Riders on the storm – extreme weather events in Melbourne Cup history

| June 19, 2019

Spring is a magnificent time of year in Melbourne and perfect for Australia’s premier horse racing carnival. However, the weather can become very unsettled at times and in some years has wreaked havoc on Australia’s greatest race, the Melbourne Cup. It’s been over a century since the Cup has been postponed due to inclement weather but has come very close a number of times.

Flemington is a picture in November. The world famous roses along the fence that separates the racing from the fans, in the mounting yard and around the course are at their peak during Cup week. Some say they reach their peak at 3:20pm on Cup day! There is nothing more beautiful than famous Flemington on a warm Spring day with smartly dressed fans enjoying champagne and a bet or two. 

Spring storms wreak havoc

However the weather can turn in an instant. What was a gorgeous sunny day can instantly become a deluge of biblical proportions. Only last year, on the day when Godolphin’s young star Cross Counter stormed to victory in the Melbourne Cup, we woke to a stunning morning. However, around 10am, the deluge arrived and soaked the parched racetrack, turning the track rating from a Good 3 to a Heavy 10 before recovering to Soft 6.

Every time this happens, commentators express shock and amazement at the change in weather. Melbourne folk however, shrug it off as part and parcel of living in the world’s most liveable city. They say, in Melbourne if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. They also say that Melbourne can have “all four seasons in one day”. This is what we love about Melbourne, all the variety and spice of life wrapped up in a magnificent city. You never die wondering in Melbourne where life is to be lived.

Van Der Hum’s famous Cup

The Melbourne Cup, Australia’s greatest race, has fallen victim on many occasions to the perils of Melbourne’s changeable spring weather. Perhaps the most famous was in 1976 when Van Der Hum drove through the mud and pelting rain to win the Cup.  Early afternoon a storm like no other, passed through the area. The rain caused unprecedented chaos, in a city that is used to these type of weather events. Torrential rain soaked the course, fans ran for cover however the grandstands provided little respite. Rain came into the stands not vertically from the clouds but horizontally, like in some topsy-turvy world where gravity is but a fictitious phenomenon.

Racegoers dressed in their finery became soaked on their “under cover” seats. The track announcers shouted there were horses out there, somewhere, but no-one could distinguish one from the other. Visibility was measured in feet, not metres. Bob Skelton, the Kiwi jockey who had ridden in the most forsaken places, remarked he had never seen anything like it, netherlone ridden in such conditions. He carried two sets of goggles but even those were no match for the mud and slosh that was kicked back into the jockey’s and horse’s faces.

You can‘t cancel The Melbourne Cup!

Rain has caused The Cup to be postponed twice in its history, in 1870 and 1916. However, nowadays, more than $100 million is bet on The Cup. Betting companies take thousands of bets on Cup day alone. The hour before the Cup is frantic with one popular betting company taking 850 bets per second. There would be national outrage if the decision is made to cancel The Cup. Professional gamblers would turn to the new Australian online casino to satisfy their betting needs.

Inclement weather adds a sense of drama to the race. Media goes into overdrive, showing weather maps, umbrellas and rain-sodden fans on the lawns. This is the stuff from which memories are made, and its all part of the Melbourne Cup experience.

Flemington floods

One important fact about Flemington, the headquarters of horse racing in this country, is that it is situated on an active flood plain! The mighty Maribyrnong River meanders down into Melbourne from the ancient slopes of Mount Macedon, a dormant volcano and home to many Melbourne Cup winners, including Just A Dash (1981), What A Nuisance (1985), Ethereal (2001), Efficient (2007), Green Moon (2012), Almandin (2016) and Rekindling (2017). The incredible volume of water that can flow down this ancient aboriginal landscape can cause major flooding events downstream on the plains.

1906 was one of the worst Maribyrnong River floods in history, but other notable floods occurred in 1984 and 1993. In May of 1974, the entire Maribyrnong flood plain, including Flemington racecourse, was under 6 feet of water! The views from the elevated areas of Footscray Technical College were nothing short of amazing! When it eventually drained away, it left 18 inches of silt over the entire area, placing serious doubt on whether the racecourse could be ready for November Cup week.

Out-of-action until October, the track was restored to pristine condition for The Cup and fans were treated to an epic Melbourne Cup. The darling of the Australian turf, Leilani, was overrun in the dying yards by Harry White on Think Big, the first of his two Cups. Since then, the river has broken its banks another 8 times including September 1993, the year Vintage Crop won, and in 1984 (Black Knight). 

Storms and major floods add to the drama of the Melbourne Cup

The possibility of storms and major flooding on Cup day is part and parcel of the drama around the Melbourne Cup. They add that element of the unknown, much like playing the pokies. They make the Cup unforgettable, and indelibly etched in Australian folklore. The Melbourne Cup, with all its variability and uncertainty, is at the heart of this great city.

Category: Special interest

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