Michael Cox



Dismissed globally, diminished domestically: The Melbourne Cup’s identity crisis

A second-tier global event or a domestic race with declining popularity? The Melbourne Cup could be at a turning point.

The esteemed billionaire owner-breeder Kirsten Rausing isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, from European racing’s upper crust to not quite understand what made the Melbourne Cup a great race.

That is not to say she was wrong in her take on the Cup this week when she told an Australian reporter, “The Melbourne Cup cannot really be compared to the world’s best races.” 

Rausing clarified that the reason the Melbourne Cup should not be compared is because it is a handicap and the best European staying races are at level weights. Actually, despite the simplistic, clickbait headlines placed on the original piece, there wasn’t anything controversial about Rausing’s comments, just obvious, matter-of-fact observations. 

The Europeans don’t rate the Melbourne Cup, and why should they? 

In a year when the kindest criticism that could be levelled at the Melbourne Cup would be ‘uninspiring’, Rausing’s comments cut to the heart of a problem for the Victoria Racing Club, who have spent the best part of three decades trying to ‘globalise’ the event. 

The rejection of the Melbourne Cup as a ‘prestigious’ target by someone of Rausing’s status cuts to the heart of what is an identity crisis for the ‘race that stops the nation’ … or used to stop the nation. Is it a top tier global racing event or part of the fabric of Australian society? The trouble is that now it might not be either.


Prominent owner-breeder Kirsten Rausing. (Photo by Mike Edgerton/Getty Images)

It is one thing for the race to not cut through to an international audience but the danger is that the predominance of ‘fly-in, fly-out’ runners, horses with form largely unfamiliar to local punters and prepared for a one off strike – a method that makes picking the winner a guessing game – may have slowly disenfranchised Australians. 

‘The race that stops the nation’ is a phrase trademarked by the Victoria Racing Club, the perceived need to trademark the phrase is more indicative of a corporate push than a move to ensure the Cup stayed a nation-wide event that once drew casual racing fans to television sets everywhere.  

Victorian racing officials bemoan the efforts to disrupt the traditional spring racing pathways, but the shift towards foreign-trained horses filling the Melbourne Cup field did as much to lift the race out of the Australian pattern. The reason that the race stopped the nation wasn’t simply because of tradition or cultural reasons, it was because racing’s tributaries flowed towards the first Tuesday in November at Flemington. 

Before the influx of foreign raiders, each state’s Derbies and Oaks were considered a kind of unofficial ‘win and you’re in’ race for the Cup. The mostly two-mile handicap Cups around Australia also played their part. 

Horses all took part through a spring carnival that built familiarity and engagement from the sport’s most important customers, gamblers. 

Eagle-eyed punters could watch the progression of a Melbourne Cup top weight through the spring’s weight-for-age program, watching replays (or before that studying the photos in the newspapers) and scouring the media for comments from a trainer on what their plans were. 

Lunar Flare wins one of the traditional Cup lead-ups, The Lexus Bart Cummings. (Photo by George Sal/Getty Images)

Even the VRC’s own feature races played a part in building towards the big day; it was an admission that times had indeed changed when the Mackinnon Stakes – the race in which nine of Bart Cumming’s 12 Cup winners had their lead-up race – was shifted from three days prior to the race in favour of a kind of ‘Cox Plate Round 2’ – just another weight-for-age middle distance G1 – on the final day of the Flemington carnival. 

The move to high-calibre European horses running first-up in the Cup, or even second-up, dismantled this tried-and-true pattern as much as any pop-up race conceived over lunch in the Racing NSW office ever did. 

Racing NSW boss Peter V’Landys has tried to capitalise on the Melbourne Cup’s move away from this domestic pattern. The critics, and ‘PVL’, call it disruption, but in some cases it is simply opportunism. 

The Everest, with its lobbying over slot holders, aims to create year-long public interest, and the newly minted “the Big Dance” – a 24-horse handicap at Randwick for which horses qualify through country cups – both aim to fill the void the VRC has left.

Of course both races, however successful they might be in time, are so very Sydney – too gaudy to ever replace more than 150  years of tradition. Still, they might do a better job of generating interest than punters waiting for Melbourne Cup clues out of European races held late at night in Australia’s mid-winter.

Craig Williams and Giga Kick win the $15 million Everest. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The Melbourne Cup is at a crossroads and its custodians need to decide what they want it to be: if it is to be a prestigious global race then it faces stiff competition: the Breeders’ Cup Turf (US$4 million), Japan Cup (approximately US$7, plus bonuses) and Hong Kong Vase (around US$2), all take great care of connections with packages and, more importantly, loom as far more ‘prestigious’ options for the global powerhouses. 

To be truly global the race will need to do more than attract second-tier Euros; Japanese runners would add the diversity to meet that need, but there seems to be a lack of interest at both ends. 

The strict veterinary protocols aren’t helping either. However warranted the measures might be, given the disproportionately high rate of horse deaths in the race and public relations nightmare they have caused, the scans and resulting late scratchings are proving roadblock to involvement. 

For many, last year’s Covid-impacted Melbourne Cup, featuring more exposed local form, was a welcome throwback full of warm nostalgia, especially for those who backed the champion winner out of the weight-for-age ranks, Verry Elleegant. 

What it is about the Melbourne Cup that Rausing can’t possibly understand is how widespread the reach of the race was, the reach that made it great. To see the impact of the Cup, don’t go to Flemington. Go to a pub, club or workplace at 3pm on Tuesday. Will they be watching there? Maybe they aren’t as much as they used to be.

It is one thing for a European billionaire to not understand, but the fear is that the VRC might not know what made the race great, either.




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing