LOUISE DOUGLAS: Our final speaker for this session is Andrew Lemon. To say that Andrew takes the history of Australian racing seriously is a bit of understatement, having researched and written three detailed volumes [comprising The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing] over the past 25 years which cover the social and political history of racing across the nation from its British origins through to the present time. A recent article in the Journal of Sporting Traditions his third volume, which appeared in 2008, was reviewed by Professor John O’Hara who wrote:
Despite the immensity of this task, Lemon has repeated the performance of his much younger self and produced a comprehensive, authoritative and highly readable history of horse racing in the modern era.
So it is clearly the main reference work for you if you are interested in the history of racing. That volume shared last year’s Australian Society for Sports History biennial book award. In his role as consultant historian to the Victoria Racing Club, Andrew has been involved in several special projects to commemorate the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup and has been a major contributor to the new book The Story of the Melbourne Cup. Today he is going to address the topic: ‘The Melbourne Cup: why?’
ANDREW LEMON: Thank you, Louise, distinguished ladies and gentlemen and the Melbourne Cup itself. I always feel a bit overawed by that gold celebrity that seems to follow us around. I got the shortest topic - why? This is a question I seem to have spent an adult lifetime trying to answer maybe from the day I saw my first Cup: Rain Lover showing the courage of a champion and winning the race for the second time in 1969, tenaciously holding on all the way up the straight with the great weight of 9 stone 7 pounds against the challenge of Alsop who carried two stone less.
What is the secret of the Melbourne Cup? Why does the race attract a following that other races don’t? Is it the real thing or are we all part of some public relations conspiracy? Well, if so, the conspiracy has been running for 150 years non stop.
The question ‘why’ operates at several levels. Believe it or not, I can only begin to answer it in the time we have this morning. Why the Melbourne Cup rather than the Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart or Perth cup? Why does the race extend its magic to New Zealand and indeed around the world? Why the Melbourne Cup and not some other race - the Australian Derby perhaps, the Cox Plate or the Golden Slipper? It can’t just be a question of prize money.
There was a time when the Melbourne Cup was going stride for stride in prize money with the Golden Slipper, a time when the Cox Plate was confidently said to be the greatest horse race in Australia. There was a time when the Doomben Ten Thousand in Brisbane offered money equal to that of the Melbourne Cup. Yet we are not having a symposium today about the Golden Slipper or the Cox Plate or the Doomben Ten Thousand, and I doubt that we will for all that I revere their place in the history of Australian racing. I think Bryan Martin would like a symposium on the Cox Plate.
Taking the question further, it can be extended to ask: why did the Melbourne Cup seem to make its way so quickly and so strongly into the Australian spirit, into our sense of national identity? I owe more than one of my historical insights to Rod Fitzroy, who is a great enthusiast for the Melbourne Cup. It was he who pointed out to me the three poets whom we think of as embodying the Australian identity and who knew a thing or two about Australians’ love for horses and the punt: Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and CJ Dennis. These three had not even been born when Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in 1861. “I ‘ad the money in me ‘and” is the lament in one of Dennis’s poems. It seems historic now but he was writing about not backing Spearfelt in 1926, and that is 65 years after Archer. We think of Dennis now as belonging to that establishment period of Australian culture and identity.
But we are always wise after the event, aren’t we? We should have backed Viewed in 2008. We knew Bart would pick up his 12th. We should have backed Efficient in 2007. Did we ever see a horse win a better derby than the year before? Sometimes we pick it, but never trust the experts. Think of Banker in 1863, the horse who won in the smallest field ever in a Melbourne Cup, a field of seven, and the expert in the sporting paper Bell’s Life named him on the eve of the race as one of only three in the race who didn’t have a chance.
That Australian preoccupation with the race dates back to its beginnings. The Bell’s Life I mentioned had a Sydney version and a Melbourne one, both copying a famous sporting paper in London. It was for Bell’s that the great Adam Lindsay Gordon started writing in the 1860s - Gordon was both a poet and a steeplechase jockey - galloping rhymes that tried to predict cup winners, also with as little success as the tipsters. Henry Kendall wrote his How we won the Cup in the 1870s, and here the emphasis was not on the egalitarianism intrinsic to this handicap race but on the romance, the grit, the pluck, the colour and beauty of racing on the one hand, and the sweaty reality of endeavour on the other.
