A crowd of just 4,000 hardy racegoers gathered at Flemington to watch Archer surge to victory in the inaugural Melbourne Cup back in 1861. The race has enjoyed an inexorable rise to prominence since then, and it is now enjoyed by more than 650 million viewers across the globe each year. What exactly makes the Melbourne Cup the most popular thoroughbred race in the world?

The Prestige

The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most famous annual race and the prestige associated with winning it is immense. The country’s leading trainers, jockeys and owners are desperate to win it, but the Melbourne Cup is not for the faint of heart. It takes place over a lung-busting 3200m at Flemington, and only stayers with tremendous reserves of stamina and courage stand a chance of prevailing.

The race takes place towards the end of the Spring Racing Carnival, so the anticipation builds up steadily as it approaches. Punters follow each runner’s progress over the course of the spring campaign, and the excitement reaches a fever pitch by the time the race goes off.

The final acceptance fee is $45,375, and owners will not stump up such a large sum if they do not think their horse has a chance of success. That makes for an exceptionally competitive race. There are also strict balloting conditions, but horses can earn exemption from the ballot by winning various famous races that take part around the world.

They include the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup, Lexus Stakes, Australian Stayers Challenge, The Bart Cummings and the Andrew Ramsden Stakes in Australia, along with the Irish St. Ledger, the Tenno Sho and Sankei Sho in Japan, the Doncaster Cup in the UK, and the Arlington Million and San Juan Capistrano in the USA. Many of these winning horses head to Flemington to vie for glory in the Melbourne Cup, so that helps to build up the excitement among racing fans.

The race itself is always a thrilling spectacle. There has been all manner of ferocious battles down the home straight over the years, and the outpouring of joy among the victorious trainers and owners is a sight to behold. This is the key race that all Australian jockeys, trainers and owners want to win.

An Enormous Prize Pool

Archer won his owner a modest prize of 710 gold sovereigns and a hand-beaten watch when he cruised to a six-length victory over Victorian champion Mormon in 1861. The prize pool has increased considerably since then. The organisers upped it to 810 gold sovereigns when Archer defender his crown the following year, and it had soared to $4.6 million by 2004.

The prize money has continued to increase steadily in the ensuing years, and it hit $8 million in 2019, cementing the Melbourne Cup’s status as the world’s richest two-mile handicap.

“At $8 million, the Lexus Melbourne Cup is the world’s richest handicap and the world’s richest staying race,” said Victoria Racing Club chairman Amanda Elliottt. “It is the race every Australian owner, trainer and jockey wants to win, and internationally, has become one of the most sought after prizes in world racing.

“Connections cannot buy a place in the Lexus Melbourne Cup, it has to be earned. The results of the recently revamped Andrew Ramsden at Flemington highlights the sheer joy that comes with knowing your horse has secured a place in the Cup.”

The Melbourne Cup is one of the world’s richest races and that naturally attracts an elite calibre of stayers, as you can see from the latest odds at Punters.com.au. Combine that with the prestige associated with success and you have an irresistible opportunity for the best trainers in the business.

International Raiders

The Melbourne Cup is very much an international affair. Irish raiders secured an emphatic 1-2-3 when the Joseph O’Brien-trained Rekindling powered to a glorious victory in 2017. His famous father, Aidan, saddled the runner-up, Johannes Vermeer, while Willie Mullins’ Max Dynamite took third.

In 2018, Cross Counter became the first British-trained horse to win the Melbourne Cup. Runner-up Marmelo and third-placed a Prince of Arran were both trained in Britain too, leading Australian runners firmly in the shade. However, Australia fought back in sensational fashion last year, when homegrown hero Vow and Declare held off A Prince of Arran to clinch a thrilling victory.

The Melbourne Cup is dubbed the race that stops a nation due to its popularity in Australia. However, it also brings New Zealand to a standstill, and many Kiwi horses have saluted over the years. The number of Japanese and US runners continues to increase too, making it a race with an enviable global footprint.

The Heritage

The Melbourne Cup is steeped in heritage. It has been held every year since 1861, even during both World Wars. Many legends have prevailed over the years, including the iconic Phar Lap, three-time champion Makybe Diva, the record-breaking Kingston Rule and elite stayers such as Think Big and Rain’s Lover.

There have also been four 100/1 winners over the years, including Prince of Penzance’s famous triumph in 2015. That marked the first time a female jockey had ever won the race, and Michelle Payne’s exploits helped the Melbourne Cup win over new audiences.

Trainer Bart Cummings won the race a record 12 times. His first victory came in 1965 and his 12th came in 2012, bookending an incredible career for the national treasure. The opportunity to join such luminaries in the history books keeps trainers going. The long history of the race weighs upon the contenders each year, inspiring them to achieve feats of greatness.

The Glamour

Melbourne Cup Day is a big deal in Australia. It is celebrated with a public holiday in Victoria, and Australians spend hundreds of dollars on food, drinks, new outfits, bets and entertainment.

Flemington hosts a 10-race card, and stars like Sam Smith and Marcia Hines have provided the entertainment alongside various popular DJs in recent years. The organisers put on a great show, which helps boost the popularity of the event among viewers around the world.

Celebrities and dignitaries pack into the racecourse to watch the action unfold, making it the place to see and be seen. Many viewers find the outfits, the pomp and the ceremony to be just as fascinating as the race itself. The Melbourne Cup lasts for just 3 minutes and 20 seconds on average, but viewers can enjoy a full schedule of dazzling entertainment.