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First Past the Post: The Melbourne Cup of 1861

by Vashti Farrer

Archer, with his owner, T. J. Roberts, 1862, painted by Frederick Woodhouse Snr; image courtesy of Mrs Olive Royds

Archer, with his owner, T. J. Roberts, 1862, painted by Frederick Woodhouse Snr; image courtesy of Mrs Olive Royds

There is a legend, recounted many times in newspaper reports, books and even a film (Archer's Adventure, made in 1985 and featuring a young Nicole Kidman), that the racehorse, Archer, accompanied by Dave Power, a stable foreman, walked over 700 kms from Nowra in New South Wales, to Flemington to win the first Melbourne Cup.[1]

The reason given for the epic walk is that there was no rail link between Nowra and Melbourne at the time. But there were steamships, and there is considerable evidence to show that is how Archer, his trainer Etienne de Mestre, and jockey John Cutts, travelled to Melbourne. 

Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, a sporting newspaper of the day, reported on 21 September:

Wednesday last saw the departure of Mr De Mestre's three nags for Melbourne, and by this time we trust they have arrived in good order. A large number of friends went down to the wharf to see the horses on board, and we may safely say that wishes for the successful issue of the trip are very general.[2]

Two weeks later Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle announced:

The City of Sydney, which reached Sandridge (Port Melbourne) on Saturday last brought the Sydney entries for the Melbourne Cup, viz, Archer, Inheritor and Exeter. Archer is considered the best old good 'un in New South Wales. The horses reached this colony without a scratch, and remained at Kirk's Bazaar until Wednesday, when they took up their abode at the Botanical Hotel, South Yarra.[3]

As for Dave Power, the stable foreman who supposedly walked Archer to Melbourne? There is no firm evidence that anyone by that name ever worked in de Mestre's stables. There was a 68-year-old David Power living in the Meroo area of the Shoalhaven district by the time of the 1901 census and it is tantalising to speculate that he may have been in de Mestre's employ forty years earlier. 

The origin of the legend is unknown. Certainly, walking was part of de Mestre’s training program and Archer covered many miles walking to country race meetings in New South Wales. Perhaps, sometime after Archer's Melbourne Cup victories, this Dave Power, seeking to bask in reflected glory, spun a yarn that he had walked with the horse to Melbourne. Certainly, the legend was legitimised in 1978 when de Mestre's daughter, Beryl, wrote to Bart Cummings congratulating him on surpassing her father's record of winning five Melbourne Cups. Her letter, reported in the Sun-Herald, confirmed the legend by pondering on how many present-day race horses 'could walk from Nowra to Melbourne and still have the stamina to win the race two years in succession'?[4]

The long walk by racing horse, The Barber, to Flemington two years earlier may have also been an inspiration for the legend. After surviving the wreck of the steamship Admella, off the South Australian coast, north of Cape Northumberland, in August 1859, the hapless Barber was made to walk 300 kms over seven days, from Mount Gambier to Geelong, before being loaded on a train for Melbourne to race in the Australian Champion Sweepstakes at Flemington.[5] Not surprisingly, he was unplaced. 

Whatever its source, Archer’s famous ‘walk’ remains a legend. 

Origins of the Race

The 1850s were golden years for Victoria. Not long after separating from New South Wales in 1851, rich sources of gold were discovered in Bendigo and Ballarat sparking a gold rush which brought untold wealth to the colony. Many Victorians, no doubt, felt a growing sense of superiority over their mother colony. In 1857, Andrew Spencer Chirnside, a wealthy grazier and racehorse owner, boasted that no horse could beat his mare Alice Hawthorn. Confident of success, Anthony Green, trainer of the mare, challenged owners in New South Wales to a ‘Championship of the Colonial Turf’, to be run over three miles at Flemington on 3 October 1857 for a purse of £1000. George T. Rowe of Liverpool, New South Wales, took up the challenge. An estimated crowd of up to twenty thousand people turned out to watch Rowe’s horse, Veno (also trained by his brother-in-law, Etienne de Mestre) comfortably beat Alice Hawthorn by two lengths in a time of 6 minutes 12 seconds.[6]

Melbourne racing interests, eager for a rematch, began planning for a three-day Spring meeting which would include a new two-mile handicap race to be called the Melbourne Cup.[7]

Englishman Captain Frederick Charles Standish is often credited with suggesting the Cup be named after the city. A keen racing man, he had been forced to sell his property in England in 1852 to pay gambling debts. He then migrated to the colonies, trying his luck on the Victorian goldfields before being appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Goldfields in 1854 and, later, Protector of the Chinese. In 1858 he became Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria. He was a member of the Victorian Turf Club and was a steward on the day of the Cup. Standish is perhaps unique in being able to claim that he played a part in three significant events in Australia’s history - the Eureka Stockade, the first Melbourne Cup and the arrest of the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. 

Following the success of Veno, Etienne de Mestre was keen to try his luck again in the southern city and, in June 1861, entered three horses, Archer, Inheritor and Exeter, in the inaugural Melbourne Cup. Although de Mestre did not own Archer he probably leased and certainly trained him.[8]

In September 1861, having arrived safely in Melbourne, de Mestre began preparing his horses for the Melbourne Cup with a rigorous training program, involving walking, track work and swimming. Then, on 23 October, barely two weeks before the race, Archer stumbled in the sand dunes at St Kilda beach, injuring his leg. De Mestre sought the help of Patrick Egan, a farrier in La Trobe Street, who treated the horse with liniment. De Mestre continued with his program of swimming to strengthen Archer’s leg. The day before the race Egan fitted the horses with racing plates. Archer and Inheritor were still entered in the Cup, but Exeter had been rescheduled to race on the other two days of the meeting.[9]

Archer’s Pedigree

Foaled in 1856, at ‘Ballalaba’, Jembaicumbene, near Braidwood, Archer stood 16.3 hands, a bay by William Tell out of Maid of Oaks. In 1844 the then 21-yr-old Thomas Molyneux Royds paid £51 for the mare, Maid of Oaks, by Vagabond from a Zorab mare. William Tell had been sired by the English St Leger winner, Touchstone, out of Miss Bowe. The stallion arrived at Cambell's Wharf, Sydney, in 1847[10] and was later sent to Tom Royds at Ballalaba by his brother. Royds had planned to put Maid of Oaks to William Tell; but the initial match proved unsuccessful. 

Royds died in 1852 after falling from his horse while kangaroo hunting, leaving a widow, Elizabeth, and two young sons. Elizabeth’s brother, Tom Roberts, took over the horse stud. Two years later Elizabeth married Roland G. Hassall, grandson of the missionary Rowland Hassall. Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1881, any land, houses or livestock owned by a woman upon remarriage automatically became the property of her husband. More interested in breeding cattle than horses, Hassell sold all but six of the estate’s horses. These six, including William Tell and Maid of Oaks, were taken over by Roberts on behalf of Elizabeth and her sons. Where Royds had failed in matching the pair, Roberts succeeded with the resulting progeny, Archer.[11] De Mestre, who was a business associate and school friend of Roberts, ‘leased’ Archer in early 1860 and the horse began winning races in the Spring meeting. 

Archer shared his ancestry with another Melbourne Cup winner: the St Leger winner, Touchstone, as well as being Archer's grandsire was also an ancestor of champion Carbine who won the 1890 Melbourne Cup from the largest field ever, with thirty nine starters. Carbine also carried the heaviest weight on record, 10 st 5 lb (65.7 kg). 

City Mourns Death of Burke and Wills

The first Melbourne Cup was held on a Thursday – not a Tuesday, as it is nowadays – and was attended by a comparatively small crowd of 4000 people. This was not due to a lack of interest but to a feeling of gloom that had settled over the city as people became aware of the tragic deaths of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. 

