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The Melbourne Cup: Why has it endured into the twenty-first century? Good luck or good management?

Rod Fitzroy, Chairman, Victoria Racing Club, 13 August 2010

LOUISE DOUGLAS: You have already met our next speaker, Rod Fitzroy, this morning when we learnt about his passion for the history and traditions of the VRC [Victoria Racing Club], Flemington and Melbourne Cup. You can understand why he has a passion because each year in writing messages of welcome to overseas and intestate guests and in representing the VRC and the Cup at events around the world he has had to contemplate the secret of the Cup’s success.

While Australian racing in general has encountered many challenges, including competition from other sports and leisure activities, the Melbourne Cup Spring Carnival remains a centrepiece of Australian life. I understand the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, recently claimed the Cup was more successful now than ever before, and I think that has something to do with the chairman of the VRC, Rod Fitzroy, but today he is going to address the topic: The Melbourne Cup - why has it endured into the 21st century? Good luck or good management?

ROD FITZROY: I guess I can save all these notes because you probably know what my answer will be. To respond to that question: the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, is it a product of good luck or good management? In short, it is probably a little bit of one and a lot of the other, for without good management all the good luck in the world would not have delivered for a century and a half an annual event that so commands the attention of the whole nation as does the Cup. Whilst the VRC was not formed until 1864, which was three years after the first running of the Cup, it is fair to say that it has been the astute management of the VRC as custodians of the event that has enabled it to reach and maintain the position that it holds in Australian life today.

The VRC over its 146-year history has had only nine secretaries, as they were known then, or chief executives today, and the bar was set extremely high by the first two. Robert Cooper Bagot and Henry Byron Moore were men of professional training and successful businessmen in their own right, and between them they nurtured the development of the Cup for well over half a century. Interestingly, neither of them had a racing background. They were clearly men of vision and drive who recognised the importance of the Melbourne Cup, and they both leveraged the event for the benefit of racing, the Victoria Racing Club and the City of Melbourne.

Today there are specialist companies who measure the success of so-called major events in terms of economic impact or economic uplift. Of course, in those early days of the Cup, there were no such tools to record the relative broader benefits of the Cup to the community, but no doubt substantial benefits there were. While we don’t have the benefit of these economic studies which are now undertaken not only around the Melbourne Cup but around all the major events - the Grand Priz, the Australian Open tennis and the Australian Rules Football final in Melbourne - they are all measured in terms of economic impact and economic uplift, and that helps them all go to the government and get a bigger cheque to support them, except the VRC because we don’t get anything. Nevertheless, the Cup is the greatest contributor to economic activity in Melbourne amongst all of those major events.

Going back to the nineteenth century, what we do have are first-hand accounts and illustrations of the Melbourne Cup carnivals of the first 50 years. There can be no doubt that to manage an event of such magnitude in those times required expertise and business acumen of the highest order. In 1861, and Bryan [Martin] referred to this earlier, the Melbourne Cup attracted a crowd of 4000; and by 1880, a mere two decades later, 100,000 were drawn to Flemington from the Melbourne population at the time of only some 375,000. It has been calculated that if you had the same proportions today, we would have about a million and a quarter people at Flemington to watch the Cup each year. The logistics of hosting an attendance of this magnitude would be beyond the capacity of many leading race clubs around the world today, but the VRC did it in the nineteenth century.

An appreciation of the scale and grandeur of the Melbourne Cup in the late nineteenth century is provided through three magnificent paintings by the noted artist of the period, Carl Kahler. These paintings were bequeathed to the VRC and now form pride of place in the club’s heritage collection. These paintings clearly illustrate that, less than 30 years after the first running of the Melbourne Cup, Flemington had been developed to accommodate crowds in the order of 100,000 and was the centre of style and sophistication reflective of the prosperity of Melbourne at the time.

