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My first ever uni assessment from March 2010…The Melbourne Cup: A Personal View

August 31, 2011

Tomorrow marks the start of a journey towards the Holy Grail of Australian racing, the $6m Emirates Melbourne Cup (3200m) on November 2.

The release of nominations – for me, anyway – has always been the symbolic start of the spring.

To mark the occasion, I’ve decided to put up what was my first university assessment.

It was for a subject called Professional Writing, and the brief was as broad as possible.

Therefore I decided to write about the thing that I am most passionate about – that being the Melbourne Cup.

Remember, when reading it, that it was written in March 2010, and so references are there to Shocking, Crime Scene and Mourilyan running the trifecta last year, as well as this being the 150th Melbourne Cup.

Obviously that referred to last year’s Cup.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this, I consider it to be one of my better works.

Here is The Melbourne Cup: A Personal View.


For me, Tuesday November 4, 1997 wasn’t simply another Tuesday. For that matter, my sentiments were shared by millions of Australians. The first Tuesday in November is an Australian institution and to commemorate it, my mother took me to a pub after school to watch the 137th running of the Melbourne Cup. Most importantly, she allowed me to have my first bet, $1 each way on any horse I wanted. It was a life changing moment.

There are those who may look upon her poorly, but I am forever grateful. The 5-1 favourite was a horse from Sydney named Might and Power. I loved his name. It sounded like a champion’s name. I was quick to tell Mum that I had to back the short stubby gelding. To my astonishment and our delight, my champion went straight to the lead and held off every challenge that encountered him during the two-mile race. I was ecstatic. My first bet was a winning one. Moreover, that bet has paid off again and again because since 1997 I have pursued my passion for horse racing and never once been disappointed.

The First Cups

The Melbourne Cup was first run in 1861. A local police officer named Frederick Standish came up with the idea for the race. Standish believed that the big races of the day were sterile and boring, where horses carried weight that corresponded to their age and gender. For example, a five year old stallion would carry much more weight than a five-year-old mare, a three-year-old colt, or a three-year-old filly. As a result, the best horse would normally win. Many of the world’s great races today, such as the Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe, Dubai World Cup, Japan Cup, and Breeders Cup Classic, are still run under the same weight for age system.

Not so with the Melbourne Cup. The race that Standish advocated was a handicap, one where a handicapper assigns each horse a weight based on how likely it is that the horse will win the race. Horses with fantastic form receive higher weights; a horse with not so good form receives a lesser weight. The end result is that the best horse does not always win; the one that does is the horse with the right weight on the right day. This peculiarity makes a handicap more of an art than a science, and it is one of the most distinguishing features of the Melbourne Cup.

A second distinction is its distance: 3200m, the metric equivalent of the two-miler that Standish created. The distance is a rarity in horseracing, and, when coupled with its status as a handicap, has enabled the Melbourne Cup to carve out a one-of-a-kind niche on the thoroughbred racing calendar, which writers near and far have chronicled.

Melbourne journalist Les Carlyon writes, “The Epsom and Kentucky Derbys [widely considered to be the world’s two greatest horse races] are about the supremacy of genes and the buying power of the ruling classes. The public is allowed to join in for the crowd scenes.” American writer Eric O’Keefe, in response to Carlyon, asks, “But has a milkman ever owned the winner of England’s most famous race? Or a fruit and vegetable merchant? A schoolteacher? Or a farmer? They’ve all won Australia’s holy grail. The reality is that anyone can own the winner of the Melbourne Cup, which is why it is so absolutely Australian.”

The early years of this exciting racing concept were critical in eventually cementing its place in Australian folklore. Legend tells us that the first winner, 1861 and 1862 victor Archer, walked approximately 800km from Nowra in the southern highlands of New South Wales to Flemington for the big race. While historians subsequently proved that Archer didn’t walk from Nowra to Flemington, the legend helped to establish the race as worthy of recognition from New South Welshmen – no mean feat in an age of intense intercolonial rivalry.

As the legend and the profile of the Melbourne Cup grew, so too did its popularity. The fifth running of the race in 1865 saw the first half holiday declared. Within a decade the Victorian Government had declared Cup Day a public holiday, the first step in turning the handicap into the Race that Stops the Nation. In 1876, the tradition of the first Tuesday in November was set in stone, and in 1880, for the 20th running of the Cup, over one hundred thousand people flocked to Flemington to see champion three-year-old Grand Flaneur maintain his unbeaten streak and win the great race. Considering that Melbourne’s population at that time was only three hundred thousand, those facts imply that one-third of the city was in attendance at Flemington.