The two explorers and their party had set off from Melbourne in a blaze of glory a year earlier, intending to cross the continent from south to north in search of pastoral land and a possible trade route to Asia. When they failed to return an official search party set out from Adelaide in August 1861 to discover their fate; another party left Melbourne on 15 September. By November it was known that Burke and Wills had perished. The sole survivor of the fateful expedition, John King, who had been cared for by Aborigines, was able to show the search party where Wills was buried. Soon after, Burke’s body was found. Wills’s last diary entry, dated 27 June 1861, was published in the Age on 7 November, the same day the Melbourne Cup was run.[12] Public buildings were draped with black banners. 

Race Day

Despite the sombre mood, and the smaller than expected crowds, the opening of the Spring meeting and the running of the first Melbourne Cup proved a great success. For the first time patrons were able to travel by train from Spencer Street Station to Flemington for a return fare of 1s 6d First Class or 1s Second Class. Others went by road. Some even rowed up river to attend, spreading out picnics on the river's banks. 

The Age reported that

A more propitious day, so far as weather was concerned, it would have been difficult, to realise. Bright sunshine, a clear sky, and a gentle breeze from the south-west, with a few light fleecy clouds overhead, gave reasonable assurance that neither extreme heat nor sudden change might be expected and a firm but not hard or dusty condition of the turf under foot gave fair promise of a good day's sport. ... [T]he ‘Grand Stand was tolerably well filled, and with a more than usual attendance of ladies; whilst on 'the Hill' (the price of admission having been reduced to 1 shilling for each day) the public crowded in large numbers.[13]

A carnival atmosphere prevailed with women in bonnets and full skirts, men in beaver hats and frock coats. Sideshow booths with roulette stands, fortune-tellers, performing monkeys, ‘giants’ and bearded ladies entertained the crowds, and publicans did a roaring trade. The event drew spectators from all parts: in the crowd there were men wearing cabbage-tree hats and sporting bushy beards; settlers in moleskins, or leggings and boots; and diggers from Ballarat who stood out in their red shirts. 

Coaches kept unloading passengers and those on the huge Leviathan, which required eight greys with four postilions riding left, leant out of the windows or sat above on the roof. Two other coaches drawn by eight black horses bedecked with blue ribbons and rosettes in their manes, wove in and out, cutting figure 8s in front of the stand to entertain the crowd.[14]

Fifty-seven horses had put their name down for the first Melbourne Cup, a figure that was reduced to twenty-one in the days leading up to the race. Four more were scratched on the morning of the Cup leaving a field of seventeen starters in the race scheduled for 3.35 pm. Archer had dropped from 8/1 to 6/1 in the betting. His ‘size, strength and condition not being sufficient to overbalance the want of faith felt in the probable performance in a horse not yet tested in this colony (although well known in Sydney).’[15] Inheritor started at 8/1 and Mormon, the short-priced Melbourne favourite at 3/1, was carrying the top weight of 9 st 10 lb (57.15 kg).

Before the race, the Governor, Sir Henry Barkly inspected the horses and talked to the owners at the saddling paddock. The clerk of the course, F. D. Hamilton, in hunting pink jacket, and the starter, George Watson, in striped jacket, waistcoat and shiny topper, moved round the horses as owners and trainers gave last minute instructions to the jockeys. Johnny Cutts on Archer was wearing de Mestre's all black colours while F. McCabe on Inheritor was in black silks with red and black cap. On the course, there being no cage barrier (the fixed barrier was not introduced until 1924), the starter on his mount raised a red flag. 

And The Race Begins...

The starter waited for the jockeys to mount the horses and get into position. Before he could drop the flag, Twilight bolted without her jockey, racing the full length of the course before she could be stopped and made to line up again. This time the flag dropped and the horses got away in unison, the jockeys riding upright as was the custom. The pace was slow as the track had only been half-scythed, leaving the grass a foot high in some places and three feet in others. 

