Life Sentences - The Melbourne Cup

Life Sentences - The Melbourne Cup
Melbourne Cup, 1881, from Illustrated Australian News, November 1881

Samuel Furphy looks at some of the mentions of the Melbourne Cup in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, from ANU Reporter, Spring 2010.

If the Melbourne Cup truly is ‘the race that stops a nation’ then surely it must feature among the thousands of entries in the ADB. Sure enough, a search of the ADB online yields 111 hits.

Top of the list is the notorious bookmaker and entrepreneur John Wren (1871-1953), who boasted that his Collingwood-based ‘tote’ was built on Carbine’s victory in 1890. Other ADB entries that mention the race include biographies of pastoralists, businessmen, politicians, priests, journalists, artists, designers, engineers, and trainers and jockeys.

The Sydney-born studmaster Etienne De Mestre (1832- 1916) trained Archer, the winner of the first two Melbourne Cups, but he ran into financial trouble in 1882 when a large bet on the Victoria Derby/Melbourne Cup double went awry. De Mestre’s rival John Tait (1813-1888) owned and trained four horses to Cup victory and was notable for approaching racing more as a business than a sport.

The ADB features 25 jockeys, including David ‘Darby’ Munro (1913-1966), who won the first of his three Melbourne Cups riding Peter Pan in 1934: “Swarthy and poker-faced, he was known, among other names, as ‘The Demon Darb’”. The leading Melbourne Cup jockey remains the “abstemious but jovial” Bobby Lewis (1878-1947), who rode four winners.

The Melbourne Cup is as much a social institution as it is a horse race. This is largely due to the egalitarian civil engineer Robert Cooper Bagot (1828?-1881), who transformed Flemington Racecourse into a truly public space, paving the way for the first crowd of 100,000 in 1880. In the 1920s the advent of radio took public interest to a new level. The colourful broadcaster Eric Wilfred Welch (1900-1983) called 27 cups for 3LO and 3DB. He advised punters: “Never bet on anything that can talk”. Turf journalist Herbert Austin Wolfe (1897-1968) used the by-line ‘Cardigan’ after the 1903 Melbourne Cup winner, which his grandfather had trained. In 1932 Wolfe reported Phar Lap’s victory in the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico, after gaining permission to land a plane on the course so that he could fly straight to San Diego to cable home the story. He covered 21 Melbourne Cups for Melbourne’s Herald.

The influence of the cup in the political sphere is evident in the ADB’s biography of Prime Minister John Curtin (1885-1945): “He was a student of racing form but hardly ever betted, apart from an annual £1 on the Melbourne Cup”. Similarly, sport and religion merge where the Melbourne Cup is concerned. In the 1950s Catholic priest John Patrick Pierce (1909- 1970) instituted a Melbourne Cup mass at St Francis’s Church. The ADB also reveals the allure of the race for Australians with a creative bent, including the artist Martin Frank Stainforth (1866-1957), who painted several Melbourne Cup winners and was renowned for his “ability to depict speed and movement”. In 1962 the set and costume designer Ann Rachel Church (1925-1975) created “bawdy and elegant costumes, as well as opulent, extravagant settings” for the Australian Ballet’s production Melbourne Cup.

Due to longstanding equine restrictions, many of the most famous Melbourne Cup identities are not included in the ADB. In 1977 regular ADB author Barry Andrews addressed this deficiency by penning a biography for “LAP, PHAR (1926-32), sporting personality, business associate of modest speculators and national hero”. Read by Andrews during an after-dinner speech at a Making of Sporting Traditions conference, the biography concluded: “Tall and rangy, known affectionately as ‘Bobby’, ‘The Red Terror’ and occasionally as ‘you mongrel’, Lap died in mysterious circumstances in Atherton, California, on 5 April, 1932, and was buried in California, Melbourne, Canberra and Wellington. A linguist as well as a businessman, he popularised the phrase ‘get stuffed!’ although owing to an unfortunate accident in his youth he left no children”.

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