In 1895, renowned American author Mark Twain visited Melbourne and journeyed to Flemington on Cup Day. Twain was astounded by the annual celebration. In his 1897 travel journal, Following the Equator, he stated that “the Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance … Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. I can call to mind no specialised annual day in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation, and preparation, and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one…I think it must be conceded that the position of the Australasian Day is unique, solitary, unfellowed; and likely to hold that place for a long time.”

The Legends

The stories and the personalities that form the history of the Melbourne Cup are as renowned as the race itself. The most famous of all winners is Phar Lap, the chestnut gelding who captured the imagination of a nation during the Great Depression. He is considered one of Australia’s greatest gallopers, and his two-length victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup – after overcoming a missed run in the traditional lead-up, the Caulfield Cup, as well as an attempt on his life a week before the race – ranks among the great sporting moments in this nation’s history.

In recent times, trainer Bart Cummings has cemented his position as the greatest trainer in the history of Australia by winning the Melbourne Cup a record 12 times – 7 more victories than Lee Freedman and Etienne De Mestre, both having won the race five times. Cummings’s first win was in 1965, when Light Fingers beat his highly fancied stablemate Ziema by a nose. His most recent victory came just two years ago in 2008 when Viewed held off the English raider Bauer. At 82, an age when most have long since retired, Cummings continues to search for his next winner, and there is no reason to doubt that he can snag another Melbourne Cup.

Jockey Damien Oliver’s emotional triumph in the 2002 Cup is consistently ranked as one of the most memorable moments in Australian sporting history. A week before the Melbourne Cup, Oliver’s brother Jason, also a jockey, was killed in a barrier trial incident at Perth’s Belmont racecourse. The intense media spotlight that focused on Damien in the week leading up to great race was grueling. It was considered highly unlikely that he would be emotionally fit to ride Media Puzzle, an Irish raider who had stormed into calculations with a big victory in the Geelong Cup. Against all odds, Damien took the ride, and he was rewarded with an extraordinary victory. The story of Damien Oliver and Media Puzzle is the focus of a book, The Cup (written by Eric O’Keefe), and a movie of the same name is in the pipeline with the renowned Simon Wincer as director and Stephen Curry to play the famous jockey. “It is the best story I have ever encountered,” said O’Keefe, a Texan journalist, at the launch of his book, held at Flemington.

Although there are prominent winners and unbelievable stories, the truth is there is a great story to be told after every running of the Cup. A victory in the Melbourne Cup means that one special horse, his gifted trainer, the lucky owner, and the determined jockey are elevated to legendary status. It is the dream of every participant in the racing industry to win this race, and no matter which horse wins all the stories reflect the struggle of the participants to scale the greatest height in Australasian racing.

The Tides Are Changing

Far from being just a horse race, the Melbourne Cup has been a conduit for social and political change. In 1965, British model Jean Shrimpton created uproar when she introduced the mini skirt to Australia. Until the 1965 Melbourne Cup, women were expected, at the very least, to arrive for a day at Flemington in a knee length dress with sleeves, stockings, gloves, and a hat. Shrimpton snubbed protocol, arriving to the horror of the Flemington ladies hatless, gloveless, sleeveless, stockingless and in her mini skirt dress. A famous black and white photo shows Shrimpton in the foreground, carefree and shockingly modern, while older, more matronly patrons looked upon her in disbelief and horror. That moment is credited by many fashion writers as the culmination of a clash between conservative Australian society and the emerging, boundary-testing culture of the 1960s. It is also seen as the beginning of an Australian fashion revolution.

It is customary for the winning owners to receive the famous three-handled Cup, affectionately known as the Loving Cup, from the incumbent Governor General. In 1977, the jubilant owners of Gold and Black were no doubt expecting a typical presentation. It was darkened in spectacular style by the Governor General at the time, Sir John Kerr. Kerr had the uncanny ability to polarise the population, and he was despised by much of conservative Australia, thanks to his unprecedented decision to sack Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in November 1975. At the 1977 trophy presentation – the first to be broadcast live on national television – Kerr was noticeably drunk, and he blamed his slurred speech on the sound system. Sadly, this was the only part of the presentation that made any sense, as the rest of his speech was incoherent and punctuated by boos and jeers from the ever vocal crowd at Flemington. This shameful incident provided the catalyst for his resignation from office a little more than a month later.

The Cup lost a bit of its lustre in the 1980s and early 1990s, despite sponsorship pushing prizemoney past $1 million in 1985. However, in 1993, the Victoria Racing Club managed to lure two thoroughbreds from Europe to compete in the race. Not only was it a feat to entice runners from halfway around the world, but antiquated quarantine restrictions were in place. The eventual winner was the raider Vintage Crop, trained by the most successful trainer in Ireland’s history Dermot Weld. As a result of this successful raid, subsequent runnings of the Cup have almost always featured substantial international contingents, featuring horses from England, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Japan. Even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has sent a runner, Arabian Story in 1997. A second head of state, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed, has made more than a dozen attempts to claim Australia’s greatest race, finishing second with Central Park (1999), Give the Slip (2001) and Crime Scene (2009). Last year, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, became the third head of state to have a runner in the race, as the owner of the third placed Mourilyan.