Flatcatcher took the lead from Archer, the rest of the field in a ruck as they approached the sharp turn, with Flatcatcher moving to two lengths ahead and Archer one length in front of the rest. Then disaster struck as Medora's front legs gave way and she fell heavily, bringing down her jockey, Henderson. Dispatch rounded the turn and somersaulted over her, careered into the picket fence and threw her jockey, Morrison. Next came Twilight who collapsed on top of them, bringing Haynes down with her. Unhurt, she broke loose before heading off across the course and was disqualified. Nearby spectators anxiously dragged the fallen horses off the track before the others came round the course again. By this time Archer had taken the lead by several lengths from Antonelli followed by Mormon, Prince and Toryboy. Cowan took whip and spurs to Antonelli, but could not stop Mormon gaining on them, After his early lead, Flatcatcher fell back with the rest of the field that had bunched up at the rear. 

Fireaway went after the leaders, but had left his run too late. As they reached the river turn Cutts gave Archer his head; Antonelli and Toryboy were not far behind while Mormon showed signs of dropping back. By the time they reached the abattoir stand, Antonelli had begun to tire and Archer saw his chance, leaving the rest of the pack spread-eagled behind him taking the lead by three lengths ahead of Mormon as they came into the home stretch. 

The final result:

1st Archer
2nd Mormon
3rd Prince

Archer had beaten the favourite by six lengths, with Prince, ridden by Bishop, a close third.[16]

Melbourne's press reacted despondently to the Sydney horse’s win:

The settling was the worst the books could remember, and it will be a long time before the ring recovers itself from the severe blow which the Victory of Archer in the Cup administered. 

While Sydney reporters announced the news more dramatically, if not quite accurately:

Melbourne Cup. By Electric Telegraph. De Mestre's Archer first, Mormon second. Archer made the running after the first mile winning as he liked. Dispatch ran against a post and was killed. Medora went over and was much hurt. The jockeys were not severely injured.[17]

In 1861, there was no ‘cup’ awarded. Instead, Sir Henry Barkly presented de Mestre with a hand-beaten gold watch and a cheque for £930. No prizes were awarded for second or third place getters. The time of 3 minutes 52 seconds remains the slowest on record and was attributed to the uncut grass and the tragic fall near the start that slowed the horses down. 

The accident cast a shadow over the day's proceedings. Both mares had to be put down: Medora had broken the cannon bones in her front legs as well as her off hind leg; and Dispatch had suffered a broken back.[18] The jockeys also sustained injuries; Henderson's shoulder was dislocated and Morrison's right collar broken. The injury to his right side was such that he could only walk with assistance and had to be taken to Melbourne Hospital. 

At the next day's meeting Archer won a second race over two miles, the Melbourne Town Plate. In 1862, he returned to win his second Melbourne Cup, carrying 10 st 2 lb (64.4 kg) and starting as short-priced favourite at 2/1. Again he beat Mormon, this time by 10 lengths, in 3 minutes and 47 seconds. The record of two consecutive Cups won by the same horse remained unbroken until Rain Lover won in 1968 and 1969. The record quinella – the same two horses coming first and second two years in a row – has never been broken. 

Etienne de Mestre tried to enter Archer for a third Cup, but an annual public holiday, Separation Day, which celebrated Victoria's seceding from New South Wales, meant the telegram authorising George Kirk and Co. to pay the acceptance money was delayed and his entry was not received by the Victoria Turf Club’s deadline of 8pm on 1 July. The application was ruled out as being ‘too late’.[19] Understandably, de Mestre was furious and claimed ‘sour grapes’ on the part of the V.T.C. He refused to attend the race and other Sydney trainers boycotted the Cup in support. This resulted in the shortest field on record in 1863 with only seven horses racing, all of them Victorian. Had Archer had been allowed to run in a third Cup, he would have had to carry a massive 11 st 4 lb (71 kg). (By way of contrast, when Makybe Diva won her third Cup she carried just 58 kg.) De Mestre vowed to never again enter a Melbourne Cup, but later relented, winning in 1867 with Tim Whiffler, then Chester in 1877, and Calamia in 1878.[20] His record of five wins by the same trainer was only broken by Bart Cummings’s amazing string of twelve Cups that started in 1965 with Light Fingers

Nowadays racehorses come from all over the world to run in the Melbourne Cup; the overseas entries travelling by plane in comfortable quarters and at far less risk than steamship travel to Melbourne. In September 1876, the City of Melbourne was hit by a huge gale off Jervis Bay. Nine of the eleven racehorses travelling to Victoria were killed.[21] Five of them, including Cup hope Robin Hood, had been trained by de Mestre. 

