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The Melbourne Cup: 150 years of history

Isa Menzies, National Museum of Australia, 10 November 2010

IAN KILGOUR: Welcome to the Friends curators talk. My name is Ian Kilgour and I am one of the Friends committee members. I am very pleased today to be able to introduce to you Isa Menzies, who is today’s speaker. Isa is a curator with the National Museum of Australia. She has spent time in Registration, Public Programs and Curatorial at the Museum since starting in 2006. In 2008 she was an Australian youth ambassador for development and spent 12 months working in Tonga on museum related projects with the Tongan Visitors Bureau. Isa has been working hard on the Connecting the Nation component of the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia gallery and will speak to us today about the Melbourne Cup.

I have a little blurb that we put out as Friends about this talk and I will read that to you to set the scene. The first Tuesday in November this year sees the running of the 150th Melbourne Cup. Join Isa, curator of the Flemington exhibit within the new Landmarks gallery for an insight into the race that stops the nation - from the glitz and glamour to the seamy underside of horseracing in Australia. So as you can see, we are in for a great talk. Please welcome Isa Menzies.

ISA MENZIES: Thank you, Ian. Can I ask: who won money on the Melbourne Cup this year? Oh good, you managed to pick Americain? No. Who lost money on the Melbourne Cup this year? A few more of us. The thing about the Melbourne Cup is that we all have a story to tell about it. In that respect, it unites us. And it has been this way for 150 years. Mark Twain himself was moved to declare that the Melbourne Cup was Australasia’s national day.

So why has this occasion – a mere horse-race – not only been likened to our national day, but held this place of honour for 150 years? Racing historian Andrew Lemon attributes three factors – geography, gentlemen and gold - to making Melbourne what Twain called ‘the mitred Metropolitan of the Horse-Racing Cult’. In terms of geography, Melbourne became, within a few years of its foundation, an economic and trading hub to rival Sydney, and thus attracted increasing populations of gentlemen, those European settlers who brought with them an interest in thoroughbred horse racing. As for the gold – well, Melbourne was founded in 1835, and with the 1850s goldrush it very quickly became one of the world’s busiest and richest cities.

Another contributor to the Cup’s enduring popularity might be a fourth ‘G’, one not mentioned by Lemon, and that is gambling. Australia is renowned as a gambling mecca. There’s an old saying that Aussies will bet on two flies crawling up a wall, and we are one of the top ten gambling nations in the world. Around $140 million is bet in Australia on the Melbourne Cup on the Tote alone - so that is just through the TAB, not through bookies - and it’s estimated that around 80 per cent of the population will have a punt on Cup Day. While a lot of this gambling is informal in the shape of the traditional office or workplace sweeps, it is still classified as gambling. When you consider that 20 per cent of our population is under the age of 15, the attraction of betting on the Cup is great indeed!

Another part of the Melbourne Cup’s appeal is that it is a handicap. The majority of big-name races these days are what is known as weight-for-age. That is, a horse is penalised according to a set scale – the older and stronger horses have to carry more weight. A handicap, on the other hand, simply penalises a horse for how successful it has been in previous races. It has been viewed by many people as a lesser form of racing, and in fact an early detractor of the Melbourne Cup is said to have declared:

To make a handicap the principal event of the turf year is to make a farce out of everything that racing stands for. Its effect would be to make any brumby brought out of a mob for 30 shillings the equal of the finest horse in the land. It is a mad idea, doomed to failure.

We can’t overlook the influence of gambling here though either, because the handicap and the punt go together. According to Mark McGrath, who works on the Australian Jockey Club’s Handicapping Panel, one of the primary purposes of handicapping is so that ‘the potential for betting turnover growth will be maximised’. This is not quite the egalitarian view that the Melbourne Cup as a handicap is so often presented as.

Let me explain how this works. The odds offered on a horse are based on its popularity in betting, rather than its form. Generally with a weight-for-age race the betting will somewhat follow the form of the horse. However, with a handicap the field is much more open, and in fact the race could be anyone’s. This is part of the appeal.

With the Melbourne Cup, which entices even non-racing folk to take a punt, the favourite is determined not on past performance but with a horse’s success in capturing the popular imagination. We saw it this year with So You Think, a young horse who shot to stardom and carried the nation’s hopes - and money - on his back. With a race like the Melbourne Cup, which is so entrenched in hopes and dreams, it seemed that surely on this most historic of occasions we would see some sort of history being made – Barts’ 13th Cup or perhaps Gai’s first? As it turned out, it was a little-known horse trained in France who won it, and the favourite was lucky to place. In fact, when it comes to the Melbourne Cup, the favourite wins less than a third of the time. Phar Lap, that most celebrated of Melbourne Cup winners, is the only horse to start as favourite three years in a row, and in a perfect demonstration of that statistic he won only one of his three starts.

