Melbourne Cup day is one of my favourite days of the year. As a horse lover and a racing fan, it’s not the fashion and the glamour that draws me but rather the elusiveness and history of the prize. To win the Melbourne Cup is the aim of anyone who has raced horses. Just to have a runner in the final field of twenty-four is a dream of many. With most winners comes a story. Some are passed on for generations, such as the stories of Archer, Phar Lap and more recently Media Puzzle. This also adds to the romance.
This year marks the 150th running of the Cup, the race that stops a nation. But when did it become such an event? When Phar Lap gave some certainty to depression weary Australians in the 1930s? When television was able to beam the Cup into lounge rooms around the country? Or in the past 15 years or so, with the need to display opulence moving it from a day of silly hats as in the 1970s and 80s, to high-class fashion, marquees and celebrities? None of these. The Cup’s standing today is just as it has been from the beginning in 1861.
Reading The Argus or The Portland Guardian from the time of the early Cups reveals even then it was a highlight of the racing year. Racing was well established by the time the Cup began, with many towns having a race track. Steeple-chasing was a popular pursuit, particularly in the Western District at tracks such as Coleraine and Hamilton. Racing as a pastime had a greater following then than it does today. Remember the crowds flocking to the races this week are not indicative of attendances on regular race days.
The Brisbane Courier reported the first Cup had created interest not seen before in the colonies.
By 1862, the Sydney Morning Herald was declaring it a red-letter day on the racing calendar. And there it has remained.
The Melbourne Cup was popular among the fine ladies and gentleman of the Western District. Many with their own racing connections, they would make the trip to partake in the carnival. There have also been Western District owners, trainers, jockeys and horses involved in the running over the years, such as the Chirnsides and 1912 Cup winner The Parisian.
Melbourne businesses knew of the interest and advertised in the Portland Guardian to lure some of the Western District money as this advertisement from 1877 shows:
Many Western District people took advantage of special steamer services to get them to the Melbourne Cup
In the same year, the Portland Guardian ran an article declaring the 1879 Cup a huge success with 90,000 patrons and comparisons with the great races of the world including the Engish Derby. While the Illustrated Australian News, mentioned the “country cousins” who made the trip, the “shepherd kings”…the squatters.
“Country cousins” from the Casterton district were at the 1879 Cup although some didn’t own up to it.
In 1910, advertisements ran in the Portland Guardian luring Western District racegoers to the Cup:
The Glenelg Shire President cabled Gallipoli in 1915 with news of the winner just minutes after the race.
An article “Off to the Melbourne Cup” in the Portland Guardian of 28 October 1887 sums up the grasp the Melbourne Cup holds on the people of Australia. It could easily have today’s date on it.
In the same article, patrons were reassured all their needs would be met at the course and they could rest easy in the knowledge the chicken was safe to eat!
And the last word goes to the Hamilton Spectator from 9 November 1876.