The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s major thoroughbred horse race. Marketed as “the race that stops a nation”, it is a 3,200 metre race for three-year-olds and over. It is the richest “two-mile” handicap in the world, and one of the richest turf races. Conducted annually by the Victoria Racing Club on the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Victoria, the event starts at 3pm (daylight saving time) on the first Tuesday in November.

The first race was held in 1861 over two miles (3.21km) but was shortened to 3,200 metres (1.98mi) in 1972 when Australia adopted the metric system. This reduced the distance by 18m, and Rain Lover’s 1968 race record of 3:19.1 was accordingly adjusted to 3:17.9. The present record holder is the 1990 winner Kingston Rule with a time of 3:16.3.

Early years

Frederick Standish, member of the Victorian Turf Club and steward on the day of the first Cup, was credited with forming the idea to hold a horse race and calling it the “Melbourne Cup”.

Seventeen horses contested the first Melbourne Cup on Thursday 7 November 1861, racing for the modest prize of 710 gold sovereigns (£710) cash and a hand-beaten gold watch, winner takes all. The prize was not, as some have suggested, the largest purse up to that time.

In order to attract a bigger crowd to the fledgling Cup, the first secretary of the Victorian Racing Club, Robert Bagot (c. 1828–1881) decided to issue members with two ladies tickets, calculating that “where ladies went, men would follow”. A large crowd of 4,000 men and women watched the race, although it has been suggested this was less than expected because of news reaching Melbourne of the death of explorers Burke and Wills five days earlier on 2 November. Nevertheless the attendance was the largest at Flemington on any day for the past two years, with the exception of the recently run Two Thousand Guinea Stakes. 

The winner of this first Melbourne Cup race was a 16.3 hand bay stallion by the name of Archer in a time of 3.52.00, ridden by John Cutts, trained by Etienne de Mestre, and leased (and consequently raced in his own name) by de Mestre. As a lessee de Mestre “owned” and was fully responsible for Archer during the lease. Archer was leased from the “Exeter Farm” of Jembaicumbene near Braidwood, New South Wales. His owners were Thomas John “Tom” Roberts (a good school-friend of de Mestre’s), Rowland H. Hassall (Roberts’ brother-in-law), and Edmund Molyneux Royds and William Edward Royds (Roberts’ nephews).

The inaugural Melbourne Cup of 1861 was an eventful affair when one horse bolted before the start, and three of the seventeen starters fell during the race, two of which died. Archer, a Sydney “outsider” who drew scant favor in the betting, spread-eagled the field and defeated the favourite, and Victorian champion, Mormon by six lengths. Dismissed by the bookies, Archer took a lot of money away from Melbourne, ‘refuelling interstate rivalry’ and adding to the excitement of the Cup. The next day, Archer was raced in and won another 2 mile long distance race, the Melbourne Town Plate.

It has become legend that Archer walked over 800 km (over 500 miles) to Flemington from de Mestre’s stable at “Terara” near Nowra, New South Wales. However, newspaper archives of the day reveal that he had travelled south from Sydney to Melbourne on the steamboat City Of Melbourne, together with de Mestre, and two of de Mestre’s other horses Exeter and Inheritor. Before being winched aboard the steamboat for the trip to Melbourne, the horses had arrived in Sydney in September 1861.

Archer travelled to Melbourne by steamboat again the following year (1862) to run in the second Melbourne Cup. This time he won 810 gold sovereigns (£810) cash and a gold watch before a crowd of 7,000, nearly twice the size of the previous years large crowd in a time of 3.47.00, taking to two the number of Melbourne Cup wins by this horse. Archer had already won the 1862 AJC Queen Elizabeth Stakes in Randwick, Sydney, and returned to win his second Melbourne Cup carrying 10 stone 2 pounds. He defeated a field of twenty starters by eight lengths, a record that has never been beaten, and that was not matched for over 100 years. Mormon again running second. Winning the Melbourne Cup twice was a feat not repeated until more than seventy years later when Peter Pan won the race in 1932 and 1934, and winning the Melbourne Cup two years in a row was a feat not repeated until more than 30 years later when Rain Lover won in 1968 and 1969.

Archer travelled to Melbourne by steamboat yet again the next year (1863). Despite his weight of 11 stone 4 pounds, Archer would have contested the third cup in 1863, but due to a Victorian public holiday trainer Etienne de Mestre’s telegraphed acceptance form arrived late, and Archer was scratched on a technicality. In protest of this decision and in a show of solidarity, many of de Mestre’s owners boycotted the third race and scratched their horses in sympathy. As a result the Melbourne Cup of that year ran with only 7 starters, the smallest number in the history of the Cup.