It was a cunning Victorian plan perhaps for the Australasian reputation of the race that saw New South Wales win with Archer for the first two years, and with John Tait’s champion black The Barb in 1866, de Mestre’s Sydney Tim Whiffler in 1867 - you know there were two horses called Tim Whiffler in the one race in 1867 so they were known as Melbourne Tim and Sydney Tim to help out the non-existent race callers of the day - Sydney Tim won. Tait’s horses won again in 1868, 1871 and 1872, and de Mestre again in 1878. So between the two of them they trained nine of the first 18 winners of the Melbourne Cup - all went to Sydney. Victorians were described as gallant losers, and we have been doing it ever since.
Adelaide had an early look in with Hurtle Fisher’s Lantern in 1864. Hurtle and his brother CP Fisher relocated to Victoria. Tasmanian champions Panic and Strop came so close to winning in the first decade, and the rich island state of Tasmania was represented with The Assyrian and Malua in the 1880s. The first New Zealand-bred winner was Martini-Henry in 1883, and Carbine was the first New Zealand champion to take the race in 1890. But that was a bit later, and it was the stories of the big bets, the glamour and the drama at Flemington in the first decade or two that instantly spread the fame of the race around the colonies.
It was interesting to hear Chris [McConville]’s description of it because the gambling was different. Perhaps the one thing that he omitted to mention was there was a lot of pre-post gambling that took place at Kirk’s Bazaar and the other places where horse people gathered in the months leading up to the race. Chris identified the fact that what gets people into the Melbourne Cup is the months of build-up and speculation. The conditions of the race allowed for the entries and then for progressive payments of acceptances. So you entered, you then found out what weight you got, you then paid some more money if you wanted to still be in the race, and a bit later you paid some more money - and all that went into the pot. But it also built up this excitement and speculation. So there was a group of lugubrious bookmakers and energetic one who used to hang around Kirk’s Bazaar and other places in Bourke Street, and their doings were reported in the other states or the other colonies as well.
I have been lucky enough to be part of the team taking this year’s trophy for the Emirates Melbourne Cup on its tour around Australasia, and here we have it in Canberra today still in the early stages of what has become a royal progress. Last week I was with it and with John Letts in Gawler; then with John Marshall of Rogan Josh fame at Streaky Bay, Port Lincoln, Jamestown and Broken Hill, centres that each have strong connections to the Melbourne Cup story because wherever you go now there seem to be stories attached in each location to the Melbourne Cup. Streaky for Kerrin McEvoy where most people seemed to be related to him who won with Brew in 2000. Port Lincoln for those famous ladies Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Dianne and Vanessa whose names combined to create the ridiculous name Makybe Diva. I do remember in 2003 thinking no horse with a stupid name like that could ever win a Melbourne Cup. Now there is a statue of her on the foreshore at Port Lincoln to which we paid homage, and of course there is one at Flemington as well.
In England there is even a statue to a Melbourne Cup place getter. Persian Punch ran third twice in the Melbourne Cup, but perhaps not for those reasons there is a statue of him in England as well. Jamestown, where they still race once a year on a generous grass track, is where Bart Cummings’ Dad Jim had his first registered winner, a horse called Myrtle - this is good for your trivial pursuit - at Jamestown 100 years ago this year. Broken Hill last Monday because Mick Robins was a Broken Hill boy who trained Rain Lover to those consecutive cup wins, even though Mick only got his own trainer’s licence months before the first victory. Mick came with us last Monday just after his 80th birthday and he got a hero’s welcome. The jockey of Rain Lover, Jim Johnson, is also one of the ambassadors on this tour. He is also in his eighties. While the whip action is not quite as vigorous as it used to be, but the wit is still very good - he’s fast with the wit not the whip.
When you show the trophy and when you talk about the Melbourne Cup, interstate rivalries vanish. This is not the VRC’s Melbourne Cup; it’s not Melbourne’s Melbourne Cup; it is Australia’s Melbourne Cup. The loving cup itself, the trophy that was designed in 1919, has moved around a little bit. Interestingly enough, Peter Pan’s trophy that is here in the National Museum is the trophy of a hero. It also happens to be the smallest and lightest of all the Melbourne Cup trophies of this design, yet it is one of our great icons in Australian sport. We don’t judge the Melbourne Cup according to the size and the gold content, it’s the heart that goes with it. You will hear some of the stories this afternoon that will put real life in the abstractions that I am talking about today.
