Joe McGrath has a particularly niche day job that has taken him to England, Ireland, France, Japan and Hong Kong this year. He is the official keeper of the Melbourne Cup, charged with accompanying it on tour. The 18-carat gold trophy is worth $600,000 and must be handled with gloves. But McGrath transports it in an unassuming grey Antler carry-on. The trick, says the 58-year-old, is knowing when to keep a low profile.
“I have spent approximately 65 per cent of the tour on the road, every year since 2003. It’s still pretty special to see the reaction of the people when you pull out the Cup. It never gets old.
“One time I’ll always remember was visiting a nursing home in Perth. A grumpy man asked: ‘Where’s the Cup?’ He wanted a photo of it. I told him we could do better; we could take his photo with it. He seemed like he was made of stone, but he broke down after that. The nursing staff couldn’t believe it.
“At that point, I realised you’ve got to let people hold the Cup because it really is a cultural icon, and it can deeply affect people.
“So we always carry white gloves, which are a bit of fun, but you do have to protect the Cup because it is a precious metal and literally thousands of people might have held it by the end of the tour. I was the first person to take the Cup on the road, so in a way I can lay claim to the glove tradition. People now often bring their own gloves to handle it.
“We have security with us and the Cup is insured, but I would say 99.9 per cent of people respect and value it. The suitcase I carry it around in is fairly nondescript. It’s one of those things; the fewer people who know what you’re doing, the better.
“ABC Bullion, the makers of the trophy, also make a second one every year, in case the race ends in a dead heat. There have been a couple of close finishes, in particular in 2011, when just two pixels separated the winner (Dunaden) and runner-up (Red Caudeaux). I think it took longer to decide who won than it did to run the race. There’s also been two dead heats for third place – in 1933 and 1999.
“So we have that second trophy on standby for the photos in case we need to present the Cup to two winners. If there ever was a second winner, we would then make another $600,000 trophy. The backup trophies are still worth a lot of money, but not $600,000, and they’re stored in the archive at ABC Bullion.
“My first memory of the Melbourne Cup was listening to the race on the radio at home in 1967 as Bellition, a horse owned by my mother, finished seventh after leading into the straight. I remember it being a big deal. Everyone was dressed up. It was like Grand Final week at our house. Bellition went on to win the Geelong Cup and also ran in the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate. From there I got really drawn into horse racing.
“I started at the VRC in 1987. I was part of the inaugural Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour in 2003 and in that time I have watched and helped it grow to become the worldwide tour we know today.
“At the beginning of every year we run a tender process, where destinations across Australia and the world apply to host the tour. The VRC then picks the top 30 to 40 based on their applications. This year we received a record 99 applications.
“We kicked off in Tokyo [where jockey Damian Lane’s wife, Bonnie, carried the trophy across Shibuya Crossing in an outfit fit for the Birdcage] and we toured for 150 days.
“We can’t make it to every destination, but this year we went to every state and territory in Australia including towns from Hillston to Darwin, Ballarat to Broome. We always include communities that have experienced hardship, like prolonged drought. It’s fantastic to see the joy our visits bring to people who have been struggling, and the fund-raising opportunities the tour helps facilitate.
“When I’m not on tour, I contribute to VRC publications to educate people about the incredible history of racing. Back in the 1960s and 1970s there were so many racing personalities, like Bart Cummings, Harry White, Roy Higgins, Tommy Smith. They were famous names and there were famous Melbourne Cup winners, like Van der Hum, which won in 1976 in the pouring rain, as well as Think Big (1974 and 1975) and Hyperno (1979).
“But ultimately, there’s always a fascination connected to Phar Lap [who won not only the Melbourne Cup but a race on each of the four days of the 1930 Flemington spring carnival]. I never tire of learning about Phar Lap, who became a colossus and pretty much the best horse in the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across people connected to him.
“As for picking a winner this year, I was brought up in a racing and bookmaking family, so I know it’s a tough game. It is the most intriguing race in the Australian racing calendar.
“Since 2019, we have run a Cup Tour national sweep, allocating starting barriers to 24 rural and regional destinations across Australia. We arrange for representatives from each to fly to Melbourne to experience the magic of Cup Day in person. The town that draws the barrier of the Cup-winning horse is then presented with a cash prize of $50,000 to put towards a charity of the community’s choice.
“It’s the people’s race, it’s the people’s Cup.”
As told to Gus McCubbing
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