How the Cup became Cup Week

31 October 2022 Written by Andrew Lemon

The Cup! The words are shorthand, understood nationally, for the Lexus Melbourne Cup.

The Cup has been part of Australian history since 1861 when the New South Wales horse Archer raced first past the post, beating Victoria’s hero Mormon by an impressive eight lengths.

The Cup also means The First Tuesday in November. That day, which can fall on the calendar anywhere from the first to the seventh of the month, is part of Melbourne Cup history – and of Australian legend.

It has been The First Tuesday almost without exception, and almost – but not quite – from the start. Archer’s victory and his repeat performance the following year were on a Thursday. Indeed for the first fourteen years, the Cup was held on the opening day of what was called the ‘Spring Meeting’ at Flemington.

In 1863, when Banker won in the smallest field (seven) ever to contest the Cup, it was a two-day meeting. The Cup that year was run on a Friday, late in the month. Later writers have assumed that the race was a flop, but at the time it was enjoyed as ‘a great event’ involving a quality field of the best horses in the colony. A ‘large crowd’ of up to 4,000 at Flemington cheered them on. 

The race then returned to a Thursday. Each year, as a rich handicap with big betting and top horses, it attracted ever-burgeoning crowds. Fashion was king. Cup Day became a holiday long before it was an official one. Banks, shops and government offices simply closed for the afternoon as everyone made their way to Flemington.

Then a momentous change took place to Cup Week in 1875.  

Wollomai won the Cup. He was owned by James Cleeland who had made his pile as licensee of the Albion Hotel in Bourke Street, next door to Kirk’s Bazaar horse market where the racing fraternity congregated. Cleeland had used his profits to buy extensive land on Phillip Island near the place officially spelled ‘Cape Woolamai’. 

His horse was the first to win the Melbourne Cup on a Tuesday – but not yet The First Tuesday. Wollomai’s victory was on Tuesday 9 November, the VRC taking advantage of an official public holiday to celebrate the Prince of Wales’s Birthday. With the Derby on Saturday, the Cup now on Tuesday, the Oaks on Thursday and a fourth and final Saturday – in those days featuring a steeplechase – Cup Week reached the pattern that has served so well.

The only thing missing from this new formula was ‘The First Tuesday in November’. The honour of being the first winner on The First Tuesday belongs to the super filly Briseis the following year who took the Victoria Derby, Cup and Oaks in the one week. The Melbourne Cup was now big enough to justify an official public holiday in its own right.

Three colonial governors were on hand to see Briseis win the Cup, from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. ‘Cup Day has assumed a wide-spread significance in Australasia,’ said one Melbourne paper. ‘From the Governor to the shepherd, all have some sort of interest in that day … It is the national holiday.’ Flemington was a magnet. Crowds surged past 100,000 on Cup Day alone.

There have been just five exceptions to the First Tuesday formula since. In 1882 when the Tasmanian-bred The Assyrian was the winner, the race was run on the last Tuesday in October.

In 1916, Sasanof’s year, rain forced postponement from the First Tuesday to the following Saturday.

For three of the years – from 1942 to 1944 – during the Second World War, the national emergency saw all public holidays suspended. The Cup had to be run on a Saturday, with the Derby a week beforehand.

There was double the rejoicing when crowds returned to Flemington for the Victory Melbourne Cup on the First Tuesday of November 1945. This was Rainbird’s year. Derby, Cup, Oaks and Final Day resumed in their rightful place. Cup Week was back.

Fashion has always been central to Cup Week. The invention of Fashions on the Field contests in the 1960s gave a new freshness each year. Fashions have evolved with the times, as shown by the 2020 innovation of Myer Fashions on Your Front Lawn.

Spring weather gods play their tricks, but it is a rare Melbourne Cup Carnival when at least one of the four race days refuses to provide sunshine, blue skies and just the right temperatures at Flemington. If it is contrary, we manage. We have learned to be versatile.

The Melbourne Cup Carnival has proved the test of time. It is a paradox: nothing changes but every year is different, memorable, modern, timeless, distinct. It’s Cup Week.

Image: Wollomai, winner of the 1875 Melbourne Cup. (Australian Racing Museum)

Image:  Wollomai the winner. (State Library of Victoria)