EVERYTHING STOPS FOR THE MELBOURNE CUP –
Serfs love it!
Everything stops fer the Melbourne Cup, down south, in the great continent of Oz That’s right, down south, in the State of Victoria, everything stops, a public holiday, not in commemoration of a battle, not celebrating the birthday of some high dignitary, not in memoriam fer a religious event, but fer a horse race! … Lotsa’ history behind that.
Here’s a Story.
On Tuesday, 2nd of November, a day ter remember, this week as I write, Anno Domini 2015, in the 3200m long Melbourne Cup, before a stunned crowd of more than 100,000 spectators, a female jockey on a one hundred to one odds gelding beat the world’s crème de la crème horses ridden by the world’s top jockeys.
The Horse. Prince Of Penzance, bought for $50,000 in New Zealand, and trained in the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool by local trainer, Darren Weir, had to over come serious illness and injuries, including two joint operations, before shaping up as an outsider to win the Melbourne Cup. Few believed that the six year old bay would win the prestigious event. Trainer Darren Weir hoped that he’d finish in the top ten, but jockey Michelle Payne and brother Stephen, the horse’s strapper, believed Prince Of Penzance could win.
Michelle Payne, first female rider to win the Melbourne Cup, felt that her win was pre-ordained: ‘I actually really had a strong feeling that I was going to win, but I thought, ’Ah, don’t be stupid, it’s the Melbourne Cup.’
When Stephen Payne, who has Down Syndrome, was given the honour of making the barrier draw and handed his team barrier one, the possibility of a win came that little bit closer.
The Jockey. The youngest of ten children born to Paddy and Mary Payne, a family steeped in racing history, Michelle was raised in rural Victoria near historic gold town Ballarat. When Mary Payne was killed in a car accident, the family looked after each other. Sixteen year old Brigid Payne helped raise Michelle, only six months old when her mother died. Under the guidance of their canny father, the girls, like their brothers, learned to ride race horses and eight of the children, including the girls, becoming licensed jockeys. At age seven Michelle announced her dream to become a successful jockey and win the Melbourne Cup.
If the story was all fairy-tale ending, Michelle’s oldest sister should have been at the race track on November 2nd urging her young sister on to victory. But Brigid, mother of a fourteen year old son, died of a heart attack in 2007 after a heavy fall from a young horse.
Michelle Payne too, like Prince Of Penzance, had to battle injuries, two horror falls, one in 2004 when she fractured her skull, another fall in 2012 that left her with four fractured vertebrae and broken ribs.
In the man’s world of horse racing female jockeys are light on the ground. Given the opportunity to show her worth by famous horse trainer Bart Cummings, winner of twelve Melbourne Cups, therein a story in itself, Michelle Payne won her first Group 1 race at Caulfield on Cumming’s horse Allez Wonder. In the same year she also rode Allez Wonder in the Melbourne Cup but was unplaced. Six years later, a different story.
The Race. Michelle describes her experience riding in the 2015 Melbourne Cup: ‘Once the Melbourne Cup starts it is hard to explain, it’s not like any other race. It sort of feels like an out of body experience – you’re in there, you’re doing it, horses are racing so close together. But I knew at the 600m that I would be very hard to beat and I hadn’t even asked Prince Of Penzance to go yet. He was just ambling.
Then at the 300 m I thought, ‘I don’t think anything can beat me now.’ I couldn’t believe we were about to win the Cup.’
The History of the Melbourne Cup is tied in with the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850’s. When rich sources of gold were discovered a few days ride from Melbourne, an influx of prospectors more than doubled the population of Victoria, between 1850 and 1858.
During these years Victoria mined more gold than King Solomon had ever seen and set in motion an economic and social revolution. ( ‘Shorter History of Australia.’ Geoffrey Blainey. Ch 6.) Boom town Melbourne outgrew rival city Sydney and embarked on an impressive building program including a remarkable public library, churches, theatres and a race track at Flemington near the road to Ballarat goldfields. The first Melbourne Cup race was run in 1861 in front of an estimated crowd of 4,000 spectators.
Says Geoffrey Blainey:
‘It is not hard to find reasons why, from the Gold Rushes until the eve of World War 1, sport pervaded Australian life more extensively than the life of perhaps any other land. Australia then had the ingredients of the sporting life which other nations would later foster, often artificially. Cheap or free land was plentiful for sports such as horse racing, football, and cricket that required large spaces lying not far from the heart of a city , and long arms of sheltered water – uninterrupted by steam vessels – were available for professional sculling in Sydney. In most Australian towns the climate favoured outdoor activities. An exceptionally high proportion of the population lived in two large cities, and so even before Australia’s population passed three million in 1891 it could muster large crowds for events in Melbourne and Sydney.
A high standard of living made it possible to set attractive prize money and fine facilities for sport. The rather masculine culture, with a high percentage of single men in the population, also favoured sport. Above all, spectator sports depended on public holidays and free Saturday afternoons, and it so happened that Australia was becoming the land of abundant leisure for city people, though not for those who worked the soil.’ (G.B. Ch 9.)
Australia was in the forefront of the movement by trade unions for the shorter working week, and Melbourne and Sydney were probably the first cities in the world where work stopped at two o’ clock on Saturday afternoon for the majority of wage earners. Cricket was a popular sport. The size of crowds watching cricket matches was a surprise to visiting English teams, the first of which arrived in 1861. ‘Australian Rules’ football also became a popular sport.The first Victorian football clubs, Melbourne, (1858) and Geelong, (1859) are older than any club in the four divisions of the English Football League.( G.B Ch 9.)
The Melbourne Cup.
‘In a land where grass was virtually free, horse racing was a natural sport for Victorians,’ says Geoffrey Blainey, ‘tens of thousands of people owned horses and often rode them.‘
Melbourne’s first Melbourne Cup was a local affair but the annual event soon attracted horses from distant towns and growing crowds of spectators. The Cup quickly became as popular as a carnival with picnic parties and sideshows. By 1865, government offices and banks in Melbourne gave their employees a half holiday so that they could attend the Thursday Cup event, the date changed to Tuesday in 1875. The 1883 Melbourne Cup was reportedly attended by one third of Melbourne’s population.
As in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, its history has stories of courage, controversy and tragedy. Probably the most popular horse to win the Melbourne Cup was the great Phar Lap, winner of the 1930 Cup. In Phar Lap’s racing career plenty of the above dramatic elements.
The great Phar Lap.
Like Prince of Penzance, Phar Lap was another New Zealand horse with an inauspicious beginning. Bought by trainer Harry Telford for an American client, Telford himself couldn’t afford the one hundred and sixty-five guineas the scrawny yearling cost, an unimpressed client allowed Telford a three year lease on the horse.
Phar Lap began his racing career in 1929. He was unplaced in his first five starts but then began winning races, four on end in that same year. In 1930, ridden by new jockey Jim Pike, Phar Lap won every race he was entered in, often sprinting away from the other horses over the last five hundred metres. No horse could beat him. He became a hero to the Australian public. This was the era of The Great Depression and thousands of people were unemployed. People identified with battler Telford and his wonder horse. Everyone, except the bookmakers, wanted him to win the Melbourne Cup.
On the Saturday before the Cup, coming back from track work, Tommy Woodcock diverted an attempt made from a passing car to shoot Phar Lap. The whole nation was shocked and turned up in the thousands on the day of the Cup to cheer on their favorite. Over 40,000 people, who couldn’t afford the cost of a ticket into the racecourse gathered to watch the race from Scotchman’s Hill overlooking the race on the Ballarat road.
Carrying the unprecedented handicap weight of 68 kilograms in today’s measurement, ten kilograms more than the top weight in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, Phar Lap won by three lengths to the delight of the crowd.
Phar Lap continued his amazing career, winning races and breaking records. He was so good that the rules were changed to give other horses the chance of beating him. Prize money was low because of the Depression so in 1932 it was decided to send Phar Lap to the United States to race. The horse and his strapper set sail on 20th March, 1932. Phar Lap won his first event in Mexico, breaking the track record. Then went to Los Angeles where he succumbed to a mystery illness. A few days later Phar Lap died in the arms of Tommy Woodcock. The front page of every newspaper carried the news of the death of Phar Lap and a nation mourned the death of the champion.
Phar Lap was brought home to Australia. His skin was mounted and became the most visited exhibit at the National Museum in Melbourne. His mighty 6.3 kilogram heart, much larger than a normal horse’s, is kept at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra.
There’s an interesting postscript here regarding Phar Lap’s large heart. It has often been said that some horses have the X Factor – but what does this mean? Over the years it’s come to mean big – hearted, literally, the endurance to outrun other horses over long distances. Interest in the size of a horse’s heart goes back to the champion stallion Eclypse. In the 1700’s. The tradition of the time, was to bury just the head, heart and hooves of the horse. When Eclypse died, the surgeon was surprised at the size of the horse’s heart at 6.36 kilograms, double the weight of the normal racehorse.
Overtime the large heart X Factor has been traced back to Eclypse passed on through the female line to daughter Pocahontas. Many famous racehorses have been found to have this X Factor, passed on from Eclypse through the mare Pocahontas. They include record breaking Secretariat, in the 1970’s, an American champion racehorse that won the Belmont Handicap by 31 lengths, and in Australia, Phar Lap.
Lotsa’ stories involving the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s richest handicap race and one of the richest horse races in the world. Wonder what’ll win the next one?