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150th running of the Melbourne Cup: special events

Rod Fitzroy, Victoria Racing Club, 13 August 2010

MAT TRINCA: Our next speaker is Rod Fitzroy, Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club [VRC]. Rod has been chairman of the Victoria Racing Club through one of its most momentous eras of change and development, yet he is a chairman with a passion for the history and tradition of Flemington, the VRC and the Melbourne Cup. Today he will speak about the events that are taking place during 2010 to mark the 150th running of the Cup. Please welcome Rod Fitzroy to the podium. [applause]

ROD FITZROY: Thank you, Mat. To our host today Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Museum of Australia, to our keynote speaker, the Hon. Andrew Peacock, and to each of our participating guests: on behalf of the Victoria Racing Club may I thank you all for your support and involvement today and for attending what I hope will be a most interesting day for you. We at the VRC are delighted that a forum has been convened in the nation’s capital with the objective of providing some context to, and understanding of, why it is that a horse race commands the attention of Australians in every State and Territory on the first Tuesday in November each year.

It was only five years after the first settlement was established on the banks of the Yarra River that the first race meeting was conducted on a tract of land known as Salt Water Flat on the banks of the Salt Water River. The move of the annual race meeting, which by then had been conducted for its third year, to a location so far distant from the centre of the settlement brought with it much criticism, and the site of the new racecourse was described in a publication of the day as ‘a series of rough and uneven paddocks overgrown with weeds’. That settlement, which in 1837 was given the name Melbourne, was to become for a period the jewel in the crown of the Commonwealth; and that series of rough and uneven paddocks overgrown with weeds was to be progressively transformed into a racecourse that is now regarded as finest and most beautiful in the world - Flemington.

In 1861 the rivalry between the two clubs – the Victoria Jockey Club and the Victoria Turf Club, which at that time had both conducted their race meetings at the Flemington racecourse, as it was known by that time and Salt Water Flat was consigned to history - led Captain Frederick Standish and his colleagues at the Victoria Turf Club to conceive and promote a race that would capture the imagination of the colonies, and so the Melbourne Cup was born. The conditions of the race did not conform to those of the great races of Europe as it was to be a handicap over a distance of two miles, but in essence it perhaps reflected the spirit of a fledging colony and that of a nation that would be born four decades later. The handicap conditions provided a theoretical even chance for all entrants, and the two-mile distance ensured it would be won by a horse and rider who would be tested to the limit of their endurance.

In February this year the Victoria Racing Club hosted at Flemington a function that launched a calendar of events that would appropriately mark and celebrate the significance of the 150th consecutive running of the race that has, over successive generations, secured a special place in the hearts of all Australians. Some of the initiatives that were announced on that day included three legacy projects. There obviously will be much celebration surrounding the Cup this year, but we didn’t want it to be known as the greatest party year of all; we wanted to have something that recognised for future generations the significance of the occasion.

The three legacy projects that were announced were: first, a new visitors centre at Flemington located at the entry to the course behind the famed Phar Lap statue. That building has been refurbished and will be opened at the end of September. It will provide a history not only of the Melbourne Cup which of course is the centrepiece of our operations at Flemington but also of the course itself dating right back to 1840. Second, there is to be a walk of fame that traces the record of winners through every year since 1861 as you enter the course underneath the rose arbour, which in recent years has become quite a feature of Flemington. We have laid that with bluestone and inlaid within that bluestone are the names and years of every winner of the Cup. It will be part of the celebration the following year where the name of the Cup winner the previous year will be added to that list of previous winners of the Cup. Third, we have also developed a curriculum program online for students throughout Australia. It’s important to us that the rich history of the Cup and Flemington is brought to students around Australia, and that also will be launched later this year.

Other initiatives which were announced on that day included something which is coming to fruition a little later this morning, and that is the release of a commemorative coin set which was struck by the Royal Australian Mint. I am very much looking forward to seeing those coins.

Later in the year, just prior to the running of the Cup, Australia Post will release a stamp series which will feature those who have been synonymous with the running of the race over its history.

We have this year extended our national and international Cup tour programs. This is an initiative, which commenced only in the last decade, where the Cup is now taken to every State and Territory of Australia in the month leading into the Cup, and prior to that it goes to major global destinations. It really has extended to the world the story of our great race. Within Australia we were a little apprehensive when we first conducted the national tour, because whilst it has had the name of ‘the race that stops the nation’, we were a little unsure of the embrace that the Cup trophy itself might receive around the nation.

But to our delight the Cup certainly does live up to that reputation where it’s been warmly welcomed into communities, large and small, around Australia. We now get far more applications each year for the Cup to visit a particular town than we can accommodate. The Cup tour is assured for many years to come, because there is an appetite out there from the people of Australia to be able to touch it first hand. We have had some wonderful stories about the impact that being in the presence of the Cup trophy has had on communities, from the very young at pre-schools right through to those in retirement homes. That is now an entrenched feature of the lead-in to the Melbourne Cup celebrations each year.

Then of course there is this symposium, and how appropriate it is to be in the nation’s capital where resides the heart of perhaps the greatest winner of them in Phar Lap.

Also on the occasion of the launch of the calendar of events, the VRC sought the assistance of one of Australia’s greatest contemporary wordsmiths, Les Carlyon, to provide in his own inimitable way an explanation of the historical significance of the Cup and how it has come to be known as the race that stops the nation. I would now like to share that presentation with you.

[Video shown of a film by Les Carlyon]

MAT TRINCA: Thank you, Rod, for those words not only about the history of the Cup but also the sense in which the 150th running of the Cup is being so well commemorated this year.

Date published: 30 August 2010