In the past, such weightings were performed to theoretically give each horse an equal chance of winning the cup, but in recent years the rules have been adjusted to that of a "quality handicap" where superior horses are given less severe weight penalties than would be the case under pure handicap rules. It is generally regarded as the most prestigious "two-mile" (the race was originally held over a distance of two miles, which is approximately 3218 metres) handicap in the world. It is one of the most popular spectator events in Melbourne, with over 110,000 people, some dressed in traditional formal raceday wear and others in all manner of exotic and/or amusing costumes attending the race.
"Fashions On The Field" is in fact a major focus of the day, with substantial prizes awarded for the best-dressed female and more recently male racegoers. The requirement for elegant hats almost single-handedly keeps Melbourne's (few) milliners in business. Raceday fashion has, on occasion, drawn almost as much attention as the race itself, with the miniskirt receiving worldwide publicity when model Jean Shrimpton, an invited guest unfamiliar with Melbourne's conservatism at the time, wore one to a lead-up event to Cup Day (it was actually Darby Day where she wore the mini) in 1965.
Race day in Melbourne is a public holiday, and around the country, a large majority of people gamble on the race, either through direct betting or participating in cup "sweeps". Its description as the "race that stops a nation" is well-deserved.
Racing purists and "serious" betters dislike the Cup, as the unusually long distance and handicap rules make the result highly unpredictable and allows mediocre horses to win. They regard the Cox Plate, a 2000 metre weight-for-age race, as a true indication of the best horses in Australia.
The race has undergone several alterations over the past decade, the most visible being the arrival of many foreign horses to contest the race (notwithstanding the many winners from New Zealand including the famous Phar Lap) in the last decade. Most have failed to cope with the conditions, with only Irish trainer Dermott Weld successful, in 1993 with Vintage Crop and 2002 with Media Puzzle. The attraction for foriegners to compete, however, was the far less visible change to the new "quality handicap" weighting system.
The 2001 Melbourne Cup was won by New Zealand mare Ethereal, trained by Shiela Laxon, the first woman to formally train a Cup winner. She also won the Caulfield Cup, a similar race, and therefore has won 'the cups double'.
Melbourne Cup Winners: