Visiting Melbourne in 1895, the American writer Mark Twain observed: 'Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me'. In 1861, the Victoria Turf Club organised the first Melbourne Cup, and three years later amalgamated with the Victoria Jockey Club to form the Victoria Racing Club (VRC). It built on a strong program of thoroughbred breeding in Australia. Indicative of this broad scope, Archer, the Sydney favourite, won the first two Cups.
The Cup added a new dimension to the nation's horseracing scene. A handicap race over 2 miles (3200 m), the Cup is known for its unpredictability. Fewer than 20% of the strong favourites have won the race. Carbine won the Cup carrying 10 stone 5 lbs (65.7 kg) in 1890 but Phar Lap, who had won the Melbourne Cup in 1930 carrying 9 stone 12 lbs (62.5 kg), was unable to repeat the performance in 1931 carrying 10 stone 8 lbs (67 kg). Great horses like Briseis, Carbine, Rising Fast, Galilee and Might and Power have won the race but only five (Archer, Peter Pan, Rain Lover, Think Big and Makybe Diva) have won the Cup twice.
The VRC, and its first two secretaries, R.C. Bagot and H. Byron Moore, shaped the Cup into the foremost event on the Australian racing calendar, run on the first Tuesday in November, a gazetted public holiday since 1877. Set at 100 sovereigns in 1861, the prize money was steadily increased and various trophies were presented until, in 1919, the gold three-handled loving cup was adopted.
The audience for the Melbourne Cup has been extended by the media. Newspapers ran special editions and, with the coming of the telegraph, the VRC disseminated results immediately to the other capital cities. The Cup featured in Australia's first moving film, made in 1896 by Walter Barnett and Maurice Sestier. From the late 1920s newsreel companies raced to distribute the film to evening audiences. During World War II film was quickly dispatched to troops overseas. The reputation that the race literally 'stops the nation' was established when radio station 3AR was given permission to broadcast the race in 1925. The first direct telecast was to New South Wales in 1960 but fears about the impact of television on attendances delayed live telecasts in Melbourne until 1978.
Since 1962 the VRC has developed the Spring Carnival's commercial potential. In 1960 the first official sponsorship of races was accepted with the Carlton & United Brewing Co. gaining the right to sponsor the Cup in 1985. By 1996 all races carried sponsors' names. From the 1970s corporate boxes and marquees have found a place at the course.
The Melbourne Cup is promoted as a day of fancy dress and carnival with picnics in the car park an annual event. Jean Shrimpton's casual appearance at Derby Day in 1965 overshadowed the races, and invited celebrities continue to add glamour to the occasion while locals compete in the Fashions on the Field. But the Cup itself remains a rich source of the dramatic: Roy Higgins' elation when he rode the poorly conditioned Light Fingers to victory in 1965, Van Der Hum's win on a sodden track in 1976, Governor-General Sir John Kerr's appearance at the 1977 Melbourne Cup, Bart Cummings' tenth Melbourne Cup with Saintly in 1996, Sheila Laxton, the first successful female trainer, with the mare Ethereal in 2001 and the emotional win by Damien Oliver on Media Puzzle in 2002.
In order to attract strong fields, prize money has increased and by 2004, stood at $4.6 million. The Cup has taken on an international dimension. In 1993 the VRC invited overseas horses to compete, the Irish stayer Vintage Crop the first (apart from New Zealand horses) to make the winning trip. Through the sale of television rights, the race is seen in 120 different countries around the world.
|1997||Might and Power|
|1985||What A Nuisance|
|1981||Just A Dash|
|1977||Gold and Black|
|1976||Van Der Hum|