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Melbourne Cup

The Melbourne Cup, also known as The Race That Stops The Nation and The Race That Should Be Stopped, is an annual event designed for the efficient transfer of money from ordinary Australians to bookmakers, and horses from jockeys to dog-meat manufacturers.

A public holiday in Victoria and an excuse for workers to neglect their jobs across the rest of the country, the Melbourne Cup is held at Flemington on the first Tuesday in November each year. The day afterwards isn’t technically a public holiday anywhere, but is treated as such by many employees, as the festivities generally leave them in no state to get out of bed.

The race is the culmination of Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, so called because, given Melbourne’s climate, its residents wouldn’t otherwise know that spring had arrived.


Those horses lucky enough to survive the Cup intact are rewarded by having to walk down Swanston St under a tarpaulin for years to come (Photo: Chris Phutully)

The race is classed as a handicap for three-year-old and older horses, and for eighteen-year-old and older gambling addicts. It takes place over 3200 metres, or as many of them as horses can complete before breaking down and having to be put to ‘sleep’.

The prize is currently $6.2 million, of which 85 per cent goes to the owner, 10 per cent goes to the trainer, 5 per cent goes to the jockey, and 0 per cent goes to the horse that did most of the work.


The idea for the Cup is credited to Frederick Standish, who had the notion of holding a horse race and calling it the Melbourne Cup, so people wouldn’t make the natural assumption that, like any important event, it was held in Sydney.

Its reputation as racing’s premier demolition derby began with the first race, in 1861. One horse bolted, and three fell during the race, two of which died. Despite this, Melbourne thought it would be a jolly idea to continue the event.

Most distressingly of all for Melburnians, the first event was won by a Sydneysider. The horse, Archer, also won the second competition, and was prevented from competing in a third on some technicality because Melbourne.

Subsequently, the Cup’s popularity grew quickly, probably because the tradition of awarding a public holiday to mark the occasion began as early as 1865.

The legendary Phar Lap competed three times, but only won once, in 1930, illustrating the utter futility of betting on a sport as unpredictable as horse racing.

In the past five years, four horses have died at, or in connection with, the Melbourne Cup. A much larger number of humans have died inside while gambling or drinking on Cup Day.

Off the track

‘Fashions on the Field’ is a popular feature of the day, partly because the Melbourne Cup only goes for three minutes out of the entire day, and also because being a clothes horse is relatively death-free.

Women often wear bizarre headpieces known as ‘fascinators’ to the Cup, for reasons involving irony. In 1965, model Jean Shrimpton made headlines around the world when she wore a miniskirt to the Cup, illustrating just how dull the world was in 1965.

Many celebrities attend the event and are fêted in various luxurious marquees, and the event ranks behind only the Logies as an occasion for celebrity misbehaviour. Gossip columnists are always free to concoct stories about fights that celebrities supposedly participated in during the race—as a rule, those named cannot remember a single thing about what they were doing that day, and therefore cannot sue.

Gambling on the Cup is, of course, the major purpose of the event. Many offices hold workplace sweeps, generally organised by the most junior member of the team, and entered into by the vast majority of workers on account of peer pressure and/or pity.

Sweeps also give to many Australians who would otherwise have no interest whatsoever in the Melbourne Cup a literal interest in it, if only that.

Famous Winners

Makybe Diva preparing to bite the arm of the person who named her
(photo – osedgman)
  • Malvolio (1891) only winner to take out the trophy while cross-gartered and wearing yellow stockings.
  • Apologue (1907) worst typo in Cup history.
  • The Trump (1937) notable for its fake-looking ginger coat.
  • Tawriffic (1989) worst pun in Cup history, a more hotly contested field than the race itself.
  • Kingston Rule (1990) fastest time, also first winner to be named after an Arnott’s biscuit.
  • Subzero (1992) its stablemates included Lemon Ruski and Vodka Cruiser.
  • Vintage Crop (1993) first overseas horse to win the Cup, subsequently leading to annual protests about foreign horses coming and taking Australian jobs.
  • Ethereal (2001) first horse to win while not physically present.
  • Makybe Diva (2003, 2004, 2005) most wins and worst-spelled name.
  • Delta Blues (2006) first Japanese horse to win the Cup, also first winner to subsequently become sashimi.