My interest in racing history has always combined an admiration for the exploits of the champions with my quest to understand how the whole story unfolded. Maybe I arrived on that racing scene at a special time because on that Cup Day when Rain Lover won in 1969, the magnificent Crisp won the Cup Day steeplechase and went on to have a distinguished steeplechasing career, nearly won the Grand National in England and lived to a ripe old age in retirement. In that same carnival it was the three-year-old champion Vain who was winning the big sprint events so it was a pretty amazing Spring Carnival in 1969 - little wonder I became fascinated by horse racing in that golden age.
It was also the same year David Lee Bernstein published his odd, engaging book The First Tuesday in November, a kind of social history of the Melbourne Cup. Almost by accident I found myself researching aspects of Australian racing history and at university I wrote an honours thesis on the unsuccessful attempts to legalise the tote machine on race courses in Victoria - so that was perhaps prophetic of a future career. Victoria was the last to allow what the bookmakers and the churches, in what was called an unholy alliance - both tried to block, and they called it ‘the infernal machine’ to be used at the track. The tote was on other Australian tracks but it first appeared at Flemington in 1931, the year that Phar Lap was beaten in the Cup.
Why the Melbourne Cup? In my first foray into explanation, writing my first of the three volumes of The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing in the 1980s, I found three pieces of alliteration and I think they still hold up - geography, gentlemen and gold - to explain why Melbourne racing in general and the Cup in particular so quickly dominated the Australian racing scene. It is true there have been times when New South Wales was well ahead of Victoria in terms of prosperity and the success of its racing but never in front of the Melbourne Cup.
Geography meant that Melbourne enjoyed the benefit of being the physical hub not only of the fertile and prosperous colony of Victoria but also of the Australasian colonies including New Zealand. Ships and then trains linked Melbourne to the other colonies and every part of Victoria. That helps explain the disproportionately large attendance that Rod Fitzroy noted a moment ago because people did, as Mark Twain also added, come from far and wide to come to the Cup.
There was also the question of climate which should not lightly be discounted. Melbourne famously has its four seasons, not always on the one day. We are having a real winter this year, the first perhaps for half a decade, with short grey, wet days interspersed with brief, brilliant sunny ones that finally give way to spring and the grass begins to grow. Melbourne at some time in September and October starts to offer jewel-like days where horses flourish and humans emerge from hibernation. The focal point becomes the first week in November, even though Melbourne’s spring is notoriously treacherous - shades of Van der Hum in 1976 or Makybe Diva’s second win or many of the Melbourne Cups that my wife said I invited her to. Uncomfortably hot days are still rare in the first week of November, they arrive soon afterwards. Flemington is timed to be at its best and it is a magnificent amphitheatre for horse racing.
‘Gentlemen’ in my alliteration refers to the early European settlers in Melbourne, though many of them didn’t really deserve the title but their descendants, actual and spiritual, continued to exert control of Victoria’s racing for decades afterwards. Land-grabbing larrikins, as they might be seen today, these pioneers had prodigious energies and were quick to make quick fortunes from sheep, cattle and land deals. They brought with them the craze for English racing, a sport that was spreading throughout the world wherever the English sphere of economic or political power predominated.
There were some 20 years between the first use of Flemington as a race course in 1840 and the first Melbourne Cup and in that time the gentlemen set a pattern of annual and then twice-yearly race meetings, created rules, set up racing clubs, contrived prizes, started betting among themselves on a large scale; and in general the women in the community, fewer though they were than the men, were not averse to joining in for a day out. There is a brief period in the gold rushes where you get the observation that some of the women didn’t think it was safe to come to the races, but generally it has been a sport that has been supported by both sexes in Australia even though the men had the ruling hand for a long, long time.
When the Melbourne Cup did come into existence there was this infrastructure already in place. So don’t think of the first Melbourne Cup as being a totally primitive thing; they had 20 years of experience behind them. People who have heard me speak or write about early Melbourne racing will know that I put big emphasis on an event that still barely registers in the folklore of Australian racing. I am speaking of the Australasian champion sweepstake at Flemington in 1859, two years before the first cup, which attracted largest audience ever gathered to that time in Australian history. Some estimates said the crowd was as large as 40,000. You have been told there were 4000 at the first Melbourne Cup. But this was the ultimate inter-colonial challenge grudge race with a big cash prize but up by the Melbourne sportsmen at the peak of the gold rush period and matched by those who travelled their horses to run in the race.
