The History of the Melbourne Cup

Melbourne cup horses image for illustration of horses and jockeys

Throughout the racing season in Australia, The Melbourne Cup is far and away the most important thoroughbred race they have to offer. This is, in no small part, because of the rich history that the race brings. As such, Melbourne Cup horses come from all over the world to take part in the event, which has taken place yearly since 1861 – and is this year due to take place on Tuesday 2nd November 2021.

The Melbourne Cup is a traditional two-mile race that covers a distance of 3,200 metres. It is only available for horses aged three years or older. Only the very best get the opportunity to take part in the most prestigious and richest two-mile handicap race in the world.

Because of its history and reputation, Melbourne Cup Day is even a public holiday in Melbourne – hence its nickname, ‘The Race that Stops a Nation’. Every year, on the first Tuesday of November, people put all plans aside to make way for the Melbourne Cup – and this has been the case since its inception in 1861.

melbourne cup

Archer – A Racing Legend

Port Jackson in Australia received its First Fleet, along with its cargo of a colt, a filly, four mares and a stallion back in 1788. This was when the idea of horse racing first hit the Australian shores. It wasn’t until 1835 that settlers in Melbourne actually marked out a racetrack. They used Bullock carts as grandstands and coat stands to demarcate the winning posts. Punters were already placing bets on the outcome – with bottles of rum rather than cash.


The first three-day horse racing event happened in 1840 and this was really the beginning of ‘official’ horse racing in Melbourne – and this is where the history really began. It was run, at first, by a number of small racing clubs until it was taken over in 1861 by the Victoria Turf Club. The start of the Melbourne Cup was marked that Thursday, the first in November – and so the tradition began. 

The very first Melbourne Cup was run by 17 horses, and the first-ever winner was a bay stallion called Archer.  According to local legend, in order to take part in the race, Archer had to walk from Terara, New South Wales – over 500 miles. This win was not luck or a one-off. Archer won the race again the very next year and was awarded a prize of 810 gold sovereigns as well as a gold watch. This was before the current Melbourne Cup trophy  – the traditional Loving Cup – was created. To this day, Archer is one of only five horses to ever win the Melbourne Cup more than one time.

Australia Grinds to a Halt

In 1864, the Victoria Turf Club merged with the Victoria Jockey Club, and together they formed the Victoria Racing Club. This VRC has remained in control of the race since this date and has built the race up to what it is today – a race that stops the nation.

Because of its popularity, in 1865 they declared Melbourne Cup Day a half-day holiday – which was upgraded to a whole day holiday in 1877, to allow racegoers to attend the Flemington Racecourse and watch it first hand. The day changed from Thursday to Tuesday in 1875 and after this, it adopted a four-day format which became known as the Melbourne Spring Festival. Ever since then, the popularity of the Melbourne Cup and festival has continued to grow.

To date, The Flemington Racetrack is home to the Victoria Racing Club – and the most popular racecourse in the whole of the country. It can hold 120,000 spectators at any one time and for those who can’t get in, there are television panels outside showcasing the racing, meaning more people can watch the action. The track is pear-shaped and its back straight is six furlongs, with a final straight up to the finishing post of 450 metres. This is the part of the race that can change the outcome in the final seconds.

Early Winners

Due to its rich history, the Melbourne Cup has provided us with some incredible early winners, starting with Archer, ridden by John Cutts. He made history by defeating the favourite – the Victoria champion at that time, Mormon – by an incredible 6-lengths. 

Moving forward to the Melbourne Cup in 1976, it was won by three-year-old filly Briseis, who won the race in an impressive time of 3.36.25. This was not it though, she then went on to win the VRC Derby, VRC Oaks and the Melbourne Cup in the space of just six days. Moreover, Briseis was ridden by the youngest ever jockey. He wasn’t even 13 years old when they made history at The Melbourne Cup.

The most famous Melbourne Cup horse to date is Phar Lap, who won the race in 1930. He was the shortest-priced favourite ever to take part in the Melbourne Cup – with starting odds of 11/8. So favoured was he, that there was even an attempt to shoot him before the race, so he had to be hidden away.

Melbourne Cup Stats and Facts

Here are some fast facts about The Melbourne Cup:

  • The fastest ever winning time is 3.16.30 by Kingston Rule in 1990
  • The widest winning margin ever was in 1862 by Archer and 19868 by Rain Lover – both winning by 8 lengths.
  • The trainer with the most wins is Bart Cummings with 12 wins between 1965 and 2008.
  • The horse with the most wins is Makybe Diva with three wins between 2004-2006.
  • The Jockey with the most wins is Bobby Lewis, who won 4 times in 1902, 1915, 1919 and 1927 and Harry White  1974-75 and 1978-79.

Making History

Every year, jockers, trainers and horses are trying not just to win, but to make history. Moreover, punters are placing bets on the wins – and hoping for big outsiders to bring big wins. So, which horse will win Melbourne Cup 2021 and can they break another record and become a part of the race’s already rich history?

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