How Final Day became Mackinnon Stakes Day

28 October 2021 Written by Andrew Lemon

The weight-for-age 2000 metre championship race that has been long known as the Mackinnon Stakes used to be part of Victoria Derby Day, the opening day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, ever since Cup Week went to a four-day racing format more than a century and a half ago. It was called the Melbourne Stakes back then.

It became the L.K.S. Mackinnon Stakes in 1936.

Five years ago, in 2016, the Victoria Racing Club Board decided to switch the Mackinnon to the fourth and final day of the Carnival, increasing its prizemoney to $2 million. Instead of being a stepping stone to glory, the Mackinnon Stakes became the feature act of the final day.

In its previous Derby Day position, for many horses it was an essential pathway to success in the Melbourne Cup a few days later.

Champion trainer Bart Cummings often used a run in the Mackinnon to bring his horses to the peak of fitness for the Cup. His father Jim Cummings had followed that path successfully with Comic Court in 1950. Even a beaten run in the Mackinnon was sufficient to top the Cummings horses off for the Melbourne Cup, as Think Big proved on two occasions back in 1974/75.

Let’s Elope (1991) and Rogan Josh (1999) both won the Mackinnon on their way to Melbourne Cup victory.

Since it worked for Jim and Bart Cummings, other trainers tried the same formula. Mick Robins found it worked for his dual Cups winner Rain Lover, in 1968 and 1969.

Several Melbourne Cup winners went on to secure victory in the Mackinnon in the year or years following.  Altogether, 20 Cup winners have a Mackinnon (or Melbourne Stakes) win on their record. A further 24 winners of the Mackinnon were placegetters in Melbourne Cups.

The logic of changing the date in 2016 was sound. After Ireland’s Vintage Crop won the Cup in 1993, more and more horses arrived directly from the northern hemisphere with the Cup their object.

These horses had training preparations very different from Australian horses. Racing in top company in Europe’s spring and summer, they did not need a solid 2000 metre race so close to Cup Day. If they did race in Australia before the first Tuesday in November, then the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate or the Geelong Cup suited their preparations better, allowing a longer break.

Some trainers opted for the 2500 metre Lexus Stakes (Hotham Handicap) on Derby Day which offered automatic inclusion in the Melbourne Cup field.

By swapping the Derby Day Mackinnon with the 1600 metre Cantala Stakes – a feature race that had operated under many sponsors’ names on the final day over the past 60 years – trainers with Cup ambitions had a further option with a shorter weight-for-age Group 1 on Derby Day.

Another benefit of moving the Mackinnon was to create a rich Group 1 prize after a ten-day break for Cox Plate competitors not aiming for the Melbourne Cup.

The original Derby Day Melbourne Stakes had been renamed in honour of Lauchlan Kenneth Scobie Mackinnon who joined the VRC committee in 1905 and served as Chairman for nineteen challenging years from 1916.

History has not been kind to L.K.S. Mackinnon. In the popular 1983 Phar Lap movie he is the pantomime silvertail villain, plotting to pile penalty weights on the back of the people’s horse to privilege his own aristocratic colt, Carradale. His views about women trainers and jockeys (he did his best to keep them out of racing altogether) were not widely shared even at the time.

He preferred quality in racing to quantity, thought there was too much racing, and helped close down the many privately owned small suburban racecourses that operated in Melbourne. He had his detractors.

Yet Flemington flourished under Mackinnon’s leadership. With Henry Byron Moore he oversaw the necessary transformation of the racecourse in 1924 when the Members’ Stand, Birdcage and Mounting Yard were repositioned from their traditional place at the Elms near the riverside. He guided the Club through the tough Depression years.

As an owner, Mackinnon enjoyed mixed success and made light of disappointments. He won the 1914 Melbourne Cup with Kingsburgh (a grandson of Carbine), and had many big race wins. His favourite horse was Woorak, an exceptional miler. He stood Woorak successfully as a stallion at his Chatsworth Park stud farm. Later, Mackinnon became the last owner of historic Maribyrnong Stud, upstream of Flemington.

Admirers praised him as sportsman, owner, breeder and administrator, a man of vision. Said one, “the sound position of racing today is largely due to his foresight and vision”. The Mackinnon Stakes remembers his contribution.

Image: VRC Chairman LKS Mackinnon presenting the 1924 Melbourne Cup to E.L Baillieu. Mackinnon won the race with his Kingsburgh in 1914. (Australian Racing Museum)

Image: Wakeful, triple winner of the Melbourne Stakes (now MacKinnon Stakes). (Frederick Woodhouse/Australian Racing Museum)