Meet Joe McGrath: Keeper of the Cup

2 June 2024 Written by VRC

We talk to Joe McGrath as he speaks about his role at VRC as Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour Manager and VRC Ambassador At Large.

What inspired the Melbourne Cup Tour and has kept you dedicated to it since 2003?

The Cup Tour came about following a discussion at the VRC about how good it would be to take the Melbourne Cup on a promotional tour across the country. I was asked to be the spokesperson on that first Tour, which went to 20 destinations, and stayed on as manager from its second year.

I have been very fortunate to have been involved in something everyone loved. I see the looks on people’s faces and I can honestly say, I never tire of it. The Cup Tour has changed along the way but it is about the trophy and also about the storytelling. There are so many stories connected with the race.

Recount for us a particularly memorable experience from your time on the road with the Melbourne Cup.

I think early on when an elderly gentleman in a nursing home queried whether he could get a photo with the Cup. He was a bit grumpy so I gave him the white glove and said to him, ‘Better still, what about you hold it.’ I think he broke down and cried. The nursing staff couldn’t believe it. From that day on we have let thousands of people hold the Cup. It’s amazing the impact it has on people. And then with the advent of social media, everyone wants a photo with the Cup.

How do you ensure the safety and preservation of the Cup during its travels?

The travelling case is purpose-built with form cuts inside. It’s a fairly nondescript traveling case but when in public we engage MSS Security or our own VRC security team. It is insured and without giving away too many secrets, we know where it is at all times. Trust me. 

What is the significance of carrying white gloves during the Cup Tour?

The white gloves have become synonymous with the Cup and the Tour. I have been to events where people have brought their own! Very funny when you see it. The fact is, the gloves play an important role in protecting the metal. Gold is the most precious metal on the planet and while it does not corrode or oxidise, it can scratch. With people wearing rings and having natural oils in their hands, it’s a measure to mitigate risk. I have no shortage of white gloves floating around if anyone needs some!

How do you select destinations for the Melbourne Cup Tour each year?

The process of selecting the destinations is based on the strength of the submissions. We run the tender process from late February through to mid April. A panel of about seven VRC staff assess the applications against a set of criteria and the strongest destinations are put on a short list. We look at things such as historical referencing and community connection. It’s challenging, but the strong applications usually rise to the surface.

What role does the Melbourne Cup Tour play in uplifting communities?

There are many communities facing tough times and challenges unique to their community.

From fire to flood to drought to localised traumas, bringing the Cup through a town with a Cup-winning trainer, jockey or owner genuinely lifts the spirits of those in the communities. The touring teams have been welcomed into many communities across the land and it never ceases to amaze what the Cup can do. It is a cultural icon and opens up so many doors for so many people.

What moments in racing history have left a lasting impression on you?

I have grown up with racing and breeding and I knew early on that the Melbourne Cup was a big deal. I also knew Phar Lap was this extraordinary horse who could do most things. I never tire of reading about him and I have probably read half-a-dozen books on him. I even watched Phar Lap the movie for probably the 10th time recently. He was a colossus. The Cup Tour is about the story telling and I love it when a young school student puts their hand up to ask about Phar Lap. I have to temper my enthusiasm very quickly.  

Tell us about the Cup Tour National Sweep.

The Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour National Sweep was an initiative to support local Australian regional and rural communities. Basically each of the 24 regional rural towns are allocated a barrier for the race. If the horse wins from their respective barrier, the town will receive $50,000 to put towards a local registered charity. It’s been most successful and has driven great interest from the Cup Tour towns in the lead up to the race.

How does the Melbourne Cup live up to its nickname as ‘the people’s race’?

When I first went on the road back in 2003, I learnt very quickly how much the people around this country love and value what the Cup represents. It is embedded in the Australian psyche and is part of the cultural DNA for this country. It has been there since The Gold Rush of the 1860s and has been there through boom times and depressions. It is the race that stops a nation. As I said to the committee on the return of that first Cup Tour… 'The Melbourne Cup is not just a sporting icon … It is a cultural phenomenon.’ I stand by that statement 22 years on.