“The race that stops the nation”, as the people in Victoria dub it, always takes place on the first Tuesday in November. That day has been a public holiday in Melbourne since 1877, but the whole of Australia goes sort of crazy, and part of New Zealand too. If you happen to have been “down under” on that day, you may have run into one of the numerous carnivals organized to celebrate the race. And you have surely desired to get more information about the Melbourne Cup history, to understand what is all the hype about.
The full-day holiday involves only the state of Victoria. Still, all over Australia businesses and people usually pause at 3.00 PM to watch the race at least on television. The tradition of “office sweepstakes” allows most Aussies to get a chance to be pointers with a two-dollar shared ticket on a random horse. Families and colleagues share launches and champagne. Ladies dress up and wear fancy hats even if they only go to the pub, not the Flemington racecourse. Tourists enjoy this Spring Racing Carnival and spend nearly two hundred million dollars in activities connected to it.
The first-ever race of the Melbourne Cup was held in 1861, and the winner received a gold watch. Today it is one of the richest turf races in the world, with total prize money of $8,000,000 plus $ 250.000 in trophies.
A legend on the celebrated first champion, racehorse Archer, says that it walked over 700 km from Nowra in New South Wales to Flemington to win the first Melbourne Cup. Purportedly, the horse was accompanied by stable foreman Dave Power. A movie was made on the story in 1985, with the title Archer’s Adventure, featuring a young Nicole Kidman. True, there was no railway at the time, but the truth is that Archer, his trainer Etienne de Mestre, and jockey John Cutts, traveled to Melbourne by steamship.
The credit for the first idea of a horse race in Melbourne is given to Frederick Standish, the second son of Lord Charles Strickland Standish from Lancashire, who emigrated to Victoria in 1852. Standish brought his passion for racehorses and wagering to his new home and became a member of the Victorian Turf Club and steward on the day of the first Cup. Later he was to become the chairman of the Victoria Racing Club.
On the day of the first Melbourne Cup the crowd was not huge, about 4000 spectators, but the atmosphere was lively, as described by the local gazette: “A carnival atmosphere prevailed with women in bonnets and full skirts, men in beaver hats and frock coats. Sideshow booths with roulette stands, fortune-tellers, performing monkeys, ‘giants’ and bearded ladies entertained the crowds, and publicans did a roaring trade. The event drew spectators from all parts: in the crowd there were men wearing cabbage-tree hats and sporting bushy beards; settlers in moleskins, or leggings and boots; and diggers from Ballarat who stood out in their red shirts.”
Today, racehorses from 3 years up travel from all over the world to compete in the Melbourne Cup. There have been numerous deadly incidents also among these foreign champions: this is a less glorious aspect of the glorious race, that has spurred growing criticism in recent years.