I think we have pretty much established that gambling and the Melbourne Cup do go hand in hand. In the early days of racing, the purses offered to the winners were nothing compared to what could be made by a successful betting plunge at good odds. The Machiavellian nature of the ‘racing sting’ is demonstrated beautifully by the well-known case of the Caulfield-Melbourne Cups double of 1930.

The primary orchestrator of this sting was Eric Connolly, a Melbourne-based punter, who you might euphemistically call a ‘colourful racing identity’. Connolly began his career in 1895 at around the age of 15, when he turned a modest £8 bet into £700 over the course of a single day at Flemington.

In 1930 the three champion stayers of the day were Amounis, Nightmarch and Phar Lap [image shown]. Nightmarch, a half-brother to Phar Lap, was brought over to Australia from New Zealand for the 1929 spring racing season, and he won many of the important races, including the Melbourne Cup of that year, against Phar Lap. Amounis was for a time the greatest stakes-winner in Australia and had won many important races, including the WS Cox plate twice, in 1927 and 1928. He also bested Phar Lap during that horse’s peak in the 1930 Warwick Stakes, breaking Phar Lap’s nine-race winning streak.

Into this mix came Eric Connolly. Now, in 1929 Connolly had won a lot of money on the Cup by backing Nightmarch over the favourite Phar Lap. He knew something that most people didn’t, and that was that Phar Lap was a big, strong horse and the small jockey Bobby Lewis would be unable to hold him back. So Connolly made the equivalent of millions by betting on Nightmarch over Phar Lap. But Nightmarch had now served his purpose in Connolly’s books and he saw that big money could be made by backing two different horses in two different races, which is known as a Cups double. Connolly liked the 20-1 odds being offered on Amounis for the Caulfield Cup, and Phar Lap for the Melbourne Cup. It was, to outsiders, an unlikely pairing, with most people preferring to back a Phar Lap-Phar Lap double. After all, it seemed that the mighty horse would win whatever he started in! This was exactly the reason why the odds on the Amounis-Phar Lap double were so good. What the public didn’t know though was that Phar Lap’s trainer Harry Telford had no intention of starting the horse in the Caulfield Cup at all, though he was entered in it.

So now only two things stood in the way of this being easy pickings for Connolly: firstly, the presence of Nightmarch; and, secondly, preventing Telford from making his plans known. In fact, there was every chance that if he could take care of the latter, the mere threat of Phar Lap starting would take care of the former. After a fourth defeat at the hooves of Big Red in October 1930, Mr A Louisson, the owner of Nightmarch, declared his intention of taking his horse back to New Zealand to run in the New Zealand Cup, more confident in Nightmarch’s abilities against a lesser class of horse than those which kept beating him in Australia.

Several days later Harry Telford duly declared that his horse would not be running in the Caulfield Cup, but not before Connolly’s syndicate, which included big punter Madame X and Phar Lap’s owner David Davis, had placed huge wagers on the Amounis-Phar Lap combination far and wide, from Sydney to Adelaide, and from Melbourne to Brisbane. Racing journalist Bert Lillye recalls that:

When [Amounis] and Phar Lap took the Caulfield – Melbourne Cups double in 1930 bookmakers all over Australia went broke. They still remember it as one of the most calamitous results for bookmakers in the history of Australian racing.

While on the subject of the great horse Phar Lap, now seems a good time to look at some of our Melbourne Cup–related collection objects. As many of you might know and as Ian mentioned earlier, an exhibit on Flemington Racecourse will be included in our soon-to-open gallery Landmarks: People and Places Across Australia, and all of the objects we’re about to look at will be on display in the new gallery. The Flemington exhibit will trace the development of Flemington Racecourse and showcase the history of the Melbourne Cup through objects and multimedia. Our first object is said to be the Museum’s most popular exhibit, the heart of Phar Lap.

Phar Lap was born in October 1926 at Timaru in New Zealand, and as a yearling was sold for the bargain price of £160 at the annual Trentham racecourse sales. He was purchased on behalf of an American businessman, David Davis, at the urging of a down-on-his-luck trainer, Harry Telford. Apparently when Davis first saw the young and gangly chestnut colt he refused to have anything to do with him, claiming that he didn’t look like he could win anything. Telford convinced Davis to lease him the horse for a three-year term and the rest, as they say, is history.

