The Origins Of Melbourne Cup

The first horse in Australia arrived with Governor Phillip in January 1788 along with the First Fleet’s consignment of convicts and wayward offenders

A stallion, four mares, a colt and a filly that arrived with a consignment of convicts in Port Jackson in the late 18th Century, catalysed the Australian appetite for thoroughbred racing.

Thoroughbred horse racing was one of the nation’s first organised sports. Originally for high society the event has since trickled down into all classes, and remains a highly coveted affair today.

Following AFL and rugby league, horse racing is Australia’s third most patronised sport. It’s a tradition that is steeped in the national colonial past.

The first horse in Australia arrived with Governor Phillip in January 1788 along with the First Fleet’s consignment of convicts and wayward offenders. By the first decade of the 19th Century, over 200 horses were roaming the plains of New South Wales.

The initial horse racing cups were predominantly won by ex-convicts and free settlers on ‘vacant’ land in New South Wales – these people were commonly addressed with the fitting title of the “squattocracy”.

Image: National Geographic

The first official horse race in Australia was in October 1810 in Sydney’s Hyde Park and it comprised of a 3.2km race each day for three days with every horse set to compete in every race and the best performer overall would take the prize.
Now, each year, on the first Tuesday of November, the nation pauses for one of the most famous horse races in the world, the Melbourne Cup. The spring event has become pivotal for fashion designers and gamblers alike.

The aftermath of WWII saw the deterioration of horse racing. But was reinvigorated with the introduction of TAB and televised sports and racing. 

Tommy J. Smith was a key player in the horse racing industry and an ode to the nation’s long-esteemed notion of the Aussie underdog. Smith started training thoroughbreds in 1942 in New South Wales with a horse called The Bragger who did not make a good first impression finishing in last. Under the guidance of Smith, Bragger began to win and Smith mastered the art of training horses. He earned himself the title of the leading trainer in NSW that lasted 35 years from 1953. He won 2 Melbourne Cups, 4 Caulfield Cups, 7 W.S. Cox Plates and 6 Golden Slippers.

His daughter, Gai Smith took on the responsibilities of her family’s training business and married Robbie Waterhouse, of the renowned bookmaking family and she too has become a very successful and highly decorated trainer.

Australia has developed quite the fondness for horse racing - whether it be for the congregating of socialites, the festive and celebratory aspect or the sheer love of the sport, the Melbourne Cup remains a cultural and societal highlight for most australians. As for the jockeys and trainers, the Melbourne Cup prize money is also quite significant and amply compliments the accolade of being the winner of one of the most hankered horse racing events across the globe.

Lead Image: The Melbourne Cup, MELBOURNE - MARCH 13: Horses race to the finish of the Roy Higgins Quality, won by Elmore at Flemington on March 13, 2010 - Melbourne, Australia.

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