The Race That Stops a Nation

It’s nearly here again, this year for the 150th time, arguably the greatest horse race in the world. Yes, the Melbourne Cup is just a few days away. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world, where racing for one day totally dominates a nation’s thoughts and habits. People stop work, or don’t go to work at all, but go to thousands of organised parties, and even plan holidays around the race.

Here in Britain we have Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, the Epsom Derby meeting, even Champions’ Day at Newmarket (for the last time this year), and the Grand National at Aintree, but none of these begin to compete with the Melbourne Cup in drawing a whole nation’s attention to a horse race. So why is it such a success and can British racing learn anything from it?

After becoming the first European winner of the race in 1993, on the Dermot Weld trained Vintage Crop, thus establishing the race’s international credentials, jockey Mick Kinane, no stranger to global success, said of the race, “It gets as much hype as the Derby and Arc put together and though I never dreamt as a child of winning the race, like I did the Derby, I’d recommend it to anyone!”

The race, part of the four day Flemington festival, is run on the first Tuesday in November, not, note, at the weekend. It has always attracted huge crowds to the racecourse. Even in the dark days of the Depression, in 1930, 80,000 people paid at the gate to see the great Phar Lap, and another 40,000, who couldn’t afford to, cheered from the rooftops in neighbouring downtown Melbourne. Today, numbers on the course on Cup day are limited to a ‘modest’ 120,000 spectators, based on pre-booked tickets, to ensure, as the Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club put it, ‘a comfortable racegoer experience’. The 67,000 people who crowded into Cheltenham racecourse on Gold Cup day this year might have thought that, though much fewer in number, their ‘comfortable racegoer experience’ was a little lacking, compared with those at the Melbourne Cup.

Two aspects of the Melbourne Cup might seem a little strange for a race that has so much prestige. Firstly, it isn’t a classic; it’s not even run over a classic distance, but over a long bursting 2 miles, a long way for a flat race. It’s a demanding race; winners need speed, stamina and guts. But secondly it mocks breeding and future breeding potential because it’s a handicap and just about any of the runners can win it. In the history of the race the difference between weight carried by the top and bottom of the handicap has sometimes been as much as 56 lbs. But despite being a handicap the race has been a magnet for great horses, some achieving prodigious weight carrying feats. Potrel won it carrying 10st 0lbs (63.6 kgs), Archer triumphed with 10st 2lb (64.5 kgs), and the great Carbine humped 10st 5lbs (66. kgs) to victory.

British racing has had many equine heroes in recent times: Nijinksky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, amongst others, but none were asked to carry huge weights in handicaps and none were taken to the nation’s heart as were the heroes of the Melbourne Cup.

The great Australian icon Phar Lap reflects this. He ran in the race three times, each time starting favourite. At his second attempt he won it convincingly carrying the welter burden of 9st 12lbs (62.7 kgs), and remains the only horse to have won the Melbourne Cup at odds on. The following year he was asked to shoulder the crucifying burden of 10st 10lbs (68.2kgs) and not surprisingly, could only finish 8th, beaten by a horse carrying a mere 6st 12lbs (43.6 kgs). But his career, mixing stakes and weight for age races, with handicaps shows how great horses can draw crowds and excite wide interest.

Phar Lap was a legend even before his defeat that year. He had won the prestigious Futurity Stakes at Caulfield over an inadequate 7 furlong carrying a massive 10st 3lbs (65 kgs), despite having been left 40 lengths at the start. Before that, he had drawn a crowd of 78,000, much larger than expected, to Randwick, to see him win the AJC Derby. But his abilities were evident in all his racecourse performances. He won all the great weight for age races at Randwick, Rosehill, Caulfield, Flemington, Moonee Valley, plus the coveted Kings Cup at Morphetville. He won over distances of 7 furlongs to 2 miles, but, in the midst of this, ran in, and won, handicaps, and became a national hero.

But perhaps his greatest achievement is still seen to be that victory in the Melbourne Cup. One writer in the now defunct Australian Sportsman put it in a way that captures the lure of the Melbourne Cup: “Those who had the good fortune to be there on that Tuesday can never forget it. It stirred the very soul. Such moments are worth living for, and worth remembering.”

The Melbourne Cup is, despite being a handicap, the two mile championship of the world. Great horses have carried big weights in the race and won it. It has thrown up great feats of equine courage which the classics in Britain rarely do. But in Britain, the top class horses simply do not run in handicaps. As things stand we will never see the likes of Phar Lap running in the Cambridgeshire or the Cesarawitch, both of which he would have been capable of winning, even under a welter burden. Handicaps simply don’t carry the prestige or the prize money of many weight for age races or the classics. But they could, and with careful thought, as limited handicaps, become a vehicle to allow horses to demonstrate tenacity, courage and greatness in ways which would only enhance their value.

British racing isn’t in crisis, but it is certainly contemplating its future. At the very least racing in Britain needs to be more attractive to very many more people than it is at present. Gone are the days when over a quarter of a million people gathered on Epsom Downs to watch the Derby. Will we ever see the likes of this on a racecourse again, and will we ever produce equine heroes who can capture a nation’s imagination?

The major stakeholders in the future of British racing could do worse than reflect on the success of the Melbourne Cup over the last century and a half, and ask: What makes it so successful as a horse race, but also something that has become a national event, and how could British racing achieve something comparable?

Article written by Michael Richards.