The Grand Finale of the Melbourne Cup Carnival
The story of the Melbourne Cup began not with the first running, but really two years earlier. A great race was held at Flemington in the spring of 1859, in the gold rush era: the Australian Champion Sweepstakes. Now, the final day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival will see a brand new concept, with its origins stretching back deep into Flemington’s history.
The race was called the ‘Champion Race’, and it attracted champions from Victoria and neighbouring colonies.
One of the South Australian competitors, The Barber, even survived a shipwreck and then walked from Mount Gambier to get to Flemington. The race created a buzz around the land, and was contested in front of an enormous crowd. This was not a race for the faint-hearted: the distance was three miles, weight-for-age.
In the years that followed, other cities tried copying the Champion Race format, including Wagga Wagga, Ipswich, Ballarat, Launceston, Sydney, even Dunedin, but the Flemington version was the original and the best.
Now, 163 years after the first, the concept of Champion Races returns to Flemington in modern form for the concluding day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival. In times past this has been variously Final Day, Stakes Day and more recently Mackinnon Stakes Day. In 2022 it becomes simply, TAB Champions Stakes Day.
On the card are not just one, but three Group 1 races at weight-for-age or championship level, designed to test our finest thoroughbreds at their preferred distances. And each one of these three races will offer $3 million in prizemoney
For sprinters, it’s the Darley Champions Sprint of 1200 metres up the Straight Six track. For 1600-metre specialists, it’s the Kennedy Champions Mile. For the middle-distance horses, the historic Mackinnon Stakes is reborn as the TAB Champions Stakes over 2000 metres. Long-distance stayers are not forgotten on Champions Stakes Day, with the Group 3 Queen Elizabeth Stakes (named the Queen’s Cup for 2022) of 2600 metres. Some see it as a consolation prize for missing out on the previous Tuesday’s Lexus Melbourne Cup, 3200 metres.
That first ‘1859 Australian Champion Sweepstakes’ pre-dated not just the Cup, but the Victoria Racing Club itself. It was organised by a coalition of local gentlemen drawn from the rival Jockey and Turf clubs. They offered 500 sovereigns to be added to the fee of 50 sovereigns for each entrant, and a further £50 for final acceptors.
This ended up creating a pool exceeding £2000, more than double the total that would be offered for the Melbourne Cup two years later. Such treasure for a horse race was unprecedented in Australia, so no wonder 21 top horses competed. They came from Sydney, Tasmania, South Australia, New Zealand and of course Victoria. Melbourne filled with visitors: a spring racing carnival tradition was born.
A local three-year-old, the unfancied Flying Buck with a boy jockey on board, won the race. Winning owner William Yuille has a significant place in Australian racing history. He and his family founded the Australian Stud Book, official recorders of thoroughbred pedigrees.
None of the subsequent Australian Champion Races in those other centres created quite the excitement of the first, or attracted such high quality fields. The Melbourne Cup swiftly surpassed it as ‘Australia’s Greatest Race’.
Twice in the 1860s the VRC hosted a three-mile Australian Champion Race back at Flemington. John Tait’s The Barb, hero of the previous Melbourne Cup, won the 1867
Champion Race in a field of five. But from that time onwards, no club in any other colony volunteered to host the big race. The Champion Race lapsed, only to be revived as an annual feature of the VRC New Year’s Day meeting from 1876. Unbeaten Grand Flaneur added the Champion Race to his tally in 1881.
January in Melbourne can be too hot for comfortable racing. Three years later the VRC shifted the Champion Race to the autumn. But the taste for such marathons was waning, and the event began attracting smaller fields, to diminishing public interest. In 1916 it was renamed the King’s Plate, soon shortened to two miles. The name Champion Race or Champion Stakes disappeared, and has not been used at Flemington since.
Now it returns as ‘The Champions Stakes’, in tripartite form that will certainly have wide appeal to racegoers, owners and trainers alike – a grand finale to the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
And a hoofnote for those who value continuity in Australian racing. Both the Kennedy Champions Mile and the TAB Champions Stakes retain their ‘registered’ race names: the Cantala and the Mackinnon. The original Cantala Stakes – always a mile – was introduced on Victoria Derby Day 1919 to honour Septimus Miller who served forty years on the VRC committee, twelve years as Chairman. Miller asked for the race to be named not for himself but for his property, Cantala, on Dandenong Road, Caulfield.
The Cantala Stakes moved to Final Day in 1960, rebranded as the George Adams
Handicap, for the founder of Tattersalls lotteries, and run in later years under a succession of sponsors’ names. The Cantala went back to Victoria Derby Day in 2019 as the Kennedy Mile, but now returns, bigger and better, as part of TAB Champions Stakes Day.
Similarly, officially the TAB Champions Stakes of 2022 continues to recognise LKS Mackinnon, thirty years on the committee, 19 years its Chairman (1916–35). Until 2016 the race was a curtain raiser on Victoria Derby Day for the Melbourne Cup. Since that year it has taken pride of place on the final day. Now it stands proudly as part of a trio of races for champions. May the best horses win.