The Melbourne Cup has provided thrills, spills and entertainment for the masses since 1861, earning it the nickname ‘the race that stops the nation’.
It is a time when even the most casual punter will have a flutter on a favourite, roughie, local hope or foreign raider in the hopes of striking it rich.
While the race itself may only last a couple of minutes, the day at Flemington Racecourse is on the bucket list for many Australians.
However while there have been plenty of heart-warming stories to come out of Melbourne Cup Day, the jewel in the heart of the Spring Carnival has also had many contentious moments.
Here are some of the most shocking facts about the Melbourne Cup, dating all the way back to when it all first started:
History-making jockey Michelle Payne is banned for drug use
Michelle Payne riding Prince Of Penzance became the first woman rider to win the Melbourne Cup, an achievement which is yet to be matched
Michelle Payne and trainer Gai Waterhouse pose during the 2023 Melbourne Cup Carnival Launch at Flemington Racecourse
Michelle Payne made history as the first and only woman to win the Melbourne Cup in its 162-year existence. She achieved this remarkable feat while riding Prince of Penzance, whose colors were coincidentally the same as those of the suffragette movement: purple, green, and white. It was a shock, upset victory, as she was considered a longshot at odds of 100-1 on that day at Flemington.
“I want to say to everyone else get stuffed because women can do anything and we can beat the world,” she said at the time.
However, just two years after her historic win, Michelle Payne faced a setback when she tested positive for a banned substance called Phentermine, which is an appetite suppressant. This happened after she provided a urine sample at a racing event in Swan Hill, northern Victoria, on June 11, 2017.
Michelle’s legal team tried to argue for a lighter punishment, explaining that she had been prescribed Phentermine to help with health issues stemming from a traumatic experience she had in 2016. Despite their efforts, Michelle was suspended from the sport for four weeks after pleading guilty.
In a statement, she took full responsibility for her actions, saying, “The blame is entirely on me. I regret not seeking more guidance, I wasn’t thorough, and that is entirely my fault. I sincerely apologise to everyone.”
Payne has since announced her decision to retire from horse racing at the end of the 2023 season.
What do we do with the drunken Governor-General?
Governor-General John Kerr certainly enjoyed himself at the 1977 running of the Melbourne Cup
Melbourne Cup Day and the Spring Racing Carnival are known for wild partying and mishaps, usually involving excited fans rather than politicians. However, in 1977, something unusual happened. After Black and Gold won the race, Governor-General John Kerr was supposed to present the Cup to the winning trainer, Bart Cummings, who had just won his fourth Melbourne Cup.
But here’s the twist: Governor-General Kerr seemed to be very drunk. When he got up to speak, his speech was bizarre, to say the least. Even today, almost 50 years later, people remember his strange words more than the actual race.
Kerr’s obvious drunkenness, along with his bushy white hair and aristocratic demeanor, made him look more like a character from Barry Humphries’ comedy than a serious government official. The crowd even hissed as he stumbled through his speech.
He tried to explain away the strange noises in his speech by saying, “Any little noises that you may happen to hear are only static. It’s just something wrong with the system. Cheers from a small minority! However, life is wonderful for all of us.”
Later on, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam admitted that he had made a mistake in appointing Kerr as Governor-General, calling him a “drunk.” It was a memorable and embarrassing moment in Australian political and racing history.
Youngest ever jockey to win the Melbourne Cup
Peter St Albans is the youngest ever jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, saluting in 1876 when he was just 11 years old
The young rider said he was 13, which was the cut-off mark for riders during that era, to make his way into the final field of the Melbourne Cup
The youngest jockey to ever win the Melbourne Cup was not Ray Neville, as many might think, but Peter St Albans, who achieved this remarkable feat at the astonishing age of 11 in 1876, riding Briseis to victory.
Dr. Andrew Lemon, a historian from the Victoria Racing Club, believes that it’s high time Peter St Albans received recognition for his extraordinary achievement. He pointed out that if an 11-year-old jockey were to win the Melbourne Cup today, it would make national headlines.
Peter’s story was nearly lost to history due to some confusion surrounding his name. He was born in St Albans, near Geelong, on November 15, 1864. He initially rode under the name Peter St Albans but later trained under his original name, Peter Bowden. To further complicate matters, his parents’ surname was Bowdren, not Bowden, and he was registered as Michael Bowden at birth, although his family called him Peter.
During his time as an apprentice jockey, Peter worked for the renowned trainer James Wilson, who was equivalent to the modern-day Bart Cummings and founded Geelong’s St Albans Stud. However, jockeys were relatively anonymous figures back then, and there wasn’t much media coverage about them in the 1870s.
Racegoers at the time were unaware of Peter St Albans’ true age, describing him as small and even once as “the ladies’ favorite, the little freckled lad.” He weighed just under 40kg when he won the Melbourne Cup on November 7, 1876, which was eight days before his 12th birthday.
Why Burke and Wills caused the inaugural Melbourne Cup to fall flat
The first Melbourne Cup was an exciting event, but plenty of things went wrong which makes it a miracle the race has endured to the modern era
Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-1861) and William John Wills (1834-1861) were sent by the Victorian government to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria as it was unknown what was in the centre of Australia. They died of starvation on the banks of Coopers Creek
The inaugural Melbourne Cup in 1861 did not go as planned.
The city was in mourning following the deaths of renowned explorers Burke and Wills, which led to a smaller-than-expected crowd of 4000 attendees.
On the morning of the race, four horses were scratched from the event, reducing the field to just 17 competitors.
To add to the chaos, one horse bolted away just before the race started.
During the race itself, three of the remaining horses fell, and tragically, two of them lost their lives.
Amidst this turmoil, Archer emerged as the clear winner, achieving a commanding six-length victory. However, the disorder that surrounded the first running of the Melbourne Cup left a lasting impression on the day’s events.
1997 Melbourne Cup: Might and Power Triumphs Over Doriemus
Doriemus with jockey Greg Hall (left) just fails to pip winner Might and Power with jockey Jim Cassidy on the line in the 137th running of the Melbourne Cup
In the rich tapestry of Melbourne Cup history, there have been numerous close and exciting races, but the 1997 edition stands out as one of the closest. The thrilling showdown saw Might and Power narrowly defeating the 1995 winner, Doriemus, in a heart-pounding finish.
As the horses approached the final couple of hundred meters, Might and Power held a slender lead and seemed poised for victory. However, Doriemus, seemingly out of nowhere, launched a lightning-fast last-minute charge. In a breathtaking display of speed and determination, the two horses crossed the finish line virtually side by side.
The tension was palpable, and Doriemus’ jockey, Greg Hall, raised his whip in celebration, firmly believing he had secured the win. It was a moment of premature jubilation, as a photo finish would later reveal. Might and Power had indeed clinched the victory, leaving Hall’s early celebrations in vain.
This dramatic turn of events left some punters disgruntled while delighting others who had backed Might and Power. The 1997 Melbourne Cup will forever be etched in the annals of racing history as a nail-biting contest that showcased the sheer unpredictability and excitement that make this race a legendary event.