The Flemington Cup 1849

15 July 2020 Written by Andrew Lemon

In marking 180 continuous years of racing at Flemington Racecourse since the first meeting here in 1840, the Victoria Racing Club this year has been celebrating some forgotten stories from our past.

There is a unique Australian-made, two-handled silver cup in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. It is inscribed as ‘The Flemington Cup’. It stands 17.6 centimetres tall. It was originally presented as the trophy for an 1849 horse race, won by a thoroughbred named Belzoni. It holds special historic significance as the oldest known surviving racing trophy awarded in Victoria.

The silversmith was Charles Brentani, a young Italian jeweller who worked in Collins Street, Melbourne from 1845 until just before his death in 1853. The Flemington Cup is the only example of his craftsmanship held by the NGV.

Two riddles surround this trophy, but both can be solved. The inscription clearly reads:

Presented by
Mr. James Dunbar
and run for on the Melbourne Race Course on the
15th Jan[uary] 1849. Won by Belzoni beating
5 Others.
The Property of James E. Crook.
Ridden by Mr R Lovelock.”

The first riddle is that the race for ‘The Flemington Cup’ of 1849 was not actually run at Flemington Racecourse.

The second, related riddle is that the race was not run at ‘the Melbourne Race Course’ – despite the inscription and even though one newspaper at the time says it was.

‘The Melbourne Racecourse’ (usually one word) in the 1840s was the original name of what we now know as Flemington Racecourse.

But the ‘Flemington Cup’ of 1849 was actually run on a course 2 kilometres away, on open land adjacent to the newly-built Flemington Inn on Mount Alexander Road, opposite Debney’s Park near the Moonee Ponds Creek bridge.

These races were a hotel or publican’s meeting, commonly held in Australia’s pioneering days. A local pub could generate good trade by holding races nearby on a public holiday. Such meetings were held in this era at places such as Brighton on Boxing Day and St Kilda on New Year’s Day. 15 January 1849 was a traditional Scottish holiday, ‘Auld Hansel’s Monday’ and mine host at the Flemington Inn was a brawny Scot, James Dunbar.

Dunbar commissioned the silver cup from Charles Brentani. Its 15 guineas value represented several weeks wages for most labourers. Lesser races on the day had prizes of saddles and riding whips.

Notes in today’s race book give more detail about this event, and the ways in which the history of the long-forgotten Flemington Inn is connected to Flemington Racecourse.

History, the present and future always come together at Flemington. Today’s meeting celebrates the rising stars, along with the trainers and stable staff who keep the sport powering ahead, especially in difficult times. And the VRC honours the retirement from training of the champion Pat Hyland who first rode as a jockey at Flemington more than sixty years ago. Sixty out of our 180 years equals one third of the total history of Flemington!