Updated: Oct 14
✦ Spring is in the air and that means one thing – time to drop everything and tune in as it is Melbourne Cup time!
The Melbourne Cup needs absolutely no introduction to anyone with a passing interest in anything Australia related. The “race that stops a nation” does exactly that at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November each year. Central Business Districts in major cities become spookily quiet as offices empty and people flock to the pub to catch the race, sleepy backwater towns and dusty outback mines are all shrouded in hush as all eyes turn to the special occasion. The day is even a national holiday in the state of Victoria. In a country that loves its sports, it’s fair to say that the Melbourne Cup is the biggest and most popular of all. Regarded more than just an institution, it is now followed by horse racing enthusiasts globally and not just in its native Australia, where over 120,000 flock to the course each year.
There are, of course, a multitude of famed horse races around the world each year that have become etched in the sporting calendar and common folklore; The Kentucky Derby in the United States, The Grand National and the Epsom Derby in the UK, the Dubai World Cup in the Middle East and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, held in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower at Longchamp in Paris. Prestigious and renowned races all of them, but none quite matches the appeal of the Melbourne Cup.
Pop the Champagne
The occasion does indeed stop the nation, as schools, factories, businesses, even the government take pause to watch the race. It truly unites a nation via camaraderie and the provision of a sporting spectacle founded on a uniquely level playing field as the race is a handicap, meaning each horse is allocated a weight, according to its ability, in an attempt to equalise every horse’s chance of winning. The occasion also inextricably links two of Australia’s favourite past times: drinking and betting. In 2020 in Australia alone, despite no spectators present due to COVID-19 restrictions, $221.6 million was bet on the famous race, up more than 17% on 2019 figures, and a total of $667.3 million was invested over the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival, according to justhorseracing.com.au. It is a widely known quip that if all the bottles of champagne drunk during the carnival were placed end-to-end, they would easily line the track!
First held in 1861, the prestigious race sees the world’s fastest, blue-blooded thoroughbreds aged three and over thunder two-miles around Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, with $8million in prize money up for grabs and the winner claiming the the 18-karat gold trophy, estimated to be worth around $150,000.
It has grown significantly in stature since that inaugural race that saw just 4,000 people attend and winner Archer receive a gold pocket watch as opposed to the now revered trophy.
Acclaimed American writer Mark Twain attended in 1895 and was enthused with what he saw first hand, writing: “The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy... Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me.”
No doubt at the time Twain’s glowing testimony helped grow awareness and subsequently popularity of the occasion. It was first filmed the following year in 1896 and first broadcast on radio in 1925. Nowadays over 700 million viewers across 120 countries switch on their TVs each year for the three-and-a-half minute race. Whereas it is widely known as the “race that stops a nation”, one could be forgiven for extending that to two nations because as many people in New Zealand as in Australia pause to watch the race.
There have been many epic races and tales over the years, such as the horse called Phar Lap, affectionately known as “Big Red”, who captured the public’s attention and brought much needed joy and excitement during the bleak times of the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Damien Oliver won a Media Puzzle in 2002 after tragically losing his brother weeks earlier to a riding incident, a tale of triumph over adversity. The legendary Makybe Diva who completed a hat-trick of Melbourne Cups between 2003 and 2005, creating history in the process.
Courtesy of BTN and ABC
Complementing its popularity and reach, in addition to avid race fans who tune in from all over the world, is the fact that so many horses entering the race are now bred and trained at stables overseas. Horses from New Zealand have been commonplace for many, many years but since Irish-trained Vintage Crop won the race in 1993 in his first start down under, thoroughbreds from r