Melbourne Cup: More Than 150 Years of History

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The Melbourne Cup (est. 1961) is one of the oldest and most prestigious horse races in the world. No other Australian horseracing event is as big or as popular as the Melbourne Cup, although it is only the second richest equine event in the country. With a history that spans over 160 years, the race is still being held at the Flemington Racecourse as a part of the whole Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival.

While the racing rules have gone through many changes, the Melbourne Cup’s popularity has only soared higher with time. Even Aussies not interested in horseracing are well aware of what the “race that stops the nation” signifies in Australian history and culture. Stay with us as we take a quick look at some of the memorable events from the event’s past, as well as its present-day format.

Notable Change in 1972: The Track Length

Back when the 3pm race first started in 1861, it was a 2-mile race, which continued to be the norm for the next 111 years. until Australia shifted to the metric system. In 1972, the Melbourne Cup’s start-to-finish line was shortened by 18.69 meters. This new track now stretched on for 3,200m/3.2km, which comes to about 1.99 miles.

Even though it may not seem significant to an outsider, any horseracing fan will tell you that this did indeed have a significant impact on all past and future records. For example, Rain Lover’s record of 3:19.1 from 1968 had to be adjusted to 3:17.9 to keep it mathematically relevant, even though it can never be a practical appropriation.

The First Legend: Archer

Both the first and the second Melbourne Cup were won by the legendary stallion, Archer, from Sydney, although ridden by different jockeys. Archer’s first win (3.52.00) was shared by his jockey John Cutts and trainer Etienne de Mestre. Post the famous win, it seemed that placing a bet on Archer was a sure-fire way to win money, as the stallion went on to win the 1861 Melbourne Town Plate, and the 1862 AJC Queen’s Plate as well.

The stallion was in good form up until winning the 1862 AJC Queen Elizabeth Stakes in May, but Archer surprisingly fell short of his expected performance by only managing to secure a 3rd position at the 1862 Fifth Champion Sweepstakes in October. However, that seemed to have had no impact on the horse’s performance in November, when the brilliant John Cutts Dillon rode him to win their second, consecutive Melbourne Cup in an even shorter time of 3.47.00.

Impressive as the two consecutive wins of that calibre are even today, there are certain facts that make them even more astounding. For example, no horse in the following 159 years of the Melbourne Cup has yet managed to break Archer’s record of winning by eight lengths in a 20-horse race (1862). It took 72 years for another horse by the name of Peter Pan (1932 and 34) to match Archer’s two Melbourne Cup wins, and 109 years for Rain Lover to match his two consecutive wins.

History of the Melbourne “Cup”

The first winners of the Melbourne Cup (1861) received a handmade gold watch and 710 (£710) gold sovereigns. There were no second and third place prizes in the event at that time. In 1862, the winner’s prize money was increased to 810 (£810) gold sovereigns. A literal cup was added to the list of prizes for the first time during the 1865 race, and it kept changing every year till 1867. Between 1868 – 75, controversies led to cups being excluded from the Melbourne Cup’s prize menu once again.

The first proper Melbourne Cup was made by Edward Fischer in 1876, and unlike the previous silver bowls, which were made in England, this one was made in Australia. Several iterations were introduced in the following years and people saw everything from an embossed silver trophy shaped like a galloping horse (1899), to a 6-limbed (three legs and three arms) gold made rose bowl during that period. The final design which has not been changed since its original inception in 1916 is the James Steeth designed Melbourne Cup that we see being awarded today.

The first Tuesday of November isn’t too far away now, and the expected stakes are going to be huge in 2021. The trophy may not have been changed in the last hundred years, but the prize money has gone up to astronomical heights in comparison. The 2021 Melbourne Cup will be contested over a prize pool of AU$7.75 million!

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