Melbourne Cup History

Find out more about the history of the prestigious Melbourne Cup before this year's glittering event. The biggest horse racing event of the year has some fascinating stories from the past!

This year marks the 154th Melbourne Cup, and it's expected to bring in fans, racers and spectators from all over Australia - and the world. Before you start planning your race day outfit and mapping out your bets, find out some of the history behind 'the race that stops a nation'.


Early Beginnings

The Melbourne Cup dates back to 1861, when the first event was held. Its humble beginnings have morphed into an event that is a significant part of Australia's social and sporting culture, but the earliest race was run in front of just 4,000 people.


In these early days, Flemington was a basic course and had very little in the way or stands or running rails. However, the popularity of the Melbourne Cup saw the grounds transformed into a carnival atmosphere each year, complete with sideshows, picnic parties, celebrations and fashion events. Victoria was experiencing a gold rush at the time of the first event, which saw people flocking to Melbourne and its surrounding areas in the hopes of finding gold. Some were lucky enough to become wealthy during this time, and took the opportunity to splurge at Flemington, paving the way for the high rollers that frequent the event today.


Even in the formative stages of the Cup it attracted some of Australia's richest and most famous guests, with socialites and politicians alike all taking in the electric atmosphere that permeates the venue.


The first cup was run on a Thursday, however it changed to a Tuesday in 1875. Since then, it has typically been held on the first Tuesday in November every year, however three events during the Second World War were held on a Saturday.



The first winner of the Cup - and subsequently the second event, too - was a horse named Archer. Archer was an unusually large NSW horse, standing tall at 16.3 hands and with the nickname of "The Bull". The eventful race on 7 November had 17 starters, and Archer quickly tore through the pack despite having sustained injuries only a few days earlier. Though he wasn't a favourite to win the Cup, he stole the show and went on to do the same the next day, in Flemington's Melbourne Town Plate.


Growth of the Cup

By the 1880 event, 100,000 people made the journey from around Australia to take in the Flemington event. During this time, Melbourne's population was just under 300,000, and so the Cup saw a huge surge in people in the area. As Melbourne continued to grow during and after the gold rush period, so too did the Cup.


While the glitz and glam of the event developed to entice crowds, so too did the horse racing itself. The Melbourne Cup has had its fair share of controversy, and there have been plenty of tales of endurance, heroism and tragedy in the event's rich history. One of the most enduring tales is of Kiwi, a $1,000 horse with a 20 year old jockey who came up from last to sweep the entire field in a show-stopping victory. Champion horses such as Carbine, Phar Lap, Rain Lover and Makybe Diva have all taken out the prestigious title, some more than once.


And while the horses are the real showcase of the event, the trainers and jockeys are also deserving of the spotlight. Big name trainers Lee Freedman and Etienne de Mestre have each trained five Cup winners, and Bart Cummings, fondly referred to as the Cup's King, has won 12 events since 1965. From its humble beginnings with small crowds through to the world-class event it is today, the Melbourne Cup has become the richest handicap race held in Australia, and indeed one of the wealthiest in the world.


Photo courtesy of State Library of Victoria Collections

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