"THE DREAM CUP OF 1870"

During its long history, the Melbourne Cup has been postponed only twice, in 1870 and in 1916, which suggests that Melbourne's reputation as a rainy city is unwarranted.

However, The Spring of 1870 really was dismal. In September the city was deluged by six inches of rain, and again in October by a further 4.5 inches.

Trainers had a most difficult task to give their horses sufficient work in preparation for the V.R.C's spring meeting. Over 100 horses were stabled near Flemington, but for weeks on end the running track was under water, and the tan track, which was sloppy enough in any case, could not cope with all the horses that wanted to use it. Some trainers solved their problem by taking up temporary quarters in the wild country near the Caulfield racecourse where the running track was sandy, and could absorb any amount of rain. On Tuesday, 27th October 1870, 5 days racing was due to open with the Derby Day program, the VRC stewards inspected the course at Flemