The History of the Melbourne Cup

Few horse races conjure up as much excitement as the Melbourne Cup. It takes place on the first Tuesday in November each year and is the richest two-mile handicap in the world. The Melbourne Cup is a thoroughbred horse race for horses aged three years and above and is run at the Flemington Racecourse. Although the race is technically regarded as a two-mile handicap, it’s run over 3,200 metres, following the adoption of the metric system.

Key points
  • First race was run in 1861 and is famously known as “the race that stops the nation”
  • The first foreign horse to win the race was Comedy King in 1910
  • Stallions have been most successful, although the mare Makybe Diva has the most wins

The Melbourne Cup is far more than just a horse race, there is also a half-day public holiday in Victoria on Melbourne Cup Day. This is why many people refer to the event as the ‘Race that stops a Nation’. The holiday gives more people the chance to watch the exciting events unfold at Flemington which is the most popular course in Australian racing. 

There is room for 120,000 spectators inside Flemington and many more racing fans watch the race on television panels outside. The Melbourne Cup has always been popular with racegoers, ever since the first race was run, in 1861. It’s fascinating to look back over the long Melbourne Cup history. 


The early years of the Melbourne Cup

The original concept of holding a ‘Melbourne Cup’ was put forward by Frederick Standish who was the Chairman of the Victorian Racing Club. His idea became reality on November 7, 1861, when 17 horses competed in the first Melbourne Cup. 

In those early days, there were only 4,000 spectators at the course to watch Archer and jockey John Cutts race to victory.  The winning team won a prize of 710 gold sovereigns prize money and a gold watch. There was no trophy for the winner of the race. 

The first trophy was not awarded until 1865. This trophy was not popular with Mr. Marshall who was the owner of the winning horse, Tory Boy. He called it a ‘monstrosity’ and sold it to the Flemington Hunt Club. The trophy was used by the club and sold at auction to Wolf Blass in the 1970s.

The trophy, which was awarded the following year, when W. Davis rode to victory on The Barb, is the earliest Melbourne Cup trophy that is still in its original state. It was made in London by Daniel and Charles Houle and consists of silver-gilt and gold leaf used in a Renaissance revival style.

Over the years, the design of the Melbourne Cup trophy has altered several times, and there have been many occasions when the winners did not receive a trophy. The trophy is not the only thing that has changed throughout the history of this famous Australian horse race.

 The Melbourne Cup through the years

There have been a lot of changes to the Melbourne Cup since it began in the 19th century such as the introduction of foreign bred horses and female jockeys joining the field. In the case of foreign horses, the first one to win the race was Comedy King in 1910. However, the trend for horses bred in other countries to compete really took off in recent decades. 

Since this happened, several foreign bred horses have become winners of the Melbourne Cup including Belldale Ball in 1980, Kingston Rule in 1990, Media Puzzle in 2002, and Makybe Diva in 2003, 2004, and 2005.  Makybe Diva is also the only horse to have won the race three times.

Other records from the Melbourne Cup are:

  •       Fastest winning time – 3 minutes 16.3 seconds by Kingston Rule in 1990.
  •       Biggest winning margin – 8 lengths by Archer in 1862 and Rain Lover in 1968.
  •       Trainer with the most wins – Bart Cummings.
  •       Jockey with the most wins – Bobby Lewis.

The people and horses of the Melbourne Cup

The Melbourne Cup is the spectacle it is because of the horses, jockeys, owners, and trainers that take part every year. Scotland born John Tait is one of the most famous names associated with the race. As an owner and trainer, he won the race four times. 

Another trainer who has achieved success at the famous race is Sheila Laxon. She was the first female trainer to win, with New Zealand bred Ethereal. The most successful of Melbourne Cup trainers is Bart Cummings with a total of 12 wins.

When it comes to jockeys, the first female to compete in the race was Maree Lyndon. The only female jockey to win is Michelle Payne who rode to victory on the Prince of Penzance, in 2015. The youngest jockey to achieve success was Peter St. Albans who rode Briseis to victory in 1876. He was just short of his 13th birthday at the time.

Of course, the horses are often the biggest draw at the Melbourne Cup. One of the most famous horses to win the race is Phar Lap. The horse’s story and mysterious death were featured in the 1983 film of the same name. 



The Barb, known as the Black Demon, is another horse that won the Melbourne Cup. He was also successful at other courses. Altogether, he won 16 of the 23 races he ran in. The most successful horses at the race overall are stallions although the mare Makybe Diva has the most wins.

You only need to look at this incredible history of the Melbourne Cup horse race to understand why it is one of the most successful horse races in the world. This success for the ‘Race that stops a Nation’ seems set to continue for many years to come.

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