The Melbourne Cup has grown up to become the biggest horse race in Australia, and one of the most prestigious events in the entire world. This was not always the case, however, with the early years of the Melbourne Cup much smaller and lower profile. Seventeen horses contested the inaugural Melbourne Cup in 1861, when the event was run on Thursday the 7th of November. With a modest prize pool of 710 gold sovereigns (roughly 710 pounds) up for grabs, Archer won the event in a time of 3.52.00.
Along with the cash prize, the winning owner also took home a gold watch, in a winner takes all scenario. While the prize money on offer was quite substantial for the time, it was not the largest purse yet like some people mistakenly believe. There were 4000 people in attendance for the inaugural event, the largest attendance at Flemington with the exception of the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes. This number grew and grew in the years and decades that followed, with the Melbourne Cup now called “the race that stops a nation”.
The first Melbourne Cup was a memorable event, with one horse bolting before the start and three of the seventeen starters falling during the race. In fact, two of these horses died because of these falls, so you could say the Melbourne Cup actually had a pretty inauspicious beginning. Archer also went on to win the Melbourne Cup the following year in 1862, etching his name in the memory of Australian racing. Archer was scratched on a technicality in 1863, after his trainer telegraphed his acceptance form in late due to a public holiday.
Melbourne Cup Day was a half holiday from as early as 1865, with public servants and bank officials given time off to watch the big race. This tradition has endured to this day, with millions of Australians taking long lunches to watch the race each year. The Melbourne Cup was first run on a Tuesday in 1875, with Briseis winning the event in 1876 to wide acclaim. In an amazing record, Briseis won the VRC Derby, VRC Oaks and Melbourne Cup in a single week of amazing racing.
The famous Phar Lap won the 1930 Melbourne Cup, at the shortest odds in the history of the race at 11/8. Phar Lap also competed in the 1929 and 1931 events, but could only managed to come 3rd and 8th respectively despite also being the favourite on these occasions. The Melbourne Cup has grown in popularity and prestige throughout the years, and is now the richest two mile handicap race in the entire world.