Phar Lap is synonymous with the Melbourne Cup, perhaps only eclipsed in his fame today by the mighty mare Makybe Diva. Phar Lap won the race in 1930 at the height of his fame. ‘Big Red’, as he was known to the Australian populace, brought hope to many during the dark years of the Depression, being seen as the one ‘sure thing’ that could be counted on.

News of the death of Phar Lap in April 1932, while he was away in America, shocked Australians, and even the Prime Minister of the day commented at what a loss this was to the nation. Phar Lap’s death has always been shrouded in mystery. Recent scientific analysis of seven hairs taken from the skin in Melbourne confirmed what many had always believed – that Phar Lap was poisoned. He died of a massive overdose of arsenic, though whether this was intentional or an accidental overdose of one of Telford’s home tonics for the horse may never be known.

What we do know is that after the horse died his heart was removed and sent by Bill Nielsen, the stable vet, to Dr Stewart McKay, who was an authority on thoroughbreds, and Professor Walsh, who was professor of pathology at Sydney University. Weighing in at 14 lbs, or 6.35 kilograms, Phar Lap’s heart is around 50 per cent bigger than an average horse heart. Part of the wall of the left ventricle was removed during the heart’s examination to demonstrate how thick the heart walls were. At Dr McKay’s suggestion, Harry Telford donated the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy [AIA] where it was displayed alongside other hearts for comparison for many years.

The Australian Institute of Anatomy’s wet specimens collection, including Phar Lap’s heart, was acquired by the National Museum in 1984 when the Institute shut down. The heart is one of the most popular and beloved exhibits of the National Museum and is the object most visitors request to see.

Also connected to Phar Lap are the boots and helmet of Jim Pike, a well-known and highly regarded jockey of the early twentieth century. Despite his success on board Phar Lap, who he rode 30 times for an amazing 27 victories, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, Pike’s life reads as a cautionary tale. His body was not suited to the weights required of a jockey, being relatively tall and big-framed, and he subjected himself to a terrible regime of wasting through saunas, dieting and laxatives. This took a serious toll on his health, particularly in later life. Additionally, he was a compulsive gambler, and though he made a fortune he also lost it and died in poverty in Sydney in 1969.

We have some racing silks in the collection as well, including these, which are the colours worn to victory in two successive Melbourne Cup races and on two different horses. [image shown] In 1897, William Forrester’s Gaulus won the Melbourne Cup, with his full brother The Grafter coming second. This is the first and only time in the history of the Melbourne Cup where the quinella has been full brothers. The following year, 1898, it was The Grafter’s turn for victory, winning the Cup in 3 minutes 29.75 seconds, beating his brother’s time by 1 and a quarter seconds. William Forrester, who both owned and trained the two Cup winners, was an important figure in nineteenth century racing circles. Forrester purchased Warwick Park estate in NSW in 1882, and in 1889 played a principal role in the formation of the Warwick Farm Racing Club.

These racing silks are in the colours of Makybe Diva’s owner Tony Santic. Santic was born in Croatia, and he has incorporated both the Australian and the Croatian flags into the design of his colours. The silks have been signed by Glen Boss, the jockey who rode the mare to victory three years in a row in 2003, 2004 and 2005. They have some slight staining on them, which our conservators believe is champagne. Makybe Diva is a contemporary legend, being the first horse in history to win three Melbourne Cups, and the first mare ever to win more than one.

Another multiple Cup winner is Peter Pan, who won the race in 1932 and 1934. So far only five horses have won multiple Cups, indicating that multiple wins is a very difficult feat to achieve, and in essence proving that the handicap really does create a level playing field and every year the race could be anyone’s. In the 1932 race Peter Pan stumbled in the field but came back strongly to win, though he paraded in the winner’s enclosure sporting a grass stain on his nose.

The following year, 1933, he was too sick to race, but in 1934 he lined up once again and won the Cup by four lengths, at 14/1 odds, and on a boggy track. You can see his 1934 Cup in the showcase just there. The Cup itself was made by James Steeth and is 18 carat gold. It is slightly smaller than some other cups, weighing 23 ounces, or 652 grams. The 1934 Cup is also known as the Centenary Cup, as it was won in the centenary year of Melbourne’s founding. The Museum acquired it from the grandson of Rodney Dangar, Peter Pan’s owner, who felt that the trophy should be in a public institution.

