‘The race that stops a nation’ ™
While Melbourne is the only city in Australia which formally recognises Melbourne Cup day as a public holiday (since 1876), people all around Australia and New Zealand, and in other places around the world, stop to watch the famous race.
At 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, the Cup is televised to over 700 million people in more than 120 countries and many more millions listen to the race on the radio or watch it live on the internet.
In 1861, at the first running of the Melbourne Cup, the race club committee could hardly have envisaged the Cup lasting a century and a half and growing to become a significant part of our social and sporting culture. In front of an estimated crowd of 4,000 people, Archer became the first winner of the Melbourne Cup and Victorians, and the wider Australian community, were already displaying their great passion for thoroughbred racing. Today, the Melbourne Cup is the richest handicap race held in Australia, and the prize money and trophies make it among the richest horseraces in the world.
Flemington was fairly rough in the early days with little in the way of running rails or stands. But the Melbourne Cup quickly became popular as a carnival with picnic parties, sideshows, celebrations and people showing off their latest fashions. Socialites, politicians and Australia's rich and famous attended the Cup right from the earliest days, as they still do today.
While the Cup was first run on a Thursday, in 1875 it changed to a Tuesday and has normally been run on the first Tuesday in November each year. In three of the five years during World War II (1942, 1943 and 1944) it was held on a Saturday.
At the time of the first Cup, Victoria was experiencing the gold rush and many people had flocked to Melbourne, Bendigo and Ballarat in the hope of finding gold. A few gold-diggers were fortunate and became wealthy, and they enjoyed splurging at Flemington.
By 1880, 100,000 people would make the journey to Flemington to attend the Cup. As Melbourne’s population was only 290,000 at the time, this attendance was quite phenomenal, and many visitors came from the country and other Australian colonies, too.
‘There was barely standing room on the lawn and many ladies were unable to find a seat for the whole day. The Paddock was overcrowded to excess and the Hill was simply a mass of human beings. It has reached a stage now that almost everyone in Melbourne goes to the Spring racing.’ - Australasian Newspaper 1871
Originally, the Melbourne Cup race was run over two miles. In 1972, with the change in Australia from the imperial measurement system to the metric system we use today, the distance was adjusted to 3,200 metres, the nearest round number. Interestingly, the conversion of two miles is approximately 3,218 metres.
If the track is dry and the weather fine, the horses in the Melbourne Cup will run the 3,200 metres (or 3.2 kilometres) in about 3 minutes 20 seconds. That is much faster than humans can run. In Australia today, this is as far as any horse race is run, and the horses that run in this sort of event are known as 'stayers' rather than 'sprinters'. (In the early days of racing in Australia it was common for horse races to be as long as 4,800 metres, or about three miles in imperial measures.)
In a longer race, the horses cannot run at full speed all the way or they will soon tire. It is part of the jockey's skill to keep the horse running fast enough to stay in the race, but still keep something in reserve for the finish. With 24 horses in the Melbourne Cup, it also takes skill for a jockey to keep the horses clear of trouble.
The race begins with a straight run of about 800 metres before the first corner of the racecourse. If a horse runs wide at the turn it will have to cover more ground in the race. The shortest distance to travel is when you can keep close to the inside running rail all the way. After the first turn there is another long run of several hundred metres along 'the river side' but then another long curve begins. From this point a jockey will risk 'covering extra ground' if he or she wants to run past other horses and improve their position.
At last, with about 600 metres to go, the horses return to 'the home straight' and here the jockeys try to get into a position to make a winning run. The winner will be the horse who can stay the best. Sometimes the leader or front runner will stay in front and win the race. Other times it will get tired and another horse will be able to race past and become the winner.
The Melbourne Cup is the richest handicap race in the world. Horses that are three years of age or older who qualify for the race all have an equal opportunity to win. In a handicap race, the weight carried by the horse is determined by the horse’s official rating. The more successful a horse is, the more weight it will carry. Where a jockey’s body weight is less than the handicap weight, the horse must carry extra lead weights in a special saddlebag. A ‘handicapper’ determines the weights to be carried in handicap events. In the case of the Cup, handicap weights are announced two months before the race.
The heaviest weight of any Melbourne Cup winner was carried by Carbine in 1890: 10 st 5 lbs (65.77 kg). Over 90,000 spectators watched as the mighty Carbine beat horses carrying up to 24 kg less than his handicap weight. He surged past the field to win the race by 2½ lengths.
‘The thunder broke! The Hill roared to the flat, and the flat to stand and lawn. Hats went flying through the air like leaves rent by a September gale. Men leapt and shouted and women by the hundred screamed with delight. Up in the wake of the horses flowed the people like flood waves across a barrier; all shouting, all cheering, all whether winners or losers, full of jubilation and exultation over the greatest victory every known on the Australian turf.’
The Argus, 1890
Jockeys are weighed prior to commencing the Melbourne Cup race together with their saddles, and it is very important that their weight after the race is the same. The winning jockeys are weighed at the end of the race, and if the weight is accurate, ‘correct weight’ is declared and the winners announced.
Horses in the Melbourne Cup start their race from barrier stalls – an automated gate system that releases the horses from the starting line. Barrier stalls were first introduced in the 1958 Melbourne Cup. The horses in the Cup are allocated a barrier stall in a ballot that is held prior to the race. Once all horses are securely in their barrier stalls, the starter releases the barriers and the horses start their race.
For sixty years up to 1958, the Cup runners lined up behind a strand stretched across the track. The starter pulled a lever and the strand automatically sprang outwards and upwards to allow a start. And before that, the official starter simply waved a red flag to effect the start.
The running of the Melbourne Cup has an enormous impact on Victoria’s and Australia’s economy each year in terms of employment, retail spending and tourism and the horseracing industry employs over 2,000 full-time equivalent staff each year.
As an industry, horseracing employs over 250,000 Australians each year including:
• horse transporters
• promotion and marketing staff
• administration staff
• club managers
• race programmers
• catering staff • entertainment
• grounds and facilities staff
• ticket staff and security
• race callers
• barrier attendants
• judges and stewards
• first aid personnel and paramedics
Each of these employees contributes to ensuring that the Carnival maintains its reputation as a world class event.
The Carnival also provides an economic boost to the Victorian economy of over $350 million each year through tourism international participants, Carnival events and retail spending. Nationally, the Melbourne Cup has a $700 million impact on the Australian economy. Visitors contribute to airlines, hotels and accommodation, restaurants and ground transport.
Melbourne Cup day meetings are not limited to Flemington. Each year some 55 race meetings are held around Australia on Melbourne Cup day with over 300,000 people attending, boosting local economies. The Spring Racing Carnival also makes a direct impact on the food and beverage industries with Melbourne Cup luncheons held everywhere in restaurants and hotels, Cup Day barbecues and picnics, and tens of thousands of Australians hosting Melbourne Cup parties in their homes on Cup day.