The Cup in popular culture

This time next week it will have been run and won. If you’re an Australian you’ll immediately know I’m talking about the Melbourne Cup, a horse race that has traditionally been run on the first Tuesday in November.*

The Melbourne Cup, we are told, is an iconic race for Australians. It is, according to its trade-marked tag-line, ‘the race that stops the nation’. Having spent two of the most recent Cup days living in Western Australia, it was interesting to see how little of a ripple the Cup had in the day-to-day life of Westralians. This has led me to ponder how it is experienced by the other non-Eastern States and Territories (the Northern Territory and South Australia in particular).

The Cup certainly registers here in the ACT; we even flirted with making it an Official Public Holiday, but it didn’t quite get off the ground (apparently the hospitality industry complained about a drop in revenue – too many people taking the preceding Monday off and leaving town for an extra-long weekend). A recent invitation to a Cup Day event in my building on campus reads in part: ‘[The] Melbourne Cup has transcended its origins as a horse race to become a social and cultural phenomenon.’ So when I say that we are told how important this race is to us as Australians, I’m not just making it up – as you can see from this government webpage!

Surprisingly though, there has only ever been one cinematic representation of it, the 2011 film The Cup, which recounts the events leading up to the 2002 Melbourne Cup for the camp of winning horse Media Puzzle. Even though IMDB doesn’t reference these two with a ‘Melbourne Cup’ keyword, I think we should also include the 1983 classic Phar Lap, as it incorporates this horse’s famous Cup victory of 1930, as well as his failed ’tilts’ in both 1929 and 1931, and the 1985 film Archer.

But aside from these two equine biopics, I couldn’t think of any other films that depicted the Cup race. And, as someone with a passing knowledge of the Cup’s history, that’s no reflection on the quality of the yarns out there.The Cup’s 153 year history is peppered with remarkable stories. This is evidenced by the number of books out there, recounting each Cup on a year-by-year basis.

Take, for example, inter-State rivalry between Victoria and NSW as played out in the Cups of 1861-1863. The first two of these were won by Archer, a horse from NSW who beat the Victorian favourite Mormon in the very first Cup race, cementing said rivalries. He walked away with the winnings in 1862, as well – however in 1863, due to a mix-up of public holidays (it was in Victoria and it wasn’t in NSW), Archer’s paperwork was not received in time, and he was refused a place among the starters. This led to other non-Victorians withdrawing their horses in protest, and subsequently only seven horses took the field that year.

Or if that sounds too bureaucratic and uninteresting, how about the 1870 Cup, which was won by Nimblefoot, owned by publican Walter Craig. Craig had dreamed of his horse winning the Cup, but with the jockey mounted upon him wearing a black armband. Craig told several people about this dream, concluding that Nimblefoot would win the Cup, but that Craig himself wouldn’t live to see it. Amazingly, the very night after he had the dream, Craig died. Sure enough, Nimblefoot went on to win the Cup – with his jockey wearing a black armband!

Or if that’s too far in the past, how about the (admittedly unsuccessful) comeback story of Phar Lap’s beloved strapper Tommy Woodcock, who went on to train racehorses himself. Woodcock raced the stallion Reckless in the 1977 Cup, but instead of the fairytale ending, Woodcock was pipped to the winner’s post by the big money, the horse Gold and Black, trained by Bart Cummings. This touching image, by photographer Bruce Postle, shows Woodcock and Reckless the night before the Cup race.

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, on the eve of the 1977 Cup

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, on the eve of the 1977 Cup

Another shoulda-been story is that of the mare Wakeful, the twentieth century’s declared ‘First Lady of the Turf’. A crowd favourite, she won or placed in 41 out of her 44 starts, often carrying very heavy weights. Her last race before retirement to stud was to be the 1903 Melbourne Cup, in which she was assigned the top weight of ten stone (63.5 kgs). By all accounts the seven-year-old mare fought valiantly, but was outdistanced by the younger and lightly-weighted Lord Cardigan, placing second. While no-one usually remembers who came second, I am pleased that Wakeful still holds a place in the hearts of racing aficionados.

So, those are my suggestions for any up-and-coming film makers who happen to be reading this, and who might wish to further cement our national reverence for a horse race into the Australian cultural landscape!

*It wasn’t always, though – from it’s inception in 1861 until 1874, the Cup race was run on a Thursday

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One thought on “The Cup in popular culture

  1. Pingback: Phar Lap and the underdog narrative – horsesfordiscourses

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