Breaking down the barriers

6 November 2023 Written by Andrew Lemon

Here is good news for those searching for the elusive winner of this year’s Lexus Melbourne Cup – there is no such thing as an unlucky barrier. Every stall has now delivered a Cup winner, but as we discover by tracing the history of the barriers, it is not that simple.

While it seems that there are no barriers to success now, there is a riddle. When it comes to the actual barrier draw, horses who officially drew barrier number 8 or 20 have never won. Yet winners who started from those barriers have won, on five occasions. Let me explain.

Since 1958, the 98th running of the Melbourne Cup, the race has started from automatic barrier stalls. The horses are contained and separated from each other. “The starter is on his platform,” the course broadcaster calls. “The gates fly open. They’re off!”

Each horse starts from its allocated stall, numbered from 1 nearest the inside running rail. The Cup barrier numbers are randomly drawn at Flemington, with ceremony, in the presence of owners when the field for Tuesday’s Lexus Melbourne Cup is finalised. This happens after the close of racing on Penfolds Victoria Derby Day, the Saturday before the Cup. 

So there is a simple explanation to the riddle. These days the field for the Cup is limited to 24, with no emergencies. If a horse is scratched ahead of the race, every competitor drawn outside the withdrawal moves up one place at the barrier. When Shocking won in 2009, he had drawn 23 of 24. The horse who drew barrier 1 was scratched. Everyone moved inside one place. So, Shocking drew 23, but started from 22.

Some owners, trainers or jockeys are dismayed by their draw. Is the inside or the outside an advantage? 

The reality often differs from expectations. 

In 1983 the New Zealand stayer Kiwi, ridden by apprentice Jim Cassidy, started from barrier 2 but famously was a horse who liked to race near the back of the field. 

Cassidy simply let him drop out to the tail. When the field neared the home turn, Kiwi was still last, but Cassidy hooked him out wide in the straight to begin one of the most spectacular winning runs in the history of the race. 

Authoritative lists might say which barriers have produced the most or the least winners, or how long it is since a particular barrier was successful. Some such lists go back to the 1920s or even the 1870s. Disregard these. The count should start in 1958 when automatic gates were introduced. 

In early colonial times a steward on horseback started the race flourishing a big red flag, the horses clustering behind an imaginary line. This took exceptional horsemanship. George Watson rightly earned the title ‘Prince of Starters’. 

In 1894, the VRC installed a miraculous Johnston and Gleeson starting machine at the Melbourne Cup start, using a strand barrier stretched across the track. Under instruction from the official starter, jockeys edged their horses close to the strand in anticipation. The machine sprang the barrier forward and upwards, instantly. 

When jockeys were weighing out before the race, marbles were drawn at random to decide position at the barrier. Even so, position was observed notionally. 

Experienced riders would jockey for a better spot, and the starter could order unruly horses to the outside.

Not until 1924, Backwood’s year, were positions balloted ahead of raceday for publication in race books. Phar Lap in 1930 was said to be the first to win from 13, but strict observance of official ‘position at the start’ was never guaranteed. 

Even after barrier stalls arrived, there were complications. Take the 1958 Cup itself, won by Baystone ridden by Mel Schumacher. The maximum field size was 32. Baystone drew 10. There were then three scratchings including one late withdrawal. Two of those horses had drawn barriers inside number 10, meaning Baystone actually started from 8. Similarly, Viewed in 2008 won from barrier 8 after originally drawing 9. 

In 2021 it was widely understood that barrier 18 had never produced a Cup winner. The wonderfully spelt Verry Elleegant drew 19. With the withdrawal of Future Score, who drew 15, the champion mare moved in one space and started from 18. The hoodoo had ended! 

But there was no hoodoo. Back in 1963 Gatum Gatum, ridden by Jim Johnson, had done the same thing. That year, the maximum field for the Cup was 26 – but there were four official emergencies. One horse was scratched – Kildarlin, from barrier 13 – allowing the first emergency to take his place. But the rules at that time stated that emergencies had to start from the outside. All horses drawn outside 13 moved in one place. So Gatum Gatum won the Cup starting from barrier 18. 

By my count, half of all the 64 Melbourne Cup winners from 1958 have started from a barrier inside the one they originally drew. 

There are other traps for statisticians. Thirty-two horses ran in Hi Jinx’s Centenary Cup before the limit was reduced to 28 in 1961, to 26 in 1963 and to 24 in 1969. The previous year Rain Lover, in his first Cup run, drew barrier 25 of 26 but, after one scratching, started from 24. The result: he won by eight lengths. 

Not every Cup since 1969 has had 24 starters. The smallest field since starting gates was 19 when Black Knight won (drawn 12, started from 11) in 1984. Proportionately, barriers from 20 to 24 are disadvantaged in the tally. 

Noting that anomaly, barrier 11 leads the table for actual wins, but only just. The last gate to provide a winner was 12 which had to wait for Twilight Payment in 2020.

Melbourne Cup Barrier Stall Statistics 1958–2022

Winners starting from Barrier 1:  Kingston Rule (1990), Prince of Penzance (2015)

Winners starting from extreme outside barrier:  Gala Supreme 24 (1973), Van Der Hum 23 (1976), Beldale Ball 22 (1980), Doriemus 21 (1995), Brew 22 (2000) 

Number of wins from Barriers 1–8: 20 (original draw), 18 (actual starting barrier)

Number of wins from Barriers 9-16: 26 (original draw), 25 (actual starting barrier)

Number of wins from Barriers 17-24: 19 (original draw), 22 (actual starting barrier)

Number of wins from Barrier 25+ 1  (original draw) (not applicable from 1969)

Number of Melbourne Cups with fewer than 24 runners:   36 out of 64 Cups

Original barrier draw with highest number of winners:  5, 12 (each 6 winners)

Original barrier draw with least number of winners: 8, 20 (no winners)

Actual barrier position with highest number of winners: 11   (7 winners)

Actual barrier position with least number of winners: 7, 12, 19, 23 (each 1 winner)