Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Melbourne Cup 1861 - 2015

'Archer', winner of the 1861 Melbourne Cup,
with jockey, John Cutts,
by Frederick Woodhouse Snr.
[Source : National Museum of Austrtalia 

On Tuesday the 3rd November 2015 both Australia and New Zealand will again literally grind to a halt for the running of the annual Melbourne Cup horse race at Flemington Racecourse in Victoria Australia. No other annual event manages to engage both Trans-Tasman neighbours as does the running of the 3,200 metre Melbourne Cup. And no self respecting workplace would be without its office sweepstake. I will never forget my own considerable surprise and delight at winning first placing in our office sweepstake with 'Van Der Hum' in 1976.

'The Otago Witness', 23 Nov 1861
[Source : Papers Past'] 

The first Melbourne Cup was run at the Flemington Racecourse as early as the 7th November 1861. Initially based on a "winner takes all" basis, the prize offered was £710 in gold sovereigns and a gold watch. Even at this early date the results quickly made the local regional newspaper here in Otago New Zealand (portrayed above), as I note did Australian racing results generally. A large crowd of at least 4,000 watched as 'Archer, a horse from Sydney New South Wales and ridden by John Cutts, took the lead and won. This interloper, having not been favoured to win, began an inter-state rivalry which has long since also spread across 'The Ditch' (as New Zealander's refer to the Tasman Sea). But of course the 'Melbourne Cup' is now an international race of some considerable importance and prestige with high stakes and entrants now come from around the world.

Melbourne Cup Race Card,
7th Nov 1861
[Source : State Library of NSW] 

To boost visitor numbers for the inaugural 1861 cup race, the Secretary of the Victorian Racing Club, Robert Bagot, hit upon a novel idea. By issuing two ladies tickets with every members ticket he considered that "where ladies went, men would follow". His ploy appears to have been successful as visitor numbers went up.

"The Lawn" at Flemington Racecourse on
Melbourne Cup Day, circa 1906.
[From my own collection]

Unfortunately, as noted in the newspaper report, the running of the inaugural cup race was marred when one horse bolted at the start and three out of the seventeen starters fell during the race due to "falling over one another", being 'Twilight', 'Medora' and 'Dispatch'. The latter two horses died from their injuries while the riders themselves were badly injured in the fall.

A carved Emu Egg portaying
Horses Jumping a Hurdle.
c.1889 - 1910
[from my own collection]

My own century old Australian horse racing 'souvenir' relates not to the Melbourne Cup but to Steeplechasing (hurdle racing). The above image shows a portion of a carved emu egg which has been in family ownership since around 1889 to 1910, being a gift from Australian relatives. The above image gives a good impression of the rough surface of an emu egg and of the size of the egg (13.5cm length, 9cm maximum width). The craftsman's tooling marks are also clearly visible.

Carved Emu Egg
[From my own collection]

Unfortunately rather difficult to effectively photograph, the carved image shows three horses with their riders, two holding crops, and jumping a hurdle. Even the jockey's caps are shown. The carving is made by removing a section of the darker outer layer of the egg to reveal the lighter under layer. The images are formed by carving around the images to remove the background so that the images appear in relief.

Carved Emu Egg
[From my own collection]

While the carving may appear rather naïve, the skill and time required to form an image on a rough surface requires a steady hand and would naturally take quite some time so cost would have been a consideration. This egg would have had to be laboriously hand carved whereas modern carved eggs are made using electrical drills which allows a greater degree of intricacy in a much shorter period of time. The top and bottom of the egg has a small hole which enabled the contents to be blown out.

If you've read this far you might be interested in some wonderful footage (with reasonably convincing dubbed sound) of the Melbourne Cup from the 3rd November 1896, filmed by Marius Sestier and H. Walter Barnett. Racegoers are first shown arriving by train at Flemington Racecourse Railway Station then views of the crowds on the "lawn", horses etc before the actual race itself :

Bibliography :

- Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own collection and may be freely copied provided this page is acknowledged.


  1. I had no idea that both Australia AND New Zealand would come to a halt for the running of the annual Melbourne Cup. I can imagine that ANZAC Day and other shared experiences would engage both Trans-Tasman neighbours, but I am delighted that your national passion for sport (or fashion) includes Cup Day.
    It is a public holiday here, of course.

    Many thanks for a great link

  2. Thanks Hels,
    We don't get the public holiday but yes, the event is still big over here because of the long-standing New Zealand participation.


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