The Melbourne Cup is sometimes deplored but the central place it holds in Australian mainstream culture is rarely disputed.
And its promotion came quickly. Its first running in 1861 drew about 4,000 spectators. In 1870 an estimated 30,000 attended and 100,000 was claimed for the 1880 running – about a third of the population of Melbourne. Even allowing for some boasting spurred by colonial rivalry, these are remarkable figures.
Savvy writers soon recognised the impact of the Cup. American Mark Twain witnessed it in 1895, writing of his astonishment at the extent of “Cup fever” in Australia. Englishman Nat Gould made a fortune writing Edwardian pot-boilers with racing themes. One of his earliest novels was The Double Event: a Tale of the Melbourne Cup. It became a bestseller in Australia and Britain. Arthur W. Upfield, creator of the Aboriginal detective “Bony”, entered the market with The Great Melbourne Cup Mystery. In 1936 Cinesound filmmaker Ken G. Hall contributed Thoroughbred, a thinly veiled retelling of Phar Lap’s 1930 brush with gangsters.
Yet the Phar Lap story, familiar to millions, emphasises that on the racetrack truth usually is stranger than fiction. In recent years there have been several more unlikely plot twists.
During the 2000s the chunky mare Makybe Diva bullied her way to an unprecedented three straight Melbourne Cup wins.
In 2015 battling jockey Michelle Payne outdid National Velvet by winning the race on a 100/1 aged gelding from the bush named Prince of Penzance. In doing so she became the first female jockey to win the great race. The pair’s subsequent histories emphasise the ephemeral nature of success in racing; Payne was seriously injured in a fall and replaced as the Prince’s rider. The horse lost form, before breaking down and being retired.
The race’s long history contains many more extraordinary personal stories, once celebrated, but probably unfamiliar to most modern-day observers. One that appealed to the Gothic sensibilities of those 19th century race-followers who so impressed Twain was the outré tale of the 1870 Cup. Months before the race, Ballarat publican Walter Craig had a vivid dream. In this dream he watched his own horse, Nimblefoot, win the Cup, but he noticed his jockey was wearing a black armband. Craig’s premonition was that his horse would win the Cup, but that he would not live to see it. So strong was his conviction that the story gained great currency and was reported in the press before the Cup was run (this is verified by the Trove newspaper database). Astonishingly, Craig’s horse Nimblefoot won the cup, with the jockey wearing a black crepe armband to mourn Walter Craig who, just as he had dreamed, died before the race.
A more humorous tale of Melbourne Cup forewarning concerns jockey John Letts, who rode the 40/1 outsider Piping Lane in 1972. Letts was a South Australian, a late booking because he could make the horse’s light weight of 48 kilograms. When approached for the ride he decided not to reveal he had not ridden at Flemington previously. He asked a friend among the local jockeys for advice and was told “make your move at Chiquita Lodge”. In the run Letts gained a good position. As the field began the long turn for home, he scanned the horizon for Chiquita Lodge. “I was looking up in the sky for some multi-storey hotel or apartments,” he recalled. Nothing like that appeared and the jockey grew desperate. Then he saw the favourite Gunsynd being urged forward and decided to get onto its tail. In the straight Piping Lane surged past Gunsynd and went on to an easy win.
Later Letts confronted his informant about the Chiquita Lodge tip. He was embarrassed to learn that Chiquita Lodge was a famous stable that ran down the side of the racecourse with its name painted in huge letters on the roof. Letts capitalised on his 1972 win to become one of the country’s leading jockeys and won another Melbourne Cup in 1980 – leading all the way.
The story of the 1906 winner Poseidon and its ardent admirer, a Chinese market-gardener named Jimmy Ah Poon, also has its element of humour. Poseidon was a three-year-old colt in the spring of 1906. He began a sequence of big-race wins at Randwick in September, then won at Hawkesbury, followed up in the AJC Derby, but then ran second in the Metropolitan Handicap. He then travelled to Melbourne and won four races in a row, culminating in the Melbourne Cup. In autumn 1907 Poseidon raced five times for three more wins and two seconds.
Ah Poon supplied Poseidon with his favourite food, carrots, from his garden. They became firm friends. He bet 10 pounds on the horse at Randwick then “let it ride” at Hawkesbury and in the Derby. At the urging of the owner he laid off on the Metropolitan defeat, then again bet all-up in each of the Melbourne wins. He did the same in the autumn, but somehow knew not to bet on the losses. Bookmakers, who not surprisingly had come to know him well, wryly nicknamed him “The Possum” for his pronunciation of “Poseidon” when placing bets, but also for his cunning in avoiding losing days. He was not seen at the track thereafter and it is believed he returned to China with his fortune intact.
The Cup of 1890 was won by “Old Jack” or Carbine, the horse that several racing heavyweights judge superior to Phar Lap.
It is one of the earliest for which we have images of the the contestants approaching the winning post. It is thus of significance in the history of photography. The picture also captures a large section of the crowd watching the race intently, in which a keen-eyed latter-day researcher named Jack Pollard spotted a crime in progress. One racegoer is being “dipped” – that is, having his pocket picked (circled in the photo). One hopes that the victim was not holding a winning ticket.
For those interested in reading more quirky Melbourne Cup anecdotes, I recommend A Century of Winners, by Bill Ahern (Boolarong Press, 1982).