art for Andrew Rule Melbourne Cup
art for Andrew Rule Melbourne Cup

The iconic moments that define the Melbourne Cup

We are a nation "of punters and partygoers", as the philosopher Paul Hogan once said. The first Tuesday in November proves his point.

Some people call racing an industry and for 364 days a year it is, though it's a strange industry. One based on compulsive loss making.

But the Melbourne Cup is more than black ink on a balance sheet. It is part folk festival, part mardi gras and a total phenomenon: from Parliament House to your house, it still demands attention.

It has been this way ever since Archer won the first in 1861. What's the secret? "It's the vibe", as that other great thinker, Dennis Denuto, put it so well. The invisible thing our Irish cousins call "the craic".

When Mark Twain visited in 1895 - the year Auraria won the 35th Cup - the Cup astounded him. He called it "Australasian National Day" and described how 100,000 people flocked from all over the country to keep "fun and excitement at a white heat" for a week.

Mark Twain.
Mark Twain.

The world has changed beyond recognition since then, but the Cup's grip on us has defied the odds.

As a 3200m handicap that pits star stayers against lightweight longshots, the race itself is as dated as a buggy whip, but no one seems to care. Such staying marathons were once common here, but went out of fashion about the time the Golden Slipper started the sprinting trend in the 1950s.

The average Cup fan could hardly name the winner of another 3200m race anywhere in the world.

True, the Cup is now a "quality handicap" that attracts more and more overseas stayers, and the weight scale has been compressed.

But we still like to think "anyone can win", even if it's often a contest between oil sheiks, Lloyd Williams and millionaire syndicates. Still, the most expensive horse doesn't always win, and that keeps it interesting.

 

Lloyd Williams celebrates the 2017 Melbourne Cup. Picture: Michael Klein
Lloyd Williams celebrates the 2017 Melbourne Cup. Picture: Michael Klein

Cup fever takes hold every spring. Thousands of people who wouldn't know a horse from a hoe will slip into TABs for a sneaky bet. They'll run sweeps in the office and at home with the kids, and debate whether to back favourite colours, lucky numbers or horses with nice names.

They'll say it was better when Bart was around. It seems millions of us are on first-name terms with the late Cups King.

Most families have scraps of Cup lore. My uncle the steeplechase jockey, who'd started race riding on unregistered "pony" tracks at 11, ran his hands over the young Phar Lap in a stable in Lord St, Caulfield, around the time Wall St collapsed. Looks like a jumper, he said of the promising galloper about to start a streak that made the world sit up.

As a teenager, my dad backed Rimfire at 80-1 in 1948. I remembered that yarn nearly 50 years later when I went to the Wimmera to meet Ray Neville, the nuggety little bloke who'd ridden Rimfire a lifetime before - winning the first-ever Cup photo-finish the day before his 16th birthday.

Ray Neville won the Melbourne Cup age 16 on racehorse Rimfire in 1948.
Ray Neville won the Melbourne Cup age 16 on racehorse Rimfire in 1948.

He then faded into racing history, but the allegation "he never won another race" is rubbish: he combined riding steeplechasers with building houses for most of the next 20 years and won his share.

The boy from Birchip was so tiny they had to roll up the sleeves of the colours. And Rimfire had dicky legs. But the kid on the crock wasn't the youngest or smallest jockey to win the Cup. That was a lad using the alias Peter St Albans, who rode the freakish filly Briseis to victory in 1876. St Albans, real name Michael Bowden, was not quite 12. No wonder he could ride at 39kg.

Briseis, by the way, won the Derby, Oaks and Cup in six days, which puts her up there with Michelle Payne and triple-Cup winner Makybe Diva in the girl power stakes.

Rimfire and Briseis and their baby-faced jockeys are two stories that rank with Michelle's modern fairytale, now screening at a cinema near you. Take the tissues - it's a case of cry like a girl. Critics pick out things not to like about the film, but that doesn't hurt its popularity or its power to pluck heartstrings. A bit like the big race itself, really.

When this newspaper's racing experts voted on Australian racing's greatest moments earlier this year, everyone nominated the 2002 Cup, when Damien Oliver won on Media Puzzle a week after his brother, Jason, died from a track fall.

05/11/2002. Damien Oliver rides Media Puzzle to victory. 2002 Melbourne Cup. racing.
05/11/2002. Damien Oliver rides Media Puzzle to victory. 2002 Melbourne Cup. racing.

Oliver, maybe the hardest man in the saddle since Mick "The Enforcer" Dittman, wore Jason's breeches as a tribute. He looked up to the sky and saluted after passing the post, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Oliver hadn't won in 12 races at the carnival before mounting Media Puzzle. It was better that way: it was as if he was meant to win the only one that mattered.

It was, said racing's laureate Les Carlyon minutes later, "A win by Hollywood out of Sentiment". Perfect words.

Jockey Damien Oliver raises his arm in the air as he pays tribute to his late brother.
Jockey Damien Oliver raises his arm in the air as he pays tribute to his late brother.

To be at Flemington that day and again in 2015, when the youngest Payne made history on her 100-1 shot Prince Of Penzance, was to see two of the great race's greatest moments. But there are many others.

There's the story of the 1938 winner, Catalogue. He was just another tough Kiwi gelding sneaked across the Tasman to heist Aussie gold, but his trainer is the better story. The racebook named Catalogue's trainer as "Mr A. McDonald", but only because Australian racing did not license women. The actual trainer was Mrs McDonald, real name Hedwick Wilhelmina, but known as "Granny".

Then there's Rivette, who won the next year. Rivette was the foal of a racing pony mare, Riv, owned by a battler, Harry Bamber, who'd been a Lighthorseman in World War I.

Bamber, a blacksmith by trade, was so broke in the Depression he was milking cows for a living and struggling to feed little Riv, who was in fact a thoroughbred mare sired by an imported stallion, but small enough to race against the "ponies" at unregistered "pony" meetings.

Michelle Payne made history on Prince Of Penzance.
Michelle Payne made history on Prince Of Penzance.

Riv was not acknowledged in the Australian Stud Book. Maybe Harry was too poor to pay the registration fee. He was certainly too poor to send her to a well-bred stallion until he scraped up £2 to back Peter Pan to win the 1932 Mackinnon Stakes-Melbourne Cup double. Peter Pan obliged and the £20 win paid for Riv to go to an imported stallion, Ronsard. The result was Rivette. Bamber trained her himself. He was so confident she was a gifted stayer that in 1938 he put £5 on her at massive odds to win £15,000 to take the Caulfield Cup-Melbourne Cup double. Rivette might well have pulled it off, but she cut herself in training and had to be scratched from the 1938 Cups. Bamber brought her back the following June as a six-year-old on a mission: she became the first mare to win the "Cups double".

Bamber never battled again. He bred another Stakes winner from Riv, the "pony" whose descendants had "NTB" (Not Thoroughbred) printed beside their names in the studbook for generations. They have died out, but Rivette's story lives on. It wasn't until 1991 that Let's Elope won the big Cups double to match her feat

 

Payne was the first female jockey to win the Cup
Payne was the first female jockey to win the Cup

Racing runs on dreams, of course, the sort that led Harry Bamber, Granny McDonald, Michelle Payne and countless others to risk lives and livelihoods on luck and love of a good horse.

But there are the other dreams, the see-the-future sort we have in our sleep. Almost as long as there has been a Melbourne Cup, people have dreamt a winner's name.

The original Cup dream yarn, of course, is about Walter Craig, of Craigs Hotel in Ballarat, dreaming his horse Nimblefoot would win the 1870 Cup. But Craig was puzzled by one thing about his vision: Nimblefoot's winning jockey wore a black armband.

Nimblefoot won, but poor Walter wasn't there. He had died weeks earlier. The armband was for him.

1870 Melbourne Cup winner Nimblefoot, painted by Thomas Lytttleton.
1870 Melbourne Cup winner Nimblefoot, painted by Thomas Lytttleton.

In 1997 the Kiwi-born trainer Mike Moroney dreamt of winning the Cup with a horse named "Brew". He didn't train such a horse. There was something else: the "dream jockey" had the 24 saddlecloth and was wearing a black cap with Moroney's stable colours instead of the usual red cap.

The only Brew in training then was an unruly two-year-old being educated by Moroney's fellow New Zealanders, the O'Sullivans. By chance, three years later, Brew's owners sent the rising six-year-old to Moroney, who already had a Cup entrant, Second Coming.

Because Second Coming was in the Moroney colours, Brew's young jockey Kerrin McEvoy wore a black cap. His saddlecloth was 24.

Now for a Cup dream no one knows about. Renowned photographer Bruce Postle revealed it to your correspondent last Monday.

Mike Moroney dreamt of winning the Cup with a horse named “Brew”.
Mike Moroney dreamt of winning the Cup with a horse named “Brew”.

"Pos" had gone to Flemington on Cup Day 1985 to take newspaper photographs. He saw his friend Roy "The Professor" Higgins, the former champion jockey, by then working as the "in the yard" expert for the electronic media.

Higgins moaned that the field was too big and too even to pick anything on looks and asked Postle if he had a tip. Postle told him he'd dreamt What A Nuisance would win.

"That will do me!" is the way Postle recalls Higgins' reaction. Higgins, as superstitious as most racing people are, rushed to the betting ring and backed What A Nuisance for plenty. The incredible thing is not that What A Nuisance won, but that Postle was too busy taking pictures to back it himself. Luckily, he says, his wife Helen "got on".

That's a true story. So is this.

Roy Higgins won 2312 races, every Group 1 race worth winning and rode some of the greatest horses. But at home he had only one racing picture on the wall. It was Roy, with a look very like love, caressing the brave little mare Light Fingers after they'd won the 1965 Melbourne Cup.

If "The Professor" was working the yard on Tuesday he'd barrack for the local hope Surprise Baby … but gently advise that one of the imports would probably spoil the show.

As to exactly which one? Dream your own.

 

andrew.rule@news.com.au

 

Oliver’s is engraved in Melbo
Oliver’s is engraved in Melbo
The story of Michelle and Steven Payne captured the nation.
The story of Michelle and Steven Payne captured the nation.
What A Nuisance, ridden by jockey Pat Hyland.
What A Nuisance, ridden by jockey Pat Hyland.