Certain sporting events represent an extra level above the norm and have the ability to draw the attention of people who do not normally have any interest.
Grand Finals in the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League immediately spring to mind. In soccer, the World Cup Final occupies the role. The World Series and the Super Bowl receives attention from people who otherwise care little for Major League Baseball or the National Football League.
In horseracing, it is the Melbourne Cup that rises above the day-to-day or week-to-week attention of racing punters and captures the attention of people from all walks of life who otherwise do not care which end of the horse gets the hay and which is the end to avoid. It is not even necessary to call it the Melbourne Cup in order for anyone to understand the subject under discussion. Merely saying “the Cup” informs anyone from the youngest school kid to the oldest geezer that what is being referred to is the “Race That Stops a Nation.”
Here is a bit of Cup history, along with a few pieces of trivia that we offer for the entertainment of any who care to participate in a brief diversion from any other task or activity.
The first Cup was run on a Thursday, on 7 November 1861. Away from Flemington, Americans with differing political views were firing cannons at one another in one of the earliest actions of the American Civil War that became known as the Battle of Port Royal Sound. The day prior, the inventor of the game of basketball, James Naismith was born in Canada. The Cup was won by Archer, a somewhat unpopular outcome for Victorians who did not care for interlopers from Sydney winning on their turf. Archer earned 710 gold sovereigns and a hand-beaten gold watch, both of which went to his trainer, Etienne de Mestre. The other horses and their connections received nothing.
Unlike many other races on the Australian racing calendar, the Cup has had only one distance modification in its entire history. It was two miles in length up until the 1972 initiation of the metric system. Shortening it by just under 19 metres made it possible to adjust the finishing times accordingly. Rain Lover set the record just four years prior to metrification, finishing the 1968 Cup in 3:19.1, which was then calculated to be 3:17.9, which stood as the record until 1989, when Tawriffic ran the race in 3:17.1.
Archer’s 1861 win and Lantern’s in 1864 are tied for the distinction of slowest winning time, 3:52.0. Timing methodologies at that time, being less critical, meant that the first finish that featured a fraction of a second was the 1874 edition, won by Haricot in a time of 3:37.5. Might And Power’s 1997 victory was the first occasion the winning time saw hundredths of seconds show up in the result, although timing down to tenths had been around for many years.
Other significant Melbourne Cup records are headed by Makybe Diva’s three consecutive wins from 2003 – 2005. Bobby Lewis and Harry White share the record for victories by a jockey with four each. In the case of Lewis, his first win was in 1902 and his last was 25 years later in 1927. Each of his wins featured a different trainer. He rode The Victory in 1902, Patrobas in 1915, Artilleryman in 1919 and Trivalve in 1927. Harry White’s victories were two consecutive in 1974 and 75, and again two consecutive in 1978 and 79. Three of the four came when he was riding for Bart Cummings and the other with George Hanlon. Think Big provided the first two. In 1978, it was Arwon and in 1979, it was Hyperno.
Bart Cummings has won 12 Cups as a trainer, the first in 1965 and the last in 2008, a remarkable 43-year span. Only Etienne Mestre and Lee Freedman, each with five, are anywhere near the vicinity of Cummings.
No horse owner has more than four wins to their credit: John Tait, Etienne de Mestre (three of his four winners were leased), Dato Tan Chin Nam and Lloyd Williams. De Mestre is credited with two wins while leasing Archer. Dato Chin Nam took two thanks to Think Big. Tait and Williams got their four from four different horses. Tait’s 1871 entrant, The Pearl, was an unlikely winner, jumping at 100 – 1.
The first female to win the Melbourne Cup was Briseis in 1904. She was a three-year-old at the time, and her rider, Peter St. Albans, recorded as being 13 years of age, was truthfully still anticipating his twelfth birthday.
The Melbourne Cup did not have a woman jockey until the appearance of Maree Lyndon in 1987, when she rode Argonaut Style to finish second-last. Sheila Laxon was the first woman credited with formally training a Cup winner, that being Ethereal of New Zealand in 2001, also winner of the Caulfield Cup that same year. Laxon had also ridden the 1988 winner, Empire Rose, in trackwork. Gai Waterhouse has since joined that short list of winning female trainers, courtesy of Fiorente in 2013. In the days before women could legally register as trainers in Australia, Mrs. A. McDonald, training surreptitiously under her husband’s name, prepared Catalogue to win in 1938. The first woman owner to win was Mrs E.A. Widdis. It was her money that purchased 1915 winner Patrobas, the horse that provided jockey Bobby Lewis with his second winning Cup ride.
The days of showing up at the track on race day ended in 2006. It is now necessary to pre-purchase a ticket. The record for attendance at the Cup was 122,736. It was actually the 2006 edition of the Victoria Derby, when close to 130,000 racing fans showed up to see Efficient salute, that led to the change in policy. Efficient won the Cup in 2007, the third Cup victory for owner Lloyd Williams.
The Melbourne Cup provides a level of drama seldom seen for other horse races. It is televised around the world and receives attention from the general public that puts it in the realm of sporting events that have a special fascination far beyond their usual fan base.