Archer continued to race, sometimes two and three times a day, which was not unusual in those days. Archer was nicknamed "The Bull" by his stablehands. His big hindquarters and strong legs translated into power on the track, enabling him to surge forward when necessary. In August 1864 he was injured in a fall during training and was retired to stud on Exeter Farm, Braidwood, where he’d been foaled. He died aged 16 years on 22 December 1872[22] from inflammation of the lungs, caused by eating green barley, and was buried on Exeter Farm. A racecourse at Nowra and bridge at Braidwood are named after him.

* Vashti Farrer is the author of Archer's Melbourne Cup - The Diary of Robby Jenkins 1861, published by Scholastic's My Australian Story series in 2000.


[1] Bill Ahern, 1861-1987 Melbourne Cup Results and Statistics - The Saga of 127 Cup Winners, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1988, p ix

[2] Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, 21 September 1861, p 2 (view)

[3] Andrew Lemon, The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, Vol. 2, Southbank Communications Group, Melbourne, 1990, pp 267-68

[4] Bert Lillye, 'An Old World de Mestre', Sun-Herald (Sydney), 26 February 1978, p 67

[5] South Australian Register, 21 September 1859, p 3 (view)

[6] Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, 30 May 1857, p 2 (view); Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 1857, p 1

[7] Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, 16 February 1861, p 4 (view)

[8] Keith R. Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier (1788-1900) and The Serpent's Legacy, Volcanic Productions, Neutral Bay (NSW), 2005, p 367

[9] Keith W. Paterson, The Master's Touch: Racing with Etienne de Mestre, Winner of five Melbourne Cups, Keith Paterson, Nowra (NSW), 2001, p 32

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 1847, p 2 (view); Maitland Mercury, 31 December 1972, p 3

[11] Paterson, The Master's Touch, p 27

[12] Age (Melbourne), 7 November 1861, p 5

[13] Age (Melbourne), 8 November 1861, p 5

[14] D.L. Bernstein, The First Tuesday in November: The Story of the Melbourne Cup, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1969. This display was considered unlikely until the obituary of Robert Grover of Hawthorne Park, Preston, documented his memory of seeing two coaches each with eight horses, driven by Americans doing Figure 8s at the first Melbourne Cup. Argus (Melbourne), 7 February 1933, p 6 (view)

[15] Age (Melbourne), 7 November 1861, p 7

[16] Bernstein, First Tuesday, p 7; Argus (Melbourne), 8 November 1861, p 5 (view)

[17] Neville Penton, A Racing Heart - The Story of the Australian Turf, Collins, Sydney, 1987, p 35; Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 1861, p 5 (view)

[18] Age (Melbourne), 8 November 1861, p 5. As a result of this accident, the Victoria Turf Club altered the course at Flemington to allow horses a longer straight stretch of four furlongs before having to make the sharp river turn.

[19] Argus (Melbourne), 4 July 1863, p 5; Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, 11 July 1863, p 2 (view) + (view)

[20] Terara Public School, situated close to where de Mestre's stables once stood, has these four Melbourne Cup winners as their school mascots.

[21] Argus (Melbourne), 13 September 1876, pp 5-6 (view)

[22] Maitland Mercury, 31 December 1872, p 3 (view)

Citation details

Vashti Farrer, 'First Past the Post: The Melbourne Cup of 1861', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/essay/1/text25546, originally published 1 February 2012, accessed 30 July 2014.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2014

Archer, with his owner, T. J. Roberts, 1862, painted by Frederick Woodhouse Snr; image courtesy of Mrs Olive Royds

Archer, with his owner, T. J. Roberts, 1862, painted by Frederick Woodhouse Snr; image courtesy of Mrs Olive Royds

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Archer, with jockey, J. Cutts, in E. L. de Mestre's colours, painted by Frederick Woodhouse Snr

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Melbourne Cup, 1861

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Melbourne Cup, 1861, start of the race