A Child Inspired

According to my parents, the 1993 Melbourne Cup is the first Cup that I remember. To be honest, I don’t remember much. The first Cup I can remember vividly is the 1997 Cup, and it’s not just because it was my first winning bet. All subsequent Melbourne Cups are etched in my memory.

I should have known something was wrong when the first Tuesday in November came around in 2001. I had moved to a new school, which didn’t finish the day until 3:30pm. To me, this was an unacceptable scholastic policy. The Melbourne Cup was on at 3:10pm, and I wasn’t prepared to miss it! A sneaky visit to the sick bay ensured that I would get to see the race, and I arrived home just in time to see Ethereal flash home late down the outside to grab Give the Slip in the final strides.

Two years later, I faced a similar conundrum. I was in class when the race was about to be run, and despite the fact that my $1 sweep amongst other Year 7 students had been a massive hit no one at school seemed to care. Unfortunately, a sick bay excursion wouldn’t help this time, as they would insist I stay at school until classes finished. So I resorted to a prolonged toilet break – I actually went to the library – and was able to listen to Makybe Diva win her first Melbourne Cup. Not quite the same as watching it live, but at least I could enjoy one of the great calls by Greg Miles, who has been the track announcer for every Cup since 1981.

The 2005 Melbourne Cup is recognized as one of the greatest sporting moments of the last century. Against all odds, the great mare Makybe Diva won her third Cup, a feat never before achieved and unlikely ever to be matched. Thankfully, I saw this race live on television. Mum had realised my growing passion for horse racing, and after a little badgering she gave me a note to get off school early. I joined the festivities at her work, and it was the first indication I received of the enormous social impact of the race that stops the nation. It fuelled a desire to learn more about the great race.

Luckily for Mum, there was never another request to leave school early. For the final three years of my schooling, I travelled to Flemington for the race. I was there in 2006, as the Japanese famously ran first and second. In 2007, I stood merely five metres away from the grey Efficient as he stormed down the outside to hold off the English horse Purple Moon. And in 2008, the day after I finished my Higher School Certificate, I took my seat in the historic Hill Stand, opposite the winning post, and I witnessed Bart Cummings win his twelfth Melbourne Cup.

As a youngster, I was content to sit in my loungeroom to watch the race. That won’t do anymore. Now, there is no place for me on the first Tuesday in November other than Flemington Racecourse. There is nothing that compares to the atmosphere of the crowd there, especially when the field turns for home. In those final 400 metres the atmosphere is electric with everyone screaming, yelling, and shouting excitedly. It is unbelievable. I am yet to experience a greater adrenaline rush.

The Melbourne Cup and my future

This year marks the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, and big celebrations are planned. The Queen, an avid follower of the thoroughbreds and a prominent owner of racehorses, may make her final trip to Australia to see the great race. There are also moves to bring back some of the icons of the great race. Bart will be there with another horse to try and win the baker’s dozen. Jean Shrimpton will be back in her mini skirt (now considered by some to be too long). Dermot Weld is already busy at work in Ireland as he plans to make another assault. I believe if there is any advocate for the appeal of the Melbourne Cup, it is this 19-year-old who is so entranced by the great race. It is my greatest passion.

Sometimes at night, when I find it hard to go to sleep, a picture switches on in my mind. I dream about the future, about what I want to achieve. Primary amongst my thoughts is the great race, and I imagine a horse carrying my silks crossing the line, victorious in the Melbourne Cup. It carries me to sleep, only for me to wake up, thinking that I have finally realised my biggest goal in life. And yet, I know that someday, somehow, I will be a winning owner. It is not a question of if, but when.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2011 6:00 am

    Hi Andrew,
    A mate of mine sent me the link to your Melbourne Cup Uni assessment. Can I say I really enjoyed the read. You should be seeking a future in race writing. There is no doubt you have passion and that is the secret of personal success.

    Roman Koz

    • September 6, 2011 4:08 pm

      Hi Roman,

      Many thanks – it is an honour to have people like you reading this. I’m very grateful! I hope to make a future of it.



  2. Spleeep permalink
    September 8, 2011 9:04 am

    A great read Andy!

    Mate your passion for thoroughbred racing (and the Cup in particular) is inspiring. It’s clear that you live and breathe the sport, an absolute tragic in the best sense of the word 😉

    Keep doing what you do and good things will come

    Phil / Spleeep

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