It attracted a build-up of speculation in the months before the race, a feature that would soon attach itself to the Cup. They came from Tasmania, Sydney, New Zealand and the far parts of Victoria, and the South Australian horses were ship-wrecked on a reef off Port McDonald near Mount Gambier. One of them, The Barber, swam ashore, was later caught and identified and was walked to Portland where they wanted to put him on a ship but for some reason he had other ideas. So they walked to him to Geelong, which is as far as the railway from Melbourne came, and he arrived in Melbourne three weeks before the race, put back into training and ran in the Australian champion race - so triathlon with a difference, I think. Unfortunately for the fairytales he finished eighth but to my mind he is a great champion.
Having been perhaps one of the persons who ultimately debunked the story of Archer walking to the first Melbourne Cup - we have the grandson of Etienne de Mestre to speak to you later on today and I hope he will corroborate my story - I like to say, ‘I can trade. If I ruin a good story, I can give you a better one in exchange.’ We will have to think about what we can do about The Barber. It was 150 years last year, and the wreck of the Admella was commemorated down in that region.
The financial success of the Australian champion race prompted the Flemington racecourse trustees, because it was not yet a VRC, to reconfigure the racecourse virtually to the layout we know today. When the land had first been set aside as a race track, only the river flats were included the racecourse reserve. But smart race goers immediately gravitated to the adjacent hill which was a natural grandstand. So slowly land on the hill was added to the racecourse reserve and, in perhaps the most far-sighted move of all, the trustees secured a branch railway from the town centre to the course, which was in place for that first Melbourne Cup in 1861. They shifted grandstands, saddling paddock, finishing straight and winning post to a spot in front of the hill. In the days before big screens radio and course broadcasts, the natural advantage of Flemington and its hill created the unique attraction of this racecourse.
‘Gold’ in my three ‘g’s refers to wealth. Melbourne in its first 15 years had already been a prosperous town with boom and bust cycles, but gold made Melbourne rich in the three or four decades that followed. The speed with which Melbourne transformed from a pioneer settlement to a metropolis between the 1850s and the end of the 1880s made the city an international phenomenon. An analogy today might be Dubai in the last 30 or 40 years, but Melbourne had natural advantages lacking in the desert. It emerged as a place of cultural depth with its schools, instant university and library, parliament, cathedrals, telephones, cable tram network, railway system, theatres, restaurants and all the accoutrements of a big city for better and for worse. People had to pinch themselves to realise that that settlement was so new.
I have found that horse racing has been a good economic indicator in Australian history, and all through the nineteenth century to the end of the land boom of the 1880s, the Melbourne Cup was the showcase for Melbourne’s prosperity. Melbourne was able to show off with impunity at the Melbourne Cup. In 1873, a Brisbane journalist said, ‘Melbourne was a place in which to make money and those who make it fastest receive the highest praise.’ Staid conservative Sydney disapproved of this brash, irreligious city 50 years its junior which had so swiftly surpassed Sydney in population and frivolity but the end of the 1880s - Melbourne became a bit sombre after that
Sydney papers condemned the waste of money and I quote: ‘The insane rivalry of the fair sex in matters of dress, the improper risks taken by the men, the danger is that people will wear themselves out by a feverish, unnatural life,’ and, as I say, we have been doing it ever since. When times did go sour in the 1890s, the Cup remained a beacon of hope. Rod Fitzroy gave us the Mark Twain account of Melbourne, and that was describing a city that had at length been savaged by economic depression. The Melbourne Cup always resisted the dampening effects of hard times even though prize money went down.
By the 1900s Melbourne had a revival as the temporary federal capital and Cup week festivities were enlivened by the perks that went with it. For example, not just one Governor but also a Governor-General to bring vice-regal revenues to the races - they had to build a separate box for the Governor-General. As the satirical Melbourne Punch said in the 1900s, ‘The Governor gives a ball, sometimes two balls, and a garden party at Government House. The warships with their plentiful crews of dancing officers make for Hobson’s Bay with such regularity that it has become a standing joke in social circles.’
