Engraving of the finish line at the Melbourne Cup of 1881. Made by "S.B.". Image is public domain.
Melbourne Cup Winners and History
The 152nd Melbourne Cup will soon roar in Flemington a bit like Banjo Paterson described it in one of his ballads; "Now for the start, and here they come, and the hoof-strokes roar like a mighty drum".
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Melbourne Cup History
In January 1788, the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson carrying convicts, other cargo, and a stallion, four mares, a colt and a filly. This was no Noah's ark, but from these sea-sick beasts began the horse history of Australia. In Melbourne settlers set up residence around 1835, and without further ado went about preparing a track to resume their favourite horse racing which was rudely interrupted by a voyage across the seas. Bullock carts served as grandstands and the winning post was marked by a coat stand. Bottles of rum were the prevalent currency for bets.
The event probably grew too big for the bullock cart and soon the venue was shifted to Fleming Town on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, named after a local butcher, Bob Fleming. A three day event held in March, 1840 marked the beginning of official horse racing history in Melbourne. Minor clubs ran the show till in 1861, The Victoria Turf Club took over and held the first Melbourne Cup on Thursday 7th November. This historic race was run by seventeen horses and the lucky horse to go down in history as the winner was Archer, who legend has it, had to walk all the way from Nowra in NSW to participate. His efforts were amply rewarded by a hand-crafted gold watch and £170 prize money. This probably proved incentive enough, and he went on to win again the next year.
Later in 1864, the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club merged to from the Victoria Racing Club which then took charge of proceedings, and it has been so ever since. In 1871, the Victoria Racing Club Act was passed and this granted the VRC legal rights over the Flemington Racecourse. Under the VRC, the sport grew from strength to strength, shed its parochial image, and became widely popular. This led to the Cup day being declared a half day holiday in 1865. By 1877 the whole day was declared a holiday and the crowds thronged the Flemington race course.
It was in 1875 that the Cup was held on the first Tuesday of November and adopted the four day format, which eventually evolved into the Carnival we now enjoy. By all accounts the Cup was growing into a major event which was starting to grab attention and create frenzy locally and overseas.
Since 1972, the distance to be covered was changed to 3200 metres to adhere to the metric system, from the original distance of 2 miles which is roughly about 3218 metres. A few records, such as the one made by Rain Lover had to be adjusted to suit the new distance. The best timing was recorded by Kingston Rule in the 1990 Cup Day, when he clocked 3:16:3, a record that remains unbroken. He is not to be confused with Kingston Town who is known as the champ of the eighties.
Though the Cup Day has been held since 1861 every year without fail, a trophy was handed over to the winner only in 1865. This was in the form of a miniature horse and rider atop a silver bowl with decorative handles. In 1876, the first gold cup was awarded and it was made in Victoria and not from England as was the custom until then. In 1888, the trophy again reverted to silver, this time three silver horses on a silver base. The next year, it was someone's idea of a joke in the form of a silver tea and coffee service, which reportedly, the winner didn't think was funny. 1899 saw the presenting of a plaque with an embossing of a silver horse. From 1915 till 1918, a large rose bowl was used as a trophy. And finally in 1919 was introduced the trophy that we now know as the Melbourne Cup.
From 1922-1960 trophies growing in value from £200 to £750 were presented. 1973 saw a cup worth $3000 which grew to $9000 by 1978. The dramatic growth in value continued with $23,000 in 1984 rising to $60,000 in 2001. And as of 2006 it was reported to be of $75,000 value. The prize money has risen from $1420 in 1861 to just over a whopping $6.2 million in 2012. And now the trophy as befitting a world class event is made up of 34 pieces of hand-beaten 18 carat gold. Not bad for a race that lasts about three minutes.
Back in those days the saga of equine magnificence began with Archer, an out-of-towner, upsetting Mormon the local favourite by coming up from behind to win the first ever Melbourne Cup in 1861. It was an eventful race where a fall resulted in a collision that killed two horses and injured a jockey. In the resulting melee, Archer managed to overtake Mormon and dash past the finishing post. As if to dispel any notion that this was pure luck, Archer went on to win the next year, once again pushing Mormon to second place, and trotted away with the prize.
Another horse to win the Cup twice was Peter Pan who pranced all over the competition in 1932 and 1934. This was the stuff legends are made of when in 1932 he went down and came up again managing to regain his balance, and won the race by a neck length. He repeated his performance in 1934 and finished three lengths ahead of his competition. 1968 and 1969 belonged to Rain Lover; where in the first race he won by an unrivalled eight lengths. His second triumph was clouded by a controversy when the favourite Big Philou was drugged and had to drop out of the race minutes before it was due to begin. In 1974 and 1975 it was Think Big's turn to repeat this amazing feat of consecutive victories.
To win twice is an accomplishment, but to win thrice is what takes a horse from history to mythology. Makybe Diva would then have to be called a mythical horse, for she won the prestigious Melbourne Cup a record three times in a row starting from 2004. She is also the latest to be inducted to the Racing Hall of Fame. Being the only mare in this illustrious group of multiple winners, and outdoing their accomplishments, she might well be termed a feminist icon, but she is presently living in domestic bliss with her new born colt, born in the early hours of the 17th of August, in the Hunter Valley, NSW.
Carbine, a New Zealand thoroughbred was another illustrious horse that was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame. Earlier on he was known for his penchant for biting strangers and dropping unsuspecting riders. His remarkable Melbourne Cup win in 1890 was a triumph in more ways than one. He set a weight carrying record of 66.5kg and won the race in a record time of 3 minutes and 28 ¼ seconds which took 15 years to be broken. All this with a heel that had split open and had to be lanced. Carbine was indeed a horse of heroic proportions.
Another glorious inductee into the Hall of Fame was Tulloch who had an amazing career and nineteen victories under his saddle. Bernborough, with twenty six wins was also one of the five to be conferred this honour. Kingston Town, the champ of the 1980s was a big time winner who made over 1.5 million dollars in prize money and won 30 victories, and was therefore deemed worthy to be a Hall of Famer. But of the magnificent five the one that lives on to this day as a legend would have to be Phar Lap, the greatest racehorse ever.
With a name that meant "lightning" in Thai, he was however, disowned by his owner Davis who was totally unimpressed with his skinny looks and ugly face. But his trainer Telford had faith in him and managed to convince Davis to lease him the ugly looking brute. Stable boy Tom Woodcock soon became his attendant and best friend, so much so that the horse would refuse food if Woodcock wasn't in the stall.
This equine equivalent of the ugly duckling soon transformed into a world class race horse that won races as a matter of routine. He became so famous that it unnerved bookmakers and one of them even tried to assassinate him on Derby Day, 1930. Although some say this was a story made up by a journalist. It is alleged that Woodcock moved swiftly and place himself and a pony in the line of fire and managed to save the legend. No one was hurt. Three days later Phar Lap went on to win the Melbourne Cup.
He was taken to America where he continued his winning streak in spite of personal injury and weather changes. But on the 5th of April, 1932, the mighty horse died under mysterious circumstances (such as arsenic poisoning), breaking over a million hearts. Woodcock is supposed to have thrown himself on his dead mate and cried like a baby. Amid controversies that he was poisoned, the legend still lives on in the hearts of all Australians and horse lovers the world over.