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The Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn gift

Travelling exhibitions | Introduction | Blue case | Red case | Yellow case | Melbourne cup

The 1888 Melbourne Cup

Arms of Burgundy watermark Elkington & Co. The 1888 Melbourne Cup 1887 maker's mark of Frederick Elkington silver, electroplated metal engraved: 'Won by DS Wallace's BC Mentor, ridden by Michael O'Brien, trained by WS Hickenbotham' National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Click on image to enlarge

1888 was the one hundredth anniversary of British settlement in Australia and, although the various colonies were not yet welded into one federated nation, all the colonies joined in a year of celebrations to mark the first century of the new land.

In Melbourne the climax of the celebrations was the Centennial Fair, held in the Exhibition Building in the spring of 1888. The exhibition was a great success and attracted visitors from all over the world. It was still in progress during Melbourne Cup week and accommodation was so taxed that intercolonial steamers lying in port were converted into temporary hotels.

The Melbourne Cup trophy of that year was known as the Centennial Cup and had been commissioned from England (Elkington & Co. Birmingham). The Centennial Cup features three magnificent horses cast in silver weighing 800 grams surmounted on a large silver plated base. The trophy was particularly large due to the importance of the centenary. The Victorian Racing Club also upped the prize-money by 3,000 gold sovereigns (sovereign = £1), making it the most valuable handicap in the world.

There were 28 runners in the 1888 Cup, however, based on past performances, a number of them should not have been in the race. They were eager to win part of the new £50,000 sweep run by Mr George Adams (the owner of the company that began Tattslotto). As the race was run, jockey Mick O'Brien (wearing the racing colours of black with white sleeves and scarlet cap) always had Mentor in a winning position. With plenty in hand, Mentor ran home a comfortable winner in 3 minutes 30 3/4 seconds from Tradition second and The Yeoman third.

Mentor had been bred at Mr Donald S Wallace's stud 'Ballark' between Ballarat and Geelong. Until 1888 Wallace's most important success had been winning the 1883 Caulfield Cup, and he was quite staggered when his trainer Walter Higginbotham suggested it might be worth the owner's while to have a good bet on Mentor to win the Melbourne Cup. Wallace, a shrewd operator, enlisted the aid of a bookmaker to place £1,000 on Mentor at long odds in case the odds shortened by Cup day — Wallace collected £20,000.

O’Brien was very popular with the average racegoer and he and his mount received a fine reception on their way back to the scale. Cheering broke out again as Wallace received the Cup and that evening O'Brien received a gold mounted whip, a tradition that continues for the winning jockey.

Activities • Why do you think the Cup is kept in a showcase? • Design your own Melbourne Cup trophy. • What materials and colours could you use to make it look precious?