Fast finishers in the Melbourne Cup

6 December 2023 Written by Joe McGrath

Kingston Rule ran a record-breaking Melbourne Cup in 1990, the fastest 3200 metres ever run at Flemington racecourse. We take a look back at other fast finishers, and what might have contributed to these times.

When Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in 1861, he did so in a time of 3 minutes 52 seconds. From one year to the next he shaved five seconds off the race time and by the end of the decade Nimblefoot (1870) was recording 3 minutes 37 seconds for the two-mile event (3218m).

Fast-track 120 years: the time of 3:16.3 recorded in 1990 by the regally bred Kingston Rule over 3200 metres was like reaching the summit. Some would call it evolution, progress, others would see it as a one-off moment in time. But on closer examination, the oscillating fortunes of the Melbourne Cup race time can be explained. Or attempted at least.

I can recall a conversation with the late great Bart Cummings who suggested that although the administration of racing had changed considerably in his time, the actual horse had not. Yes, the breed had improved with the influx of international bloodlines, but to a large extent the horse was more or less the same as its counterpart forty or fifty years ago. If you acknowledge that 1925 Cup winner Windbag recorded 3:22.75 for the two miles and compare that to Vow And Declare’s time of 3:24.76 last year, based on times, Bart is right. Not sure he was often wrong.

He did point out that the same physiology played out as previous yet the science supporting the sport had advanced. So too had the regulatory bodies in detecting prohibited substances that may provide an edge in a sport where results are sometimes measured in pixels.

He did acknowledge that the calibre of horse entered for the Cup in recent decades had improved, opening up the race to an array of international competition. At one stage Bart wanted to exclude international runners, or at least limit them – he was that convinced they would make easy pickings of Australia’s greatest horse race. I like to think he was just protecting his fellow Australian trainers – if not his own stable. Let’s be honest, ending up with twelve race victories to his name, no one knew how to train a Cup runner more than Bart Cummings!

So how did we get to Kingston Rule’s record-breaking time of 1990? 3:16.3 is mighty fast. Is it likely to be bettered?

In essence, from what I can see, there are five contributing factors that have affected the times in the Cup: one, the quality of the track surfaces; two, the riding styles of jockeys; three, the policies specifically around track preparation; four, the quality of horses; and five, the spread of weights for the race.

Let’s go through it.

The first Cup was run on Thursday, 7 November 1861 on a rough track at Flemington Racecourse alongside the Saltwater

River (The Maribyrnong). The course was set out across the river flats and the grass in places was up to the horses’ knees. It was little wonder that Archer’s Cup time of 3 minutes 52 remains the slowest on record. The first Cup was in fact started from around what we now know as the home turn. I am visualising the starting point around where Mike Moroney’s Chicquita Lodge is located. The second year they started the race near the current starting point, allowing a 900-metre straight run to the first turn.

As time evolved, so too has the actual surface at Flemington. Better contouring across the course has brought about better race times.

Even through the darker periods of the Club when money wasn’t free flowing and tracks weren’t as well maintained, times hovered between the 3:28.25 (Acrasia, 1904) and 3:31.0 (Posinatus, 1913) heading towards the 3.24.50 (Artilleryman, 1919) and 3:22.75 (Windbag, 1925). Interestingly, recent winners Efficient (2007, 3:23.34); Shocking (2009, 3.23.87); Americain (2010, 3:26.87); Prince of Penzance, (2015, 3:23.15) and Vow And Declare (2019, 3:24.76) all ran slower times over 3200 metres than Windbag over two miles in 1925. And apparently, the standard of horse has improved! So, what’s going on?

Weather has always played a huge part, and a dry weather day has, as you would expect, resulted in good race times. Interestingly, Damien Oliver came close to a course record in 2002 when Media Puzzle recorded a slick 3:16.97, and Makybe Diva registered a 3:19.9 (2003) and a 3:19.79 (2005). However, post 2006 when the track was re-constructed, only Protectionist (2014, 3:17.71) has recorded a sub 3:20.00 race time.

