Looking back at the Melbourne Cup
The Melbourne Cup was first run in 1861. What was happening in the world in 1861? The really big news then was that the American Civil War between the Union states and Confederate states was entering its seventh month of conflict, in a war that would last almost exactly four years to the day (1861-65).
Over in Europe the United Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II was declared. All except Rome, which joined about a decade or so later.
Here in Australia, colonials were coming to terms with the tragic death of intrepid explorers Burke and Wills.
So this was the backdrop to the running of the very first Melbourne Cup (MC), which was won by one of our very best horses to win that race – Archer, lumping 9st 7lbs, or 60.5kgs in the modern terminology. Just for good measure, Archer won again the next year (1862), thus becoming the race’s first dual winner.
A feat since emulated by only 4 other horses – Peter Pan in 1932 and 34, Rain Lover 1968/69; Think Big 1974/75, and Makybe Diva 2003-04-05.
Despite the occasional deluge and two world wars, the Melbourne Cup will enjoy its 150th consecutive running. The race from memory has been postponed on two occasions but never cancelled. That’s a mighty achievement.
The MC is run on the first Tuesday of November, a tradition dating back to 1875, that has seen only a few interruptions, notably due to WWII, when the Cup was run on Saturdays.
Britain gave us the modern thoroughbred racing system, the thoroughbred lineage, the weight for age scale, basically everything familiar to us with flat racing today. So naturally, the English classics (St Leger, Oaks, Derby, 2000 Gns, 1000 Gns) all predate the MC, but not much else.
The American triple crown races all came after the MC – the Kentucky Derby in 1875, the Preakness Stakes in 1873 and the Belmont Stakes in 1867.
More recently, the world’s most prestigious horse race – the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – only began life in 1920. The almost equally prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes didn’t kick off until 1946.
More recently, the world’s most valuable horse race – the Dubai Gold Cup – only came into existence in 1996. The Japan Cup was first run in 1981, while the prestigious Breeders Cup multiple race two day program in the US was first run in 1984.
Old-timers wouldn’t recognise the MC today, and that’s a good thing. It’s now a quality handicap, with the weights between the best and ordinary horses compressed. The limit weight now is 50kgs (7st 12lbs).
Applied retrospectively, it would wipe out 40% of previous Cup winners who carried less than 50kgs to victory. You see, that used to be one of the “tricks” of finding the Cup winner in the past – looking for the horse with good form, who had escaped the handicapper’s attention, by being allocated a light weight.
Not any more. In this year’s cup, the weights will range from a top weight of 57kgs (Shocking) to about 52kgs. We can thank the introduction of overseas horses for this. When Vintage Crop saluted the judges in 1993 for his Irish trainer Dermot Weld, the Cup was positively transformed in a way not immediately obvious.
Today, almost every horse in the Cup reeks of quality. There is hardly a donkey among them. Picking the winner just gets harder. Based just on Australian racing, this year’s Cup will feature a previous Cup winner, as well as winners of the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, Sydney Cup, Brisbane Cup, Australian and Victorian Derbies and Australian and Victorian Oaks. The field simply oozes class, befitting its 150th consecutive running.
The truth is, trawling through the history of the MC, about 80 per cent of cup runners in the past have been donkeys, including unfortunately a few too many of the winners. But that’s the beauty of the Australian egalitarian way.
But also, it’s the quality of the remaining 20 per cent and the rubik’s cube range of possible outcomes, that makes the Cup so enchanting and compelling.
Even famous American writer Mark Twain, after visiting Australia and witnessing the 1895 MC, was moved to write: “Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me”.
So who will win the Cup on the first Tuesday in November?
Firstly, forget the experts, hardly a single one of them predicted that Shocking would win last year. They get paid good money to predict winners, just like consultants, and they have as little genuine idea as consultants!
Be guided by history. Traditionally, the most accurate form guide is the Caulfield Cup. Look for horses running home strongly at the end of that race. The best three runs from the Caulfield Cup were by Shocking (4th), Manighar (5th) and Mr Medici (6th).
They will be up there at the finish. Also, study the results from the Mackinnon Stakes and Lexus (Hotham Hcp) this Saturday. Again, it’s not necessarily the winner we’re looking at, but those horses that finish strongly to the line.
There are usually races that come into and out of vogue as Cup pointers. In recent years, the Geelong Cup has become a most useful guide. This year’s winner Americain is another to put into your portfolio.
The experts say So You Think won’t run the distance. But he’s bred on both sides of his family to be a stayer. The experts also said So You Think’s former stablemate Saintly couldn’t run the distance, but he proved them wrong.
In 1996, Saintly won the Cox Plate-Melbourne Cup double, something So You Think will be attempting to emulate in 2010.
We are often shaped by our experience from the entry point into any event, or sport. My entry point into the Melbourne Cup was as a nine year old back in 1965, when my folks asked me to tip a horse for the big race.
For some reason I happened to like the name Light Fingers. It also happened to become Bart Cummings first ever of a current 12 Melbourne Cup winners. I’ve been with Bart his whole MC journey, and I’ll be having a quiet wager on So You Think.
Finally, to round out my top 6, I’ll throw in Shoot Out. So there you have it – Shocking, Manighar, Mr Medici, Americain, So You Think and Shoot Out.
I will be very surprised (six days out) if the winner comes from anywhere else. But then, what would I know.
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