The Melbourne Cup: Then & Now

The Melbourne Cup: Then & Now

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With the 2021 Melbourne Cup right around the corner, racing enthusiasts and punters from all corners of the globe, have their eyes towards Flemington in great anticipation for the race that stops a nation (or two).

Alongside being one of the signature events in the global sport of racing, the Melbourne Cup is also a fixture of Melbourne's deep history, with the first official Cup being held in 1861.

The 2021 Melbourne Cup will be held on Tuesday November 2 and will be the Melbourne Cup's 161st edition.

Suffice to say, the Cup has seen its fair share of tribulations over its 161 years, including the Great Depression, and of course, two World Wars. In these times of great public disquiet, the Melbourne Cup became a symbol of hope and celebration, both for its international racing community, as well as for the citizens of Melbourne, the budding international city itself.

Today, we have a look at the origins of this momentous event. Read on to unearth just how the Melbourne Cup became the world-renowned event we know it as today.

The Cup's first cup

Although the first Melbourne Cup was officially held in 1861, the winner was not actually awarded a cup itself until 1865.

For the first five events, the Victorian Turf Club and Victorian Jockeys Club - the organisations credited with creating the event - presented various prizes for winning riders and horses, including items like gold watches and cash purses.

The initial Melbourne Cup trophy of 1865 was poorly received by the Cup's winner who believed it to be unattractive, leading the Cup to be sold off and rebranded as the Flemington Hunt Club Cup.

This occurrence made the 1866 Melbourne Cup trophy the event's first and oldest cup that can be found in its original condition.

The 1865 trophy was sold a few more times over the last 100 years, before finally being purchased by wine mogul Wolfgang Blass, who still owns it today. The 1866 Melbourne Cup trophy has been on display in the National Museum of Australia since the museum acquired the trophy in 2012.

The origins of the Cup's Tuesday date

Contrary to popular belief, the Melbourne Cup wasn't always held on the very first Tuesday of November. In fact, the very first Cup in 1861 was held on a Thursday.

The 1867 Melbourne Cup was also held in October, making it the only Melbourne Cup to occur outside of the month of November.

It wasn't until 1875 that the Cup was consistently held on the first Tuesday of November, making the tradition 147 years old.

The 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cup taking place on the first Tuesday of November is expected to occur in three years time at the 2024 Melbourne Cup.

But what is the significance of the event taking place on the first Tuesday of the month? In 1875, the two committees responsible for organising the Cup sought to move the event from its then traditional Thursday date to Tuesday November 9, which coincidentally happened to be the Prince of Wales' birthday and a public holiday.

Event organisers saw great advantages to the Cup being organised on a public holiday, and from thereon, fought to ensure the Melbourne Cup would always be accompanied by a state-supported public holiday.

Whilst these public holidays were initially proclaimed to be civil service or bank holidays, over time an annual public holiday date was established solely for the Melbourne Cup.

It wasn't until the introduction of the Public Holidays Act of 1993, however, that fixed legislation for the provision of a public holiday on every first Tuesday of the month of November was introduced in the state of Victoria.

Phar Lap and other notable Melbourne Cup wins

Some of the Cup's most notable wins were at great odds or took place during volatile periods of time. Arguably the most world-renowned winner of the Cup was a New Zealand-bred thoroughbred named Phar Lap.

As a foal, Phar Lap was recorded to be gangly and of ill appearance, with his original purchaser American businessman David J. Davis, reportedly taking one look at the horse before deeming him to be a poor investment.

From there, Sydney trainer Harry Telford made it his mission to transform the sickly foal into a winning racehorse.

Phar Lap's career started at two years of age, and with him finishing dead last in his racing debut. At the age of three, however, Phar Lap found himself at the beginning of a streak of wins, leading him to become the odds-on favourite at the 1930 Melbourne Cup, shortly before going on to win the Cup itself with jockey Jim Pike.

Phar Lap's whirlwind success, originating from humble beginnings, acted as a source of hope and inspiration for Australians through the dark years of the Great Depression.

Although Phar Lap's career was short-lived, the Cup continued to provide the world with unconventional winners and inspirational stories from trainers, horses, and riders alike.

Wins like Makybe Diva from the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Melbourne Cups, as well as the jaw-dropping victory of the Prince of Penzance in 2015, are wins that have continued to live on in the hearts and minds of racing enthusiasts across the globe.

Even notable thoroughbreds like the undefeated Black Caviar have still made history as one of Victoria's - if not one of the world's - most impressive, show-stopping racing mares of all time, despite never running in the Cup itself.

These inspirational moments have become part of the fabric of Melbourne through the city's annual Spring Racing Carnival. It's a thrill to even anticipate what heartstopping victories avid spectators will be able to witness at this year's Melbourne Cup.

The Cup as a lasting symbol of hope and perseverance

2021's Melbourne Cup has proven itself to be just as imbued with a sense of hope and passion that matches past iterations of the event.

Whether you watch the 161st edition of the Cup from the comfort of your own home, from your local pub, or from the limited seating at the Flemington Racecourse, there's no doubt that we will all feel some sense of transportation as the winning rider crosses their mark.

Our minds will return to the image of Phar Lap galloping swiftly across his finish line in 1930, and we will all feel united in our shared experience, of witnessing something that transcends the trials of time.

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