In 1865, Adam Lindsay Gordon wrote a verse in which the Melbourne Cup winner was called Tim Whiffler. Two years later in 1867 two horses with the name Tim Whiffler ran in the Melbourne Cup. (The year before in 1866 two horses with the same name, Falcon, also ran in the Melbourne Cup.) To distinguish between the two Tim Whifflers they were called “Sydney” Tim Whiffler and “Melbourne” Tim Whiffler. “Sydney” Tim Whiffler actually won the Cup. He was trained by Etienne de Mestre, and like Archer before him raced in de Mestre’s name but was leased from the “Exeter Farm”.

As early as 1865, Cup day was a half-holiday in Melbourne for public servants and bank officials. Various businesses also closed at lunchtime.

It took some years before the purpose of the declared holiday was acknowledged in the Victoria Government Gazette. The Gazette of 31 October 1873 announced that the following Thursday (Cup Day) be observed as a bank and civil (public) service holiday.

The Melbourne Cup was first run on a Tuesday in 1875, the first Tuesday in that month.

On 7 November 1876, the running of the Melbourne Cup on the first Tuesday in November saw the three-year-old filly, Briseis, owned and trained by James Wilson Snr., win in a time of 3.36.25. Briseis then went on to creat a record that is never likely to be equalled, winning the VRC Derby, the Melbourne Cup and the VRC Oaks in the space of six days. She was ridden in the Melbourne Cup by the tiny featherweight figure of jockey Peter St. Albans. In 1876 at the recorded age thirteen (he was actually twelve, being 8 days short of his thirteenth birthday), Peter St. Albans is also the youngest person ever to win a Melbourne Cup. Before 75,000 at Flemington Briseis, with St Albans in the saddle, comfortably won by 1 length in the biggest field of all time. “At 4 o’clock the starter released the 33 runners and they swept down the long Flemington straight in a thundering rush. Briseis, ridden by what one writer termed a mere child, (in the Cup) captured a rare double, the Victoria Race Club Derby and the Melbourne Cup. Shouts and hurrahs were heard, hats were thrown in the air and one excited individual fell on his back in the attempt to do a somersault. The boy who rode the winner was carried around the pack and is the hero of the day,” reported the “Australasian Sketcher” in 1876. Both Peter St. Albans and Briseis have now become racing legends, and Briseis is regarded as one of the greatest mares foaled in Australia.

Briseis wasn’t the only sensation surrounding the 1876 Melbourne Cup. Two months before the event, on Saturday 9 September, the City Of Melbourne sailed for Melbourne from Sydney with a cargo including 13 racehorses, many of whom were considered serious contenders for the Melbourne Cup. The following day the ship ran into a savage storm and was hit by several rogue waves, with Nemesis (the winner of the 1876 AJC Metropolitan Handicap in Randwick, Sydney and favourite for the Cup, owned by John Moffat) and Robin Hood (another favourite, owned by Etienne de Mestre) being among the 11 horses that were killed. Betting on the big race was paralysed. To the dismay and anger of the public, bookmakers, showing no feeling, presented a purse (loaded with coins) to the captain as token of their appreciation for his part in saving them many thousands of pounds in bets already laid on the favourites who had perished. Perhaps they should have kept their money, however. The outsider Briseis comfortably won by 1 length in the biggest field of all time, and in an extremely good time, so it is unlikely that the horses who perished could have beaten her.

1877 is also the year that the trainer Etienne de Mestre won his fourth Melbourne Cup with Chester owned by Hon. James White. In 1878, as in previous years De Mestre fielded more than one horse. He entered the favourite Firebell (owned by W.S. Cox) who finished last, Chester (owned by Hon. James White) the previous year’s winner who fell, and Calamia (owned by de Mestre) who, though less fancied, won easily by two lengths. First prize was £1,790, the crowd was 80,000 and there were 30 starters. De Mestre’s 1878 win with Calamia brought to 5 the number of Melbourne Cups he had won. This record was not to be matched for nearly 100 years when the trainer Bart Cummings won his fifth Melbourne Cup in 1975. Bart Cummings, regarded as the best Australian horse trainer of all time, went on to win 12 Melbourne Cups to 2008, and is still training horses.