Can you imagine the economic benefit to retailers, hotels and other forms of accommodation, to restaurants, transport companies, be they hansom cabs or boats along the Maribyrnong River or the train service which by now had been connected to a dedicated station at Flemington right at the back of the course? These paintings enable us to imagine what it might have been like, but the words of the greatest global traveller of the time relate with clarity and a sense of amazement how big and how important the Melbourne Cup was before the turn of the twentieth century. For it was Mark Twain who arrived in Melbourne just prior to the 1895 Melbourne Cup Carnival and he recorded for posterity his observations of Flemington and the impact that the race had on the nation. In fact, the best part of a chapter of his book Following the Equator, which was subsequently published in 1897, was devoted to his impressions of Melbourne and particularly the Melbourne Cup.

I do overdo quoting from Twain and I am going to do it again today but in the context of the debate and discussion this morning it is illustrative of how important the Cup was so early in its history. [Mark] Twain was a man who could write with some authority about big events because basically he had seen it all, from the great celebrations in his homeland of America through Europe. In 1895 he wrote of his experience at Flemington:

It is the ‘Melbourne Cup’ that brings this multitude together. Their clothes have been ordered long ago, at unlimited cost, and without bounds as to beauty and magnificence, and have been kept in concealment until now, for unto this day they are consecrate. I am speaking of the ladies’ clothes; but one might know that.

And so the grand-stands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy; everybody bets, and gloves and fortunes change hands right along, all the time. Day after day the races go on, and the fun and the excitement are kept at white heat; and when each day is done, the people dance all night so as to be fresh for the race in the morning -

I am not sure about that. But there is a sense of deja view when you consider these words were written in 1895 and I see a lot of that going on at Flemington in 2010:

And at the end of the great week the swarms secure lodgings and transportation for next year, then flock away to their remote homes and count their gains and losses, and order next year’s Cup-clothes, and then lie down and sleep two weeks, and get up sorry to reflect that a whole year must be put in somehow or other before they can be wholly happy again.

The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialised days of whatever sort of congeries of colonies. Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out. Each of them gets attention, but not everybody’s; each of them evokes interest, but not everybody’s; each of them rouses enthusiasm, but not everybody’s; in each case a part of the attention, interest, and enthusiasm is a matter of habit and custom, and another part of it is official and perfunctory. Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal - and spontaneous, not perfunctory. Cup Day is supreme. It has no rival. I can call to mind no specialised annual day, in any country, which can be named by that large name - Supreme. 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; but this one does it.

I think it must be conceded that the position of the Australasian Day is unique, solitary, unfellowed; and likely to hold that high place a long time.

They were certainly prophetic words written in 1895. So the Cup in the late nineteenth century already had a grip on the people of Australia. It is illustrative that somebody with the experience of Mark Twain could put it in that sort of global context even in that time.

With the turn of the century and as a nation was founded, the Cup had well and truly entrenched itself as the most successful annual sporting and social event in Australia. Henry Byron Moore, who took over from Bagot in 1881, reigned over the development of the Melbourne Cup until 1925. His period in office was highlighted by his drive for continuous improvement in the facilities at Flemington, be it the development of our now world-famous lawns and gardens, and innovations such as tea rooms specifically targeted for the ladies, for it was Byron Moore who noted, ‘If you can attract women, the men will follow.’

The first half of the twentieth century was a challenging time for racing, which had to deal with the impact of two world wars and of course the Great Depression. However, the administrators during this period, both chief executives and committees, recognised the importance of the Cup particularly in times of crisis and were determined to see that the race went on and provided a reminder to our young men and women of what it was they were fighting for on foreign soils: the Cup represented the Australian way of life.

Following the Second World War crowds of 100,000 returned to Flemington. It was a golden period for champion horses such as Russia, Comic Court, Delta, Dalray and Rising Fast, all of whom carried the number one saddle cloth which indicated that they had complied with the handicap conditions of the race.