The question I am asked most often when I tell people I am working on an exhibit about Flemington and the Melbourne Cup is if it is the same Cup that is presented every year. It is not. Since the Loving Cup design that we are so familiar with was first introduced in 1919, only a handful of goldsmiths have been involved with the Cup’s manufacture.

James W Steeth of Drummonds Jewellers came up with the original design and manufactured many Cups, including Peter Pan’s in the showcase. His son Maurice took over, but when Maurice unexpectedly passed away in 1970 his apprentice, Lucky Rocca, took on the job. In 1980, manufacture of the Cup was given to Hardy Brothers Jewellers, and Rocca moved to the new company to continue creating each year’s Cup up until 2001.

The methods that were used to create that very first Loving Cup in 1919 are still used today. The Cup is made from 34 pieces of gold which are hand beaten for around 200 hours.

So now that we’ve looked at some objects associated with the Cup and talked a bit about the particular circumstances in which it was established – those four ‘G’s - I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about why it has endured. I mean, it’s no recent invention. The idea for the Melbourne Cup as a handicap originated with the Victoria Turf Club in 1861, who were then the rival tenants of Flemington alongside the Victoria Jockey Club.

The cup was based upon the Chester Cup of England, a handicap race run over two miles two furlongs. That the Melbourne Cup was set to be a two-mile race was to be a true test of the thoroughbred, the distance being not too long, nor too gruelling. This was back in the day when three-mile races were quite common - whereas now they are a thing of the past - and anything over 2500 metres is considered a staying race. On the subject of distance, when Australia moved to the metric system, the length of the race was shortened by a bit over 18 metres so that it is now run over 3200 metres.

The first year the race was run was actually quite a sombre occasion, as the news of the deaths of explorers Burke and Wills had just reached Melbourne, and there were some qualms about whether the race should in fact go ahead. Go ahead it did, and before a crowd of some 4000 people the New South Wales competitor Archer beat the Victorian favourite Mormon to win the very first Melbourne Cup. Ironically, though the race has always been called the Melbourne Cup, the prize of that first year was a gold watch and 710 gold sovereigns.

Perhaps the fact that the New South Wales horse Archer won it for the first two years helped to fuel some interstate rivalry and contributed something to the race’s success beyond just the colony of Victoria, though it wasn’t just interstate rivalry that played a part in the Cup’s evolution. As I mentioned previously, the two tenants of Flemington, the Victoria Jockey Club and the Victoria Turf Club, were competing with each other to put on the most successful events. The two clubs amalgamated to form the Victoria Racing Club, or VRC, in 1864, and from that point onwards a more stable tenancy of Flemington Racecourse was assured.

The Cup has been a public holiday for the people of Melbourne since 1877. By 1880, some 100,000 people were in attendance at Flemington racecourse to witness Grand Flaneur’s victory - and that at a time when the city’s population was estimated at less than 300,000 people. To put that into context, last Tuesday 110,000 people showed up to the Melbourne Cup. So the numbers have been quite consistent for a really long time. Since that time the race has withstood two Depressions and two world wars, and has been run every single year without fail for 150 years.

The racecourse has evolved from being a swampy paddock track on the banks of the Maribyrnong River to a multi-million dollar training and event facility. Robert Cooper Bagot, who was the first secretary of the VRC, is generally credited with the transformation of not only Flemington Racecourse but also the entire racing scene in the colony. Bagot believed that for racing to really prosper it had to move beyond its elitist image and be embraced by the ordinary citizen. He began this process by draining the marsh in the centre of the track and putting in its place an area that was free of charge, known as the Flat. He also persuaded the VRC to buy a block of adjacent land, which he called The Hill, and which commanded the best view of the track, but for which the entrance fee was to be no more than a shilling.

In 1881, when Bagot died, he was succeeded by Henry Byron Moore, who held the post of secretary until 1925. Moore made his own improvements to Flemington, including adding yet more land to the tenancy and creating spacious lawns and gardens to give the racecourse the air of a pleasure-ground. This also served to encourage ladies to attend race meetings and, as Moore famously noted, ‘If you can attract women, the men will follow.’ It was this exact idea that was behind the introduction of the annual Fashions on the Field event in 1962, an innovation designed to once more attract women to the races - with, I think it’s safe to say, resounding success.

Surely the success of the Cup is also partly due to the way the Victoria Racing Club has strategically managed change throughout the years. In reading old accounts of Cup Day I cannot help being struck by the way that it remains, in many ways, essentially the same experience. This is an account from The Argus of 4 November 1883:

‘Once more into the breach.’ The old quotation fits the time as nothing else would do. For with Flemington it is always the repetition of the same great scene. Was it a year ago, or five or twenty, that we sat in the same seat, looking out into the same vast amphitheatre? Here once more is the same drama to be played with the same scenario. Minor changes there may be… But always the main features remain. … Above all, and beyond all, the people are the same.

Speaking of the people being the same, an earlier description by Moncure Conway from 1883 might also be just as apt now:

There was some vulgarity, a good many ‘loud’ dresses, but not much loudness of any other kind, and in all the vast crowd a notable good nature.

Another key aspect of the Cup’s success relates to the way it taps into broader themes of Australian history and aligns itself with several explicit characteristics of Australianness; for example, the handicap as a metaphor for giving everyone a fair go. In terms of gambling, much of Australia’s economic history is characterised by gambling on a grand scale, from the goldrushes to the mining and property booms.

Furthermore, Australia may have been founded on the sheep’s back, but the horse also played a huge part. Importing horses to the newly-founded colony was vital for transport, expansion and exploration. Horse-racing was initially associated with improving the breed of horses overall, and it wasn’t long before the first race meeting was held in Sydney, in the area of Hyde Park, during 1810.

Not only this, but Australians have had a very natural and everyday acquaintance with the horse from the days of colonialism onwards. The horse was ubiquitous, whether crossing the continent under the saddle of an explorer or owned by the local milkman, the family pony kept in the backyard or a weekend galloper trained by the local publican. Even today, we retain one of the highest rates of horse ownership in the world.

So all in all, our status as a wealthy nation who gambled on a grand scale and won, coupled with the important role the horse has played in our success, has created an environment where an event such as the Melbourne Cup can not only thrive but also become embedded in our cultural consciousness. Gerald Mosse, this year’s winning jockey, commented on it, saying, ”I’ve never seen the likes of it before. You love your racing, you love your horses.’ However, and I have to say this, because I too love horses, the racing industry is a fickle mistress, and for every winner parading proudly around the mounting yard on Cup Day there are literally thousands of horses whose lives end early because they cannot sustain the pressures of training, or because they do not succeed.

When we think of the Melbourne Cup we think of frocking up, of champagne and of having a flutter. We see the glamour, but what many people don’t realise is that around 17,000 foals are born into the Australian thoroughbred racing industry each year - this doesn’t count those that are imported either - and only 30 per cent of those will go on to start a race, let alone win one. In the 2008-09 season, almost 40 per cent of racehorses earned nothing at all and, of those that did, a third won less than $2000.

So what happens to racehorses when they are past their prime, or unsuccessful? Some of the lucky ones may go on to become dressage horses, showjumpers or beloved pets, but the majority of them end up as pet food, with an estimated 18,000 racehorses sent to the knackery each year. Perhaps this has always been true – after all, two horses in the first Cup race ever run fell and had to be immediately destroyed. In his general sketch of Cup Day 1883 for the Australasian Supplement, Moncure Conway says that the detractors of horseracing ‘point out that a horse fitted to win a race is fit for nothing else; he is like a card, and if he is not an ace of trumps he is only pasteboard.’ But I doubt it was as true in 1883, when training racehorses for a living was barely thought of, as it is today, with the millions of dollars now on offer in prize-money, and the associated costs of owning a racehorse, making the pressure for victory and high returns even greater.

I mention these facts because the Melbourne Cup is seen as the pinnacle of the Australian racing calendar, but recent years have seen an increase in the scrutiny and criticism of this aspect of horse racing. The racing industry and the VRC have met with allegations of animal cruelty, with everything from the whip to jumps racing under fire. A debate between animal liberationists who want to ban racing altogether and racing authorities would be an interesting one, and if the current criticism continues to grow will at some stage in the future be inevitable.

However, it is my hope that the VRC and the racing industry itself will be able to take this next challenge in its stride and pave the way forward for a less exploitative future for racing. The proud 150-year history of the Melbourne Cup demonstrates that it is certainly within the power of the VRC both to embrace the change and to lead the way so that Australians can continue to enjoy the Melbourne Cup in years to come, and Flemington remains, as Mark Twain declared, ‘the Mecca of Australasia’! Thank you.

Date published: 18 November 2010