Tracing the history of the Melbourne Cup trophy is at times like piecing together a puzzle.

The "Loving Cup's" three handles symbolises the relationship between the winning jockey, trainer and owner.

Century of an icon



The gold three-handled loving cup trophy, recognised universally as the symbol of the Melbourne Cup, celebrates its 100th birthday this year. A new trophy is presented each year, and every trophy since 1919 has been closely based on this design. Logically you would expect the winner of this year’s Lexus Melbourne Cup to receive the 101st trophy of this style. But it isn’t quite so.

Closely based, but never an exact replica – no two Melbourne Cup trophies are identical.

There have been minor modifications over the century because every trophy has been individually handmade. The sharp eye will see that some have been shorter, some taller, heavier, lighter, some in 9 carat gold, most in 18 carat, some secured to their timber bases, some sitting loosely, each engraved differently. The size of the bowls, the sweep of the handles, are not always the same. Each uniquely represents the craftsmanship of a succession of select Australian goldsmiths.

The 1919 design created by Melbourne goldsmith James Steeth for jewellers William Drummond and Co. was the starting point.

Here is the riddle. Although 2019 marks the centenary of the cup design, this year’s cup will be the 98th three-handled cup to be presented – and at the same time only the 94th.

The first part of the mystery is easy to solve. In the final three years of the Second World War, no trophy was awarded. The owners of Colonus (1942), Dark Felt (1943) and Sirius (1944) had to be satisfied with £200 in interest-bearing ‘war bonds’ representing the value of the trophy.

Leo Menck, the Sydney owner of Colonus, later cashed in his bonds and commissioned his own, unofficial, Melbourne Cup trophy. It is not included in our total.

The 1947 Melbourne Cup trophy design blueprint, showing the intricate planning and detail when designing each trophy.

The next step is more complicated. Of 98 trophies presented from 1919 to 2019, several are known to have been recycled. That is to say, they were reacquired from original owners, refinished, re-engraved and presented as new. This happened three times in the 1950s, unannounced.

The most significant was the 1953 trophy won by Wodalla and presented to his excited owner, VRC Vice Chairman Ted Underwood. This trophy unquestionably dates back to 1930 or earlier. It is believed to be the very cup won by Phar Lap’s owner-trainer Harry Telford. Telford later fell on hard times and sold his trophy.

Extraordinarily, Wodalla’s trophy again returned to the VRC after Underwood died. In 1980 it was presented for the third time as a Melbourne Cup trophy, this time to Robert and Susan Sangster when Beldale Ball won the great race, half a century after Phar Lap.

That means: 98 three-handled loving cups to this year, remembering three not made in the war, minus three that were recycled, minus one recycled twice: equals 94. In our centenary year, the 2019 trophy is the 94th individual cup in the series.

Nine years ago, to mark the 150th Melbourne Cup, the trophy returned to the external dimensions of the 18 carat 1930 Phar Lap trophy, but was thicker and sturdier, almost twice its weight in gold. ABC Bullion, Australia’s leading precious metal and gold bullion specialist, have supplied the Australian gold and made the trophy for the past three years. The magnificent 2019 trophy is the most valuable ever, worth $200,000.

A few Melbourne Cup replicas and duplicates have appeared over the years, to compound the confusion. Some were authorised by the VRC, some not. A trophy in Kalgoorlie commemorates the win of Western Australia’s Blue Spec in 1905 – authorised but anachronistic. No official trophy was awarded in Blue Spec’s year.

The Club’s recent policy has been to reject requests for replicas. Syndication means that dozens of individuals might have a share in a Lexus Melbourne Cup winner – but (short of dead heat) there is only one winning horse, and only one official trophy each year.

How many actual ‘Melbourne Cup’ cups have been won altogether? Apart from the 98 (or 94) official three-handled examples, a few trophies before 1919 took the form of a cup. James Steeth himself made prototype gold cups as trophies in the three preceding years. His first, and most unusual, was an 18 carat golden bowl strangely reminiscent of Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding, supported by three art nouveau handles that resolve themselves into short feet. It was won by New Zealand horse Sasanof.

In 1917 and 1918 Steeth tried a two-handled gold cup. The 1919 trophy that followed was a giant leap forward in design and craftsmanship, art deco yet timeless, justifiably the exemplar. James Steeth’s son Maurice, who made the trophies from 1938 until his death in 1970, acknowledged the role of Drummond and Co. manager Bill Maughan in creating the original design. Maurice’s former apprentice, Carlton goldsmith Lucky Rocca, made the trophies for the rest of the twentieth century. For the next 17 years Hardy Brothers made the trophy in Brisbane under the auspices of Stuart Bishop.

In the first 57 Melbourne Cup races, a trophy was part of the prize only 25 times. Mostly the honour, glory and stakemoney were judged sufficient reward.

If silver bowls count as cups, then five of the seven trophies awarded from 1909 to 1915 might qualify, all imported from England, but none resembled the current design.

Most of the pre-1919 occasional trophies were magnificent pieces of imported English silverware. One rare exception was an ornate gold cup, made in Geelong by master goldsmith Edward Fischer, presented in 1876 to owner-trainer James Wilson when wonder filly Briseis won the Cup. Alas this trophy decades ago was melted down for its gold, save only for an engraved medallion noting horse, trainer and boy jockey Peter St Albans. Intact, today it would be worth a fortune.

You will often read statements, that the first winner – Archer – won a gold watch trophy. Not so. The 1861 prize was advertised simply as ‘200 sovereigns’ (£200) plus 10 sovereigns added to the pool from each entrant and 10 sovereigns more from final acceptors. Archer’s connections scooped the pool which in 1861
amounted to £910. The value of £910 in 1861 (technically $1820 after Australian converted to decimal currency in 1966) only makes sense by comparing its purchasing power. It would, for instance, buy two brick cottages on corner allotments in the rising suburb of Kew. A hotel in Port Melbourne changed hands that year for £1200. The Chief Justice at the time earned more than £3000. A cook in a hotel, on the other hand, would be lucky to get just £40 a year in wages. Many labourers and maids earned much less.

Unofficial mementoes are a different matter. Two days after the 1861 Cup, enthusiasts at Sydney’s Tattersall’s Hotel set up a fund to reward Tom Lamond, who trained Archer under the auspices of Etienne de Mestre, and to Johnny Cutts, the winning jockey. Big Sydney money had been taken from bookmakers. In the colourful advertisement of the day, ‘Gentlemen who have “pulled off right” are invited to contribute’. Family legend says a gold-plated riding whip went to Lamond. Maybe someone got a gold watch.

This, then, was the start of Melbourne Cup memorabilia: presentation whips for successful jockeys, framed portraits of the winners, right through to today’s souvenir saddlecloths, oncourse merchandise and Melbourne Cup charity pins. But today the greatest souvenir, the one that travels Australia, New Zealand and the world in the months leading up to the First Tuesday in November under the watchful eye of tour manager Joe McGrath, is the Lexus Melbourne Cup trophy for the winning owner. Whatever number you put on it, it’s one hundred years old this year. Celebrate accordingly