On a Tuesday in November,
The first one to be sure,
As the winner flashes past the post,
You’ll hear the thousands roar.
For never has there been a race
To catch imagination
Than the race that’s run at Flemington
The race that stops the nation!*
Australians celebrate the Melbourne Cup horse race in many different ways with workplace fashion parades, cup business breakfasts, ladies leisure lunches, hat and costume competitions, school dress-ups, live music performances at local race carnivals, by having pony parties, river cruises, pool parties and barbecues.
It was read out on an evening poetry radio program run by Australian author, journalist and radio personality Kel Richards at the time and later published. Copies are in the State Library of NSW and the National Library of Australia.
Since then its title has gradually become part of Australian colloquialism, in reference to the Melbourne Cup, a horse race held on the first Tuesday in November at Melbourne in the state of Victoria.
This annual event enables the city of Melbourne to outperform its east coast rival Sydney, in both the fashionable and thoroughbred stakes. Melbourne is the only city in Australia and perhaps in the world, which gives its citizens a public holiday for a horse race.
It doesn’t happen in country Victoria, just in the city and, it has been happening since 1876.
People come from all around Australia, New Zealand, and Internationally to participate in, or view this now famous event. At around 3 pm (AEDST) the Melbourne Cup is televised to over 700 million people in more than 120 countries.
Many millions listen to the race on the radio or watch it live on the Internet. If you are out and about in Melbourne city at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November you can be forgiven for thinking the world has come to an end, if only for a few minutes.
It is hard to explain to other cultures how embedded into Australian life and culture the Melbourne Cup has become over its 150+ years.
It is an integral aspect of its folklore, a celebration that reminds Australians about the good life they all share, especially when they pull together like our early Australian pioneers.
The big race was introduced in 1861 and the first winner was Archer.
To show that his victory wasn’t a fluke he won again in 1862.
Many fine thoroughbred horses have won the cup since, including the Great Depression heroes New Zealand born stayer Phar Lap and Australian born stayer Peter Pan.
Both enjoyed the benefits of being ridden by legendary jockey Jim Pike, who could coax a ‘tremendous effort from a horse through his masterly control and rare balance’.
Phar Lap won in 1930, and despite coming from New Zealand was nicknamed ‘Australia’s wonder horse’. When he was poisoned in America where he had gone to show off his form, the whole of Australia mourned his passing.
Peter Pan became a household name when he won twice in 1932 and 1934. Some consider he was greater than Phar Lap and he was universally admired for his beautiful chestnut coat and flashy silver mane.
The most intriguing winner of the cup would surely be Brisels who won in 1876. In six days this plucky horse, which is now regarded as one of the greatest mares ever foaled in Australia won the trio of the Derby, the Melbourne Cup and The Oaks Handicap.
To achieve this she was piloted by a slight slip of boy, who was recorded as being thirteen years of age (he was actually twelve, being 8 days short of his thirteenth birthday). To this day Peter St. Albans remains the youngest jockey ever to have won a Melbourne Cup. He also had the most mysterious stories spun around him that are probably apocryphal.
However it will take a long time to find another horse to compare with the British bred Australian trained mare Makybe Diva. She won the race three times in 2003, 2004 and 2005, a feat no other horse had achieved before, or since.
The race is for three-year-olds and over, and covers a distance of 3,200 metres. It is generally regarded as the most prestigious ‘two-mile’ handicap in the world and is run anticlockwise around the picturesque Flemington racecourse.
The first Melbourne Cup was the brainchild of a member of the committee of The Victorian Turf Club. 17 horses contested the inaugural event winning £170 cash and were awarded a hand-beaten gold watch.
Elements of the media at the time were disparaging. ‘Its effect would be to make any brumby bought out of a mob for 30 shillings the equal of the finest horse in the land.
It is a mad idea, doomed to failure.’ They reported. By its third year the race was in a very sorry state with only seven starters. However, a merger between the Victoria Turf Club and Victoria Jockey Club founded the Victoria Racing Club and by 1864 the race’s fortunes were on the rise.
In 1875 the race was run for the first time on a Tuesday. Carnival crowds treated the event as if it were a day off.
This came to fruition in 1877 when Melbourne Cup Day was officially declared a public holiday for Melbourne city.
The template for its success has changed little in the 150+ years since.
Over that period it has impressed many visitors to write about it.
None more so than perhaps that great American author and humourist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain (1835 – 1910).
He recorded his impressions about Melbourne and that race in Chapter 16 of his book about his journey around the world “Following the Equator”, which was published in 1897.
It’s a description repeated below that’s hard to deny…
‘Melbourne … is a stately city; it has museums, and colleges, and schools, and public gardens, and electricity, and gas, and libraries, and theatres, and mining centres, and wool centres, and centres of the arts and sciences, and boards of trade, and ships, and railroads, and a harbour, and social clubs, and journalistic clubs, and racing clubs, and a squatter club, sumptuously housed and appointed, and as many churches and banks as can make a living. In a word, it is equipped with everything that goes to make a modern great city. It … has one specialty… on the first Tuesday in November… business is suspended … and every man and woman, of high degree or low, who can afford the expense, put away their other duties and come. They… swarm in …a fortnight before the day, and they swarm thicker and thicker day after day, until all the vehicles of transportation are taxed to their uttermost to meet the demands of the occasion, and all hotels and lodgings are bulging outward because of the pressure from within. They come a hundred thousand strong, as all the best authorities say, and they pack the spacious grounds and grandstands and make a spectacle such as is never to be seen in Australasia elsewhere… The grandstands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, and a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, and happy; everybody bets, and gloves and fortunes change hands right along, all the time.
Day after day the races go on, and the fun and the excitement are kept at white heat; and when each day is done, the people dance all night so as to be fresh for the race in the morning. And at the end of the great week the swarms secure lodgings and transportation for next year, then flock away to their remote homes and count their gains and losses, and order next year’s Cup-clothes, and then lie down and sleep two weeks, and get up sorry to reflect that a whole year must be put in somehow or other before they can be wholly happy again. The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialized days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out.’
The VRC’s Fashions on the Field was instigated in 1962, following initiatives implemented by a VRC sub-committee set up in 1960 to promote the Centenary Melbourne Cup. In 2012 it celebrated its anniversary of 50 years of fashion and fun.
The competition was launched with the objective of ‘finding the smartest dressed women at the Carnival within economic restraints’.
Since then the fashion follies of the fillies on the field have captured the imagination of the public and the event has grown rapidly in popularity. Little did the committee realize that its marketing initiative would change the nature of racing forever and that fillies and fellas would be vying for as many awards as the horses.
The Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation well and truly in its tracks. The annual celebration is upon us, and the countdown to the race underway. Hope you back the winner or draw it in that quintessential Aussie office event, the Sweep.
Carolyn McDowall, 2011 – 2014, The Culture Concept Circle
*Verses from The Race That Stops The Nation ©Vivienne McCredie 1986 reproduced with permission