With the advent of the 1960s, lifestyles in the now prosperous Australia were changing. Television and sporting and recreational pursuits other than football, cricket and racing were available to an evermore affluent society. Racing and the Cup faced new challenges. However, the love affair of the Australian people for their race never really waned. The first Tuesday in November still drew 100,000 to Flemington, and millions of Australians gathered around either the radio or TV at home, at clubs, schools, outback bush race meetings and even in Federal Parliament to join in the atmosphere of those at Flemington. The race was first televised in 1960, so this year marks the fiftieth milestone of that auspicious occasion when the race was brought to the people of Australia.

Reflecting on the words and actions of Byron Moore almost a century before, the committee of the day in the 1960s launched fashions on the field and re-engaged the interest of women in racing and Cup Day in particular. It was during this period that a decision was made to replace the beds of annual flowers with roses. So a new feature of Flemington was started and today, with 17,000 bushes, the roses are now synonymous with Flemington.

But in 1993 perhaps the boldest move of all was undertaken by the then chairman David Bourke, chief executive Rodney Johnson and racing manager Les Benton when they hatched a plan that would see the best international stayers attracted to Flemington on a hit-and-run mission in an attempt to win our greatest prize. In that first year two came: the English stayer Drum Taps and Vintage Crop from Ireland, who was trained by the ‘Bart Cummings of the Emerald Isle’ Dermot Weld. It was a task that racing pundits of the day deemed to be impossible - to come half way around the world and to win against Australasia’s best stayers on their home turf. But in that year Dermot Weld and Mick Kinane and their brave horse Vintage Crop proved that the impossible was possible. So the internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup began, and every year since the race has been so much the richer for it, with challengers from Ireland, Dubai, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Africa.

In the period since Vintage Crop won the Cup in 1993, attendances at Flemington over the four days of the carnival have grown from 200,000 to 400,000. The national free-to-air television coverage of the Cup now extends to 120 international destinations and is watched by a global audience of hundreds of millions.

A Roy Morgan research poll in 2005 revealed that 63 per cent of the adult population of Australia watched live as Makybe Diva created history with her third successive Melbourne Cup victory. That is 13 million or 14 million Australians who stopped work, as most of them were supposed to be doing because it is only a holiday in Victoria, and watched Makybe Diva. So the engagement of the Cup with the people is certainly alive and well today.

The carnival now delivers an economic benefit of some $400 million to the Victorian economy and $700 million nationally. It is perhaps the only major event in the world that provides an economic benefit beyond the boundaries of the state in which it is held. As we know, there is great competition between the states to host a Formula One race or an Indi car race or whatever it is that the governments can attract to their state for the economic benefit that flows from it. But in fact the running of the Melbourne Cup produces an economic benefit in every other state of Australia, and it’s a significant one, amounting to some $300 million a year. There are more race meetings around Australia on Cup Day than any other day of the year, and it’s not a public holiday outside Victoria - and that includes Australia Day and New Year’s Day. But it is Cup Day where those outback bush communities come together for their annual race meeting to celebrate the Melbourne Cup.

Today, the VRC’s permanent staff of 170 expands progressively through the seven months leading up to the Melbourne Cup carnival to 1200 during carnival week. There are 17,000 contractors and casual employees who are accredited to have access to Flemington prior to and during the carnival. The footprint of the marquees that are erected each year is now over three times that of our three main grandstands. By Derby eve, the months of detailed planning are ready to be put to the test as 100,000-plus crowds are drawn to our historic racecourse for each of the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival. But it is the Cup that is the raison d’être for it all.

I have no doubt that it is, and continues to be, the good management of successive administrations that can rightfully lay claim to holding the most successful four-day carnival in the world. Today the Cup is universally acknowledged as the staying championship of the world.

I feel confident that Captain Frederick Standish, the man who is generally credited with having conceived the conditions of the Cup in 1861, Robert Cooper Bagot, Henry Byron Moore and those early custodians of the nation’s great race would be both amazed and I think satisfied that the race they brought to fruition and then nurtured through the early years is in good hands as we move even closer to the 150th running of the race that stops a nation. So in closing, I must come down on the side of good management, with perhaps a little bit of luck along the way. Thank you.

Date published: 30 August 2010