The riding style and proficiency of jockeys has changed considerably over the 159-year journey of the race, most noticeably from the late 1890s when the Sloan riding style began to be adopted. Up to that point, riders would almost appear bolt upright in the saddle. The more streamlined ‘monkey crouch’ position introduced by American rider Tod Sloan brought balance and efficiency to race-riding. Riders started to ride higher in the irons and riding proficiency improved.

A significant change in Australia from imperial measures to metrics saw the Cup distance shortened from two miles (strictly speaking 3218.68 metres) to 3200 metres in 1972. Ultimately, times reduced ever so marginally as this conversion brought a decrease of around 19 metres in distance to the race. Revised track policies across the state in recent years have brought about the objective of minimum of a “good four” rating on race morning. In 1990 a flint-hard surface presented. The bone-jarring surface suited Kingston Rule down to a tee.

As to the calibre of the horses contesting the race, this is something that has continued to evolve, especially since the internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup when Vintage Crop won in 1993. Cup winners Saintly (1996), Might and Power (1997) and Makybe Diva (2003-2005) were all outstanding performers by any standards, each securing Champion Australian Racehorse of the Year titles along the way. The race, with a global pool of entries and $8 million in prizemoney, has enticed top calibre horses. The VRC administration can be thankful that Vintage Crop did win in 1993 as the race in that era was often bypassed by the top liners for international races like the Japan Cup. Naturalism in 1992 was a point in case. The race had been heading for a change of conditions to entice internationals. Dare I say – the words ‘weight for age’ had been mentioned, but just as quickly were discarded.

Post the 2006 Melbourne Cup Carnival, Flemington underwent a full upgrade of the track. Turns were cambered, the crown eroded down the centre of the track. It is now presented as a truly international racing surface which drains ever so efficiently, becoming the stand-out track in Australia and one of the best in the world. But would a track reconstruction present slower times? Protectionist’s (2014) time of 3:17.71 would suggest not. His time is the fourth fastest in race history only behind Kingston Rule (1990; 3:16.3); Media Puzzle (2002, 3:16.97) and Tawrrific (1989, 3:17.10).

But arguably the greatest influence on the race time has, in recent years, been via the compression of weights in the Melbourne Cup. In Carbine’s year (1890) the spread of weights (from the top weight to the bottom weight) was 24kg and in Phar Lap’s year (1930) it was 18kg. When Kingston Rule won the race there was a 10 kilogram spread of weights. And, in 2019 the spread was even further reduced to 5.5kg with a 57.5kg top-weight (Cross Counter) and a 52kg minimum.

A revised handicapping philosophy has, to my observation, improved the quality of entrants but in effect altered – in some years – the tempo of the race.

Over the past five years, the sectional times early in the race as horses head towards the Maribyrnong side of the course have presented the odd anomaly. Jockeys strategically position their mounts not quite European-style, a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s when a big spread in the weights brought about a strung-out field over 25 lengths or more. The lighter weighted horses became ‘tear-aways’ as they tried to sneak a break on their more fancied, and heavier weighted, rivals. Can we expect the thoroughbred to evolve to reduce these times further? With a revised track surface, a more regulated track policy and a compression of the weights in the Cup, one would think not.

But maybe, like many sports, if the planets line up on the day, anything is possible. Ironically, Kingston Rule’s sire Secretariat, is testimony to this. In 1973 lining up for the final leg of the US Triple Crown in a field of only five runners, he put on one of the most unbelievable performances ever seen on a racecourse winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. His time of 2:24 flat for 1½ miles (2414m) took 2.6 seconds off the track record and is still the fastest recorded on dirt in the US.

The Melbourne Cup is a handicap horse race like none other and one where variables are very hard to manipulate to advantage – just ask any jockey who’s ridden in the race. The race time is only an outcome of its influencing elements, which are paramount to securing the coveted prize – the Lexus Melbourne Cup.