Since 1861, the Melbourne Cup has stopped the nation on the first Tuesday in November but, for the first 131 years, no one beyond Australasia took much notice.
Horses, jockeys and trainers from Australia and New Zealand dominated the race but the winners were not of a quality required to compete in comparable contests, such as the Ascot Gold Cup in Britain, overseas.
Cup week in Melbourne was a parochial affair. English model Jean Shrimpton famously raised eyebrows with a dress that showed her knees on Derby Day in 1965; and Prince Charles, who lobbed at Flemington with Diana for the first million-dollar Cup in 1985 played to the home crowd (and sponsors) with his quip that the trophy should be “overflowing with Fosters”.
But that isolationism all changed in 1993 when Irish-trained Vintage Crop won the race in his first start down under.
Last year three overseas-trained horses – Cross Counter, Marmelo and Prince of Arran – filled the placings in a race of 24 contenders that featured 11 European trainers, six jockeys from Italy, Britain and Hong Kong, and horses bred in Europe, Japan, Germany and France as well as New Zealand and Australia.
Nowadays, the Melbourne Cup is a fixture on the international race circuit and it is rare for a horse bred and trained on Australasian soil to get a look-in.
How come? Why is the Melbourne Cup usually run and won by overseas thoroughbreds? How did it go from local shindig to global sporting event – and what effect has that had on racing?
When did the Cup go international?
Cup winner Beldale Ball (1980) was owned by English football pools billionaire Robert Sangster; At Talaq (1986) was owned by United Arab Emirates sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Bred in the United States, both horses won Melbourne cups after being sent to Australian trainer Colin Hayes for a local preparation.
But it wasn’t until Irish trainer Dermot Weld scored first up with Irish horse Vintage Crop in 1993 that the Cup’s make-up really began to change.
Vintage Crop was the first overseas-trained and owned horse to win the Cup at its first start in the country, arriving by plane, spending time in quarantine then racing, sight unseen, with an unknown jockey on board before returning to Ireland like a hero.
His victory opened the race to the world as quickly as the decision to float the Australian dollar changed the economy.
To get Vintage Crop on a plane from Dublin was a feat in itself. The racing industry had lobbied government to have quarantine restrictions eased. Weld had proved that international travel – and winning – could combine, with a win in France through sprinter Committed and in the United States by the stayer Go and Go. The Australians convinced him that running and competing was possible in Australia too.
“It seemed such a long way to go and it was so difficult for horses to do the quarantine, get over there and arrive in top shape,” says former Irish jockey and now trainer Johnny Murtagh. “Now horses are travelling more and more, the world has got smaller and the quarantine set-up is better.”