Beyond the influence of gentlemen, gold and geography, we see some other elements at play in making the reputation of the Cup. First, Australians began looking at the Melbourne Cup as a way of exerting Australian identity separate from perhaps British identity. The Cup might have had elements in common with Ascot or Derby day at Epsom but it was different in its egalitarianism and Flemington was different in the facilities that was offered the racegoer:
The English people go fair baloney about Ascot and several of them said to me, ‘Have you got anything like this in Australia?’ wrote correspondent Jack Cohen from London to the Melbourne racing paper Sportsman in 1898. ‘I can assure you,’ said Jack, ‘it’s a thousand to one on Flemington as far as the racecourse is concerned, you can take my word there is only one Flemington in the world.
Each year journalists stretch their ingenuity to write stories about the Cup, yet the tall tales and true came out to meet them. That famous dream story where Ballarat publican Walter Craig dreamt that his horse Nimblefoot would win the Cup but that the jockey would be wearing a black armband to honour the dead owner, that dream story came true but it prompted I guess you would call it a nightmare of Cup dream stories to follow, and the bookies used to encourage people to dream the winner of the Melbourne Cup.
In Tasmania the father of the Australian Prime Minister Joe Lyons, when Joe was possibly not even born, dreamt one night the winner of the 1887 Cup. He sold the family house, took the ship across Bass Strait, went to the Cup and plonked the lot on Tranter who finished 15th to Dunlop, thus making it possible for Joe Lyons to boast that he grew up in poverty and reached the highest office in the land.
On the other side of the ledger, a struggling dairy farmer near Melbourne discovered on the afternoon of the race in 1902 that he had drawn the winning ticket in George Adams’ Tattersalls Sweepstake lottery - even though the sweep was illegal in Victoria but harboured by the Tasmanian government in Hobart. The sweep winner’s nine-year-old son Len never forgot the day:
I was in the kitchen eating a slab of new bread piled with marmalade and cream skinned from the dishes in the pantry, when I heard a crashing noise like part of the house coming down the stairs, and there was Dad, holding a slip of paper and shouting, “I’ve struck it, I’ve struck it after all these years.”’
In retelling this story and the new Story of the Melbourne Cup book, I go on to add:
His father was now able to afford a secondary education for him. Len Stretton ended up as a Supreme Court judge and headed the 1939 Royal Commission into Victoria’s bushfires.
So the Melbourne Cup changes lives in strange ways. Len also said his father became more suspicious and tight-fisted as a result of this win so horse racing is a two-edged sword, as perhaps Andrew Peacock demonstrated so well earlier today.
These stories make an intersection with what Chris McConville talking about in his paper. Historians will always struggle to understand the full influence of gambling on the shape of Australian racing history because, by definition, much of this influence was either never documented or the documents have never been retained or the studies can’t be made. It is hard to do a study of something that is a shifting industry. Anecdotal evidence of corruption and criminality in racing abounds but it can rarely be tested. Most of it is untrue, but that doesn’t mean that all of it is. We know what people believed or what people said to each other, but not necessarily what actually happened. So it’s a very difficult area to be precise about. Racing has its saints and sinners, often combined in the one person, and it has historically been full of lies and rumours - and I don’t imagine that will ever change.
My long researches suggest that in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century large betting interests exerted huge influence on the promotion of Australian racing. I have no doubt that networks of illegal bookmakers subsidised directly or non-directly many of the numerous publications such as form guides and racing papers that boosted the sport. Illegal betting interests, the SP networks as they were known, sponsored radio broadcasts when the wireless came out into the world of racing from the late 1920s. You know those stories of the famous race caller Ken Howard being denied access to tracks in Victoria and resorting to ruses to find an off-course vantage point from which to call the races: the roof of a furniture van conveniently bogged outside the track, the verandah of a pub outside the track, a hot air balloon tethered to the ground. You can be sure that these publicity stunts did not come cheaply and you can be equally sure that his radio station was not paying the bills in the interests of freedom of speech.
Illegal bookmaking interests did all they could to prevent in every state the introduction of what came became known as the TAB, the off-course government sanctioned betting network under the banner of the Totalisator Agency Board. The TABs emerged around August from the early 1960s into the 1970s - Tasmania was the last to get one. For what must now seem a golden age in the financing of Australian racing, the TAB might have robbed racecourses of regular crowds but it did create an effective monopoly of racecourse betting and did funnel regular dividends both to governments and the sport. Then as governments became more greedy, as technology offered a back door to other media of gambling and as private entrepreneurs sought and succeeded in getting a share of the action, those TABs have been privatised and absorbed into a larger betting world in the past 15 years. Racing, as both Chris [McConville] and Rod [Fitzroy] mentioned, had an effective monopoly of betting in Australia - but no more.
