melbourne was named Dave Power. However, no-one with that name ever worked in de Mestre's stables.

That said, there were people of that name at the time and one of these could have worked as foreman in the Halfway House Hotel stables where Archer and de Mestre stayed in Sydney. Archer did cover many miles on foot walking to country race meetings, since walking was part of de Mestre's training program.

In 1859, two years before the first Cup, the SS Admella was wrecked off the South Australian-Victorian border. Her cargo included seven horses, four of them racehorses. One, The Barber, swam ashore, was recaptured and was made to walk to Geelong, where he was put on a train for Melbourne. He ran his race but was unplaced. This may have helped give rise to the Archer walking myth.

Archer kept on racing, sometimes two or three times a day (which was common practice then) until August 1864, when he was injured in a fall during training. He was retired to stud on Exeter Farm, Fraidwood, where he'd been foaled, and died on 22 December 1872 from inflammation of the lungs caused by eating green barley. He was sixteen years old. Archer is buried on Exeter Farm and has a racetrack and a bridge named after him.

Basic methods of training horses haven't changed greatly. It's still a mixture of walking, track work and swimming, although some horses now use fancy walking machines that look like merry-go-rounds. They swim in special plunge pools doing a horsey version of dog paddle, but the beach still remains popular and they love sand pits. For a long time jockeys rode sitting bolt upright, not crouching forward over the saddle as they do today.

John Robertson's Free Selection Act was passed in October 1861, and came into effect the following year. It enabled land seekers to secure holdings of 320 acres, as long as they paid a deposit of one quarter the land's value. If they made improvements then the land was theirs. The 'flip side' was that by opening up Crown lands for this purpose, many more Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land.

Prior to 1883 and the Victorian Married Women's Property Act, any land, houses, or livestock (such as horses) that a woman owned when she married, or remarried, automatically became the property of her husband.

In August 1861, an official search party set out from Adelaide to discover what had happened to the explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills. Burke had left Melbourne the year before, leading an expedition from south to north, searching for possible pastoral land and perhaps a trade route to Asia. On 15 September, another search party set out from Melbourne to find them. The sole survivor of Burke's last desperate push north, John King, was saved by Aborigines, so he was able to show the search party where Wills was buried. Soon after, they found the body of Burke. The explorers had died at the end of June.



Melbourne Cup Trivia


1. Your shout
The crowd at the first Cup was a measly 4,000. Bar access was probably a lot easier, though. Having said that, the cup was run in what could be best described as a flat clearing and with little publicity.

2. Race day
In 1875, the Cup was run on a Tuesday for the first time. From 1861 to 1875, the race was run on a Thursday.

3. Backing up
Just five horses have won more than one Cup. Makybe Diva (2003, 2004 & 2005), Archer (1861 and 1862), Peter Pan (1932 and 1934), Rain Lover (1968 and 1969) and Think Big (1974 and 1975).

4. Going GREY
Six grey horses have won the Cup including Subzero in 1992.

5. Not half bad
No trainer has half as many winners as Bart Cummings’ 12. Lee Freedman and Etienne de Mestre are closest, with five each.

6. Walking shoes
The first winner, Archer, is said to have walked from Sydney to Melbourne in 1861, and again in 1862.

7. Margin calls
Archer (1862) and Rain Lover (1968) hold the greatest winning margin of eight lengths.

8. Flemington fallout
There are 13 thoroughbred race meetings to bet on with the TAB on Cup day. There will also be countless non-TAB meetings around the country with bookies on course. Many racecourses now have their biggest crowd of the year on Melbourne Cup day, even though local fields are ordinary. View Country Racing Today!

9. Never surrender
World War I and World War II stopped most major sport in Australia, but never the Melbourne Cup.

10. No luck
No horse has won from barrier 18 (right) since barriers were first introduced in 1924. In 2010, Bauer who had drawn Barrier 18 was scratched before the race.

11. Dog day
The greyhound Melbourne Cup is also run in November.

12. Money fight!
The 2009 Melbourne Cup brought 26,000 international and interstate visitors to Melbourne and injected $155 million into the Victorian economy.

13. Let it ride
Half an hour after the Melbourne Cup, you can bet on next year's race. You used to have wait until the following August.

14. Big winners
The saddlecloth numbers four and 12 have won the Cup a record 11 times. In 2010, Zipping (4) and Harris Tweed (12).

15. Don't drink and ride
Jockeys in Victoria must have blood-alcohol readings under 0.02.

16. The Phrase That Stops A Nation
The phrase The Race That Stops A Nation is a trademark of the Victoria Racing Club.

17. Rushin'
What Australian sporting event did Russia win in 1946? Great trivia question, that. The answer is the Melbourne Cup. Russia was a horse. He won by three lengths.

18. Unhappy snap
The photo-finish camera was first used in 1948, giving Rimfire victory over Dark Marne. It was later found the camera was aligned incorrectly, but the result stood. We would have made this fact No.17, but our numbering system was out of alignment.

19. All rise
Long before Delta Blues won the 2006 Cup, Delta won the 1951 Cup. Oh, and Delta Goodrem sang the national anthem in 2007.

20. Wiki winners
Fifty-five Melbourne Cup winners have their own Wikipedia entries. So far.

21. Name game
Three-time winner Makybe Diva takes the first two letters from the names of millionaire owner Tony Santicís employees Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Diane and Vanessa.

22. Skirt the truth
British model Jean Shrimpton shocked Flemington by wearing a miniskirt in 1965. She also wore no gloves, hat or stockings. The scandal is often wrongly reported as having happened on Cup day. In fact it was Derby day, three days earlier.

23. Mine's still running
In any given year, there are about 32,000 active racehorses in Australia. More than half of them have never won a race.

24. Everyone should know...
Phar Lap's heart was 6.2kg. The average horse heart weighs 3.2 kg.





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