Martini Henry, the 1883 Melbourne Cup winner
 In 1883, the hardy New Zealand bred, Martini Henry won the VRC Derby, the Melbourne Cup and on the following Monday retained his undefeated record by winning Mares’ Produce Stakes.[37]
In 1890 Carbine set a weight carrying record in the Melbourne Cup that still stands & will in all likelihood, never be eclipsed. He carried 10 stone 5 pounds (66kg), in winning!
carbine 1890 melbourne cup
Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup Race from Second Wind and Shadow King on 5 November 1930.

Phar Lap, the most famous horse in the world of his day, won the 1930 Melbourne Cup at 11/8 odds on, the shortest priced favourite in the history of the race. He had to be hidden away at Geelong before the race after an attempt was made to shoot him and only emerged an hour before the race

Phar Lap
Phar Lap

time of the Cup. Phar Lap also competed in 1929 and 1931, but came 3rd and 8th respectively, despite heavy favouritism in both years.

There are a few legends of the first Aboriginal jockey to ride a Melbourne Cup. It was believed to be John Cutts who won the first and second cups in 1861 and 1862 riding Archer. He was reputedly an Aboriginal stockman born in the area where Archer was trained, but was actually John ‘Cutts’ Dillon, the son of a Sydney clerk, a jockey who rode for many trainers in his long career, and who was one of the best known, best liked and most respected jockeys in New South Wales. It is thought that Peter St. Albans was the first Aboriginal jockey to win the cup, on Briseis in 1876. Because St. Albans was not quite 13 years old, the jockey was too young to ride in the cup. Thus, to allow him to race Briseis in the Cup, it was argued his birthdate and parents were unknown, and from this the legend of him being Aboriginal grew. Both these legends, however, can definitely be disproved, and history had to wait nearly another 100 years. The first jockey of Indigenous heritage to ride a Melbourne Cup winner was Frank Reys in 1973 on Gala Supreme, who had a Filipino father and a half-Aboriginal mother.

Timeline of historical events

  • 1869 – The Victorian Racing Club introduced the four-day Spring Racing Carnival format.
  • 1870 – The race was postponed.
  • 1876 – The youngest jockey to win was Peter St. Albans on Briseis aged 13 (officially), but actually 12 years 11 months 23 days
  • 1882 – The first bookmakers were licensed at Flemington.
  • 1888 – The first Gold whip was presented to the winning Cup jockey (Mick O’Brien).
  • 1894 – Strand starts were introduced to Flemington.
  • 1896 – The Melbourne Cup was first filmed. This race was won by Newhaven.
  • 1915 – First woman owner to win was Mrs E.A. Widdis with Patrobas.
  • 1916 – The race was postponed.
  • 1925 – The first radio broadcast of the Melbourne Cup was made by the Australian Broadcasting Company.
  • 1931 – The first year the totalisator operated at the Melbourne Cup. The Totalisator Agency Board was introduced in 1961.
  • 1942–44 – The Melbourne Cup was run on Saturdays during the war years.
  • 1948 – The photo finish camera was first used in Melbourne Cup. Rimfire beat Dark Marne. However, many on-course punters believe the result should have been reversed, and it was later found that the camera was incorrectly aligned.
  • 1958 – The first Cup start from starting stalls.
  • 1962 – “Fashions on the Field” was first held at the Carnival.
  • 1985 – The first sponsored Melbourne Cup, and the first million dollar Cup, with $650,000 for the winner.
  • 1987 – First female jockey to ride in the cup was Maree Lyndon on Argonaut Style.
  • 2001 – Sheila Laxon, was the first woman trainer to officially win the Melbourne Cup. However, Mrs. A. McDonald (1938) with Catalogue was really the first woman trainer to win. Women then could not be registered as trainers in Australia, and it was her husband who was the registered trainer. Mrs. McDonald’s win was as a female trainer of a female owned horse.
  • 2003 – First Australian female jockey to ride in the cup was Clare Lindop on Debben.
  • 2003 – The first Melbourne Cup Tour was conducted around Australia, and the biggest crowd, of 122,736, is recorded at Flemington.
  • 2005 – Makybe Diva became the only horse so far to win the Melbourne Cup three times.
  • 2008 – The “Cup King”, Bart Cummings, took his 12th win in the Melbourne Cup with Viewed on his 50th anniversary of his first Cup runner.
  • 2010 – 150th anniversary. Americain becomes the first French-trained horse to win the race, and Gerald Mosse the first French jockey.
  • 2011 – French based horse Dunaden wins from Red Cadeaux in the closest finish ever.