Australia’s Melbourne Cup Day, held on the first Tuesday in November at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Victoria, is November 1 this year. It’s a state holiday, and most schools and businesses shut down to let everybody participate. About 100,000 people flock to Flemington, but the 3,200-meter turf race is televised live to about 650 million people worldwide. “Cup Day,” as it’s popularly known, is the biggest horse racing event in Australia, home to more racecourses than any other country in the world. The day is part of a weeklong Melbourne Cup Carnival of festivities and fashion.
History of Melbourne Cup Day
It was 1840 when the Gold Rush town of Melbourne decided to racehorses down by the banks of the river. There was a large flat area, with a hill to the northwest for spectators. The next year, the organizers put up some scaffolding, but it was 1848 before there was a real grandstand. The course became known as the Melbourne Racecourse.
The landowner named the area “Flemington” after property his wife owned in Scotland, and in the 1850s, everyone called the course the “Flemington Racecourse.” It’s the oldest racecourse in Australia.
By 1859, horses from New South Wales, Tasmania, and New Zealand were competing in the Australian Championship Sweepstakes. The event attracted 40,000 people and was the first Australian sporting event ever telegraphed in Sydney. At that point, Melbourne’s racing power players conceived of an even bigger, more prestigious event that could raise funds for developing the track.
The Melbourne Cup made its debut in 1861. In those early days, there were two rival racing clubs, the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club. With the two at loggerheads, the course and the Cup management suffered, the track was sabotaged, and both clubs went into debt. So they merged in 1864 to form the Victoria Racing Club, the governing body of Flemington today. The club was pleased to have Melbourne Cup Day declared a half-day holiday the next year.
One problem, though, was that the Victoria Racing Club didn’t own the land; they leased it. Finally, in 1871, the government passed the Victorian Racing Club Act, entrusting land ownership to the Club. The Melbourne Cup was first to run on a Tuesday in 1875. Two years later, Victoria made the day an official state holiday to accommodate the size and significance of the event.
Melbourne Cup Day FAQs
Why is Melbourne Cup Day celebrated?
Melbourne Cup Day has been observed in Australia since the first race was held at the Flemington Racecourse in Victoria in 1861. The race was won by Archer, who won it again the following year.
Is Melbourne Cup day a public holiday in Victoria?
Melbourne Cup Day is a public holiday across Victoria unless the non-metro council has arranged a local holiday.
How many horses died in the Melbourne Cup 2019?
While the Cup is undoubtedly one of Australia’s biggest sporting events, 2019 has proved to be among the most challenging. An undercurrent of anti-racing sentiment has been rising after the deaths of six horses in the Cup since 2013 — a tragic statistic seized on by protesters.
How to Celebrate Melbourne Cup Day
- Watch the parade
- The day before the race, join thousands of others for a big parade in central Melbourne as part of the week-long Melbourne Cup Carnival. There’s a car or carriage for each entrant, carrying the jockey and trainer.
- Wear a big hat
- Racing enthusiasts on the distaff side turn out in their elegant floral finery and lift a glass of bubbly at the Victorian Race Club on Kennedy Oaks Day, one of four race days that make up the Melbourne Cup Carnival. No torn jeans and T-shirts today! Ladies make the fashion scene in puffy sleeves, bright colors, bold prints, lace, ruffles, whimsical headpieces, and footwear never intended for walking on grass. This is the day Australia’s top milliners compete on the catwalk for the Millinery Award.
- Place your bet
- Only four-horse races can boast a bigger purse than the Melbourne Cup. That’s just one of the reasons the Cup is called “the race that stops the nation,” as office workers across Australia stop what they’re doing to watch the race on television or internet as it goes off at 3:00 p.m. in Melbourne.
5 Facts About Melbourne Cup Day
- Horse homicide was suspected
- Scientists have confirmed that Phar Lap, the New Zealand horse who won the Melbourne Cup in 1930, died from arsenic poisoning, though it’s not clear whether foul play was involved.
- The first winner was the second winner
- A bay named Archer won the first two races in 1861 and 1862.
- The lady was a champ
- A mare named Makybe Diva won three years in a row: 2003, 2004, and 2005.
- This filly was fast
- The first female horse to win the Melbourne Cup was Auraria, a filly, in 1895.
- The first record stands
- In 1968, in the first of his back-to-back wins, Rain Lover not only set a course record for time but also won by eight lengths — the greatest margin ever since Archer in 1862, whose 10-length record holds.
Why We Love Melbourne Cup Day
- Cup Day lasts a week
- Cup Day reigns over the weeklong Melbourne Cup Carnival, including four race days, fashion competitions, and fun. The Lexus Melbourne Cup trophy, the 18-carat gold-loving Cup now sponsored by Lexus, travels the state in the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour to raise money for local causes.
- Humans become clotheshorses
- Cup Day is not casual. The fashionistas trot out to Flemington to strut their stuff. Throughout the year, ladies compete in Myer Fashions on the Field, with regional winners advancing to the state and national final, where the winner is crowned. Not to be out-dressed, male peacock punters pull out their patterns and pocket squares and pursue their national fashion trophy.
- We eat like a horse
- Flemington Racecourse offers a range of restaurants, from a gourmet hamburger to upscale buffets to exclusive entertainment packages that get you started with canapés on arrival. Watch the race while tying on the feedbag with lamb shank, seared salmon, pumpkin and ricotta tortellini, and afternoon tea.