The publicity for racing for whatever reasons throughout the twentieth century was huge, and the Cup was racing’s grand final. The fame of the Melbourne Cup owes a huge debt to the showmen of the wireless and in time the television such as Ken Howard, Bert Bryant, Bill Collins, Joe Brown, our own Bryan Martin, Bruce McAvaney, Clem Dimsey, Wayne Wilson had a walk-on role with media puzzle, Des Hoysted and the current champion broadcaster in my opinion Greg Miles. And there are part players who have been part of that media enthusiasm, including John Letts also here today - you will hear more from John later this afternoon - who won two cups and now interviews the breathless, emotional, winning jockeys in the saddle, which is always a highlight of the Melbourne Cup telecast.
Yet without any financial motive, the fame of the Melbourne Cup has been kept alive in the hearts of Australians from one generation to another by tradition, sentiment and affection. I think of the man who wrote to me just a couple of weeks ago who said he had not missed a Cup since standing as a nine-year-old in the wet to watch the grey Hiraji win in 1947, graduating as the years went by to being a spectator from Flat to Little Flat to the Hill, to the Lawn, to the Lawn stand and finally to the upper deck of the members’ grandstand, maintaining an unbroken link with his grandfather who, until the 1950s, saw every cup since Chester won in 1877. That is 133 years of unbroken Cups between grandfather and son. We would like to hear of anybody else who can challenge that record.
I think of the people who tell me they have no time for racing but always have a flutter on the Cup. The ones who remember where they were and what they were doing when a particular horse won the Cup. I meat a woman on the tour in Cloncurry last year who recalled the year Mum scrounged $5 from the jam jar, well hidden from Dad, and plonked it all on the nose of a particular longshot in 1972, disappeared for a week to the coast and came back with what was thereafter known as the Piping Lane memorial fridge. I myself possess the At Talaq outdoor furniture setting now getting slightly the worse for age.
The saga of the cup trophies, which is something that Geoff Slattery, who produced this Story of the Melbourne Cup book had the idea to say, ‘Let’s do a whole section in this book about the trophies,’ because the story of the trophies themselves, the actual objects, is another gateway into the story of the Melbourne Cup. If you get a chance to read that section of it, you will find some extraordinary stories and sagas of the actual trophies.
Apart from a gesture towards the poets, I haven’t even begun to talk about the way in which the Cup has shown its significance to Australians in art, in novels, in attempts at non-fiction, in music, in stamps, in coins as we found today, in the theatre and in the movies - however inaccurately - from the black and white movie days to Archer and Phar Lap and Kenny. You all know that Nicole Kidman was in that Archer movie, don’t you? It was one of her first big breakthroughs. And in it Archer heroically walked to Melbourne which he didn’t and it was ridden by the wrong jockey in the Melbourne Cup. But it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s folklore. And of course Kenny, the sanitorial plumber, also ends up at the Melbourne Cup carnival. It’s quintessential Australian. That’s an example of it there.
The Melbourne Cup also featured in the very first season of the Australian Ballet in 1962. Dame Peggy van Praagh wanted an Australian theme. Kathleen Gorham, even though she was a girl, played the role of the stallion Archer so you can do a lot with imagination - and she did it beautifully, I am told. Nor have I spoken, as I would have liked to have spoken, about the special bond that Australians historically have had with horses, the actual animals themselves. It is part of the explanation for why we learn to love the Cup and maybe why we like the handicap conditions that seem to give the lesser lights a better chance and make the champions really prove themselves.
Finally I want to say something about integrity. As Chris has said so well, for periods in the nineteenth century the Melbourne Cup, like many races, were plagued by accusations of skulduggery. Trainers such as the hugely successful James Wilson of St Albans prepared their horses in secret and did everything they could to keep the potential of untried youngsters under wraps but he had a bit of a hot line to Joe Thompson, the famous bookmaker, as well. Accusations flew every year and attempts have been made, sometimes successfully, to nobble or intimidate horses from Newminister, who won the Caulfield Cup and, as Chris said, he didn’t get to run in the Melbourne Cup in the 1870s; to Phar Lap who was shot at days before the race in 1930; to Beau Vite who was similarly targeted in 1940. They actually shot the wrong horse in the case of Beau Vite, but the jockey was so spooked by it that the horse didn’t run up to form. And of course to the favourite in 1969, Big Philou, who was doped by a crooked ex-strapper at someone else’s behest and had to be withdrawn less than an hour before the race.
So the Cup and Victorian racing hasn’t been immune from scandal and incompetence but, compared with racing in other states, it has generally come out shouting. And some credit must go to the people who ran the sport. It is easy to lampoon those old VRC committee men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - I am not talking about your period Rod Fitzroy - as rich snobs, out of touch, misogynistic, patronising to jockeys and trainers, wanting to grab privileges for themselves. I have read all of those comments before and, as in all caricatures, there is just a touch of truth. But they shared in the desire always to make not just Flemington and the Melbourne Cup great but also Australian racing prosper.
Victoria’s successive paid or stipendiary stewards sometimes made mistakes but they gave racing in that state a kind of confidence which I think has helped keep it in high esteem. Curiously, many of those chief stips were of Irish stock from the Warrnambool district. I think they have a special farm down there where they produce them. I am thinking of names such as Jim Ahern, Pat Lalor and more latterly Des Gleeson. On the committee level we have men such as LKS Mackinnon in the 1920s, regarded as the villain in the Phar Lap movie, and in the 1930s we had Sir Chester Manifold as chairman of the VRC, a great visionary. Sir Chester Manifold could have become a great politician. He went into the Victorian parliament; he was a mate of Bob Menzies; but he left the parliament very quickly saying he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. That was a call by Sir Chester and he very much through the force of his personality got the first TAB up and running in Victoria, and the others followed. Sir Chester wanted them to be austere places, a bit like a kind of car wash I think when you went in to put your bets on. He was determined that they were not going to be betting shops.
I can remember going into the Victorian ones where the betting would shut 40 minutes before the race. You couldn’t get winnings until the next day, and there were no radio broadcasts allowed. But it was a facility. If you had to go, you could go there.
So each of these people leading the VRC have had those motivations. When you read the comments of their critics and the people who were out to get them, you also have to look at what their motivation is, what their particular story is.
I should add that you should be confident that the connection of most horses in the Melbourne Cup these days are desperately keen to win. And that’s a good betting race to bet on, isn’t it? When a champion fails to get up, dark whispers emerge of jockeys on the take. People find it impossible to believe in their hearts that even carrying the grandstand Phar Lap should have been beaten in 1931, Rising Fast in 1955 going for the double or Tullock in 1960.
As I said to begin with, I have only opened up the topic with this discussion but I would like to end by plagiarising myself from the essay that I wrote in The Story of the Melbourne Cup that is called ‘Tracks that led to the Melbourne Cup’. It might give you a bit more understanding of those early days and perhaps it sums up some of my observations of the elements that went into the first Melbourne Cup which I believe are still current today. I will conclude by reading that short passage:
All the pieces were in place [for the first Melbourne Cup]. In no particular order these included: the racecourse and the hill; the strategic location of Melbourne as the hub of Victoria; the broad track and the magic of Flemington, road, river and railway, the turf, the long home straight, and the vantage points; the racing tradition already in place; the crowds and the sense of occasion; the best horses in the land; the two-mile distance of the race a true test of the thoroughbred, not too short and not too gruelling; the gentlemen who set the standard, the officials, their rules, the attempts at fairness to all; the jockeys who took the risks; the racing silks; the spirit of frontier men and gold speculators and their eternal willingness to take a gamble; the bookmakers to accommodate them gladly. The prize money: the wealth of gold-rich Melbourne. The weight scale: a handicap that gave every horse a hope but also the champions the chance to prove themselves as such. The anticipation: dreams of the underdog; dreams of glory by owners, trainers, breeders and riders; battles of wits. The appeal to all classes, unfixed though these classes were in a new colony: the Governor and the well-dressed women, the travellers from far and wide, the ‘roughs’ and the ‘swells’. The food and drink, the tents and picnics and sense of holiday, competitors coming from distant territories. Communication to the outside world: pressed and technology. And above all the drama of the spring: a theatre ready for the show. Extraordinarily, 150 runnings later, nothing has really changed. On Thursday, 7 November 1861 out of a rudimentary colony came fully formed the perfect race for Australia.
Thank you very much.
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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 30 August 2010