At 3.00 pm, Australian Eastern Standard Time, on the first Tuesday in November, Australians everywhere stop for one of the world's most famous horse races - the Melbourne Cup. It's a day when the nation stops whatever it's doing to listen to the race call, or watch the race on TV. Even those who don't usually bet, try their luck with a small wager or entry into a 'sweep' - a lottery in which each ticket-holder is matched with a randomly drawn horse.
The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861 at Flemington Park. Since 1877, Cup Day has been a public holiday for Melbourne and since 2007 for the Australian Capital Territory (although it is known as “Family and Community Day” we all know its CODE for “Melbourne Cup” day! Wink! Wink!). It is reported that by 11.00 am on the first holiday in 1877, the Flemington grandstand was packed to its 7,000 capacity, and by 3.00 pm, 150,000 people were estimated to have gathered - thronging the hill beyond. American writer Mark Twain said during his visit to Melbourne Cup in 1895: “Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me”.
The Melbourne Cup is one of the world's most challenging horse races and one of the richest (total prize money for 2005 - $AU5.1 million), and is the highlight of the Spring Racing Carnival.
The race is run over 3,200 metres and is a handicapped race. This means that the better the horse is, the more weight it has to carry in the race. The greatest weight carried to victory in a Melbourne Cup was Carbine, who carried 10 stone, 5 pound (66 kg) in the 1890 Melbourne Cup and was ridden by Bob Ramage. The distance and the handicap ensure that the Melbourne Cup is a horse race in which the occasional punter has as good a chance of picking the winner as those who follow the form. It is a day when all Australians are considered to have an equal chance on the turf as well as on the lawn.
The first Melbourne Cup was won by Archer, a horse from Nowra, New South Wales, beating the local favourite, Mormon. The prize was a gold watch and £170. Dismissed by the bookies, Archer took a lot of money away from Melbourne, 'refuelling interstate rivalry' and adding to the excitement of the Cup.
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Carbine dominated the racing scene, and carried the greatest winning weight ever in a Melbourne Cup. For over a century, only four horses had won the Melbourne Cup twice: Archer (1861, 1862), Peter Pan (1932, 1934), Rain Lover (1968, 1969) and Think Big (1974, 1975). However, Makybe Diva made history when she won three Melbourne Cups in a row between 2003 and 2005. Jockey Glen Boss rode Makybe Diva in all three of her Melbourne Cup wins.
Phar Lap is perhaps Australia's most famous racehorse, combining stamina and speed. Foaled in New Zealand in 1926 by Night Raid out of Entreaty he grew to 17 hands. Over his career he won more than £65,000 in prize money and won 37 of his 51 starts. From September 1929 he was the favourite in all but one of his races. Phar Lap became the darling of Australian race crowds during the Great Depression of the 1930s - winning all four days of the 1930 Flemington Spring Carnival including the Melbourne Cup carrying 62.5 kg.
In 1932 Phar Lap was sent to Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap, the world's richest race at the time. Sixteen days later he died in San Francisco in suspicious circumstances, some believing he was poisoned. The opinion of the University of Sydney's School of Veterinary Science in 1932 was that he died of colic of unknown causes. The debate about how Phar Lap died continues today. In 2006, a report by the Australian Synchotron Research Program stated 'arsenic in the horse's hair structure was consistent with a large, single dose of arsenic'.
After his death, his bones were donated to Dominion Museum in New Zealand (now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), his hide was mounted and put on display at the Museum of Victoria, and Phar Lap's big heart resides at the National Museum of Australia. Phar Lap's heart was remarkable for its size, weighing about 6.2 kg, compared with a normal horse's heart at 3.2 kg. Since then, the phrase 'Has the heart of Phar Lap' as a way of describing what it was to be Australian and proud, has become part of Australian slang.
So, in the spirit of Melbourne Cup, don’t forget to place your bets (you can do this online through ACTTAB) and may your horse wins! Oh….and don’t forget, most of you have to go back to work on Wednesday so go easy on the grog. Nothing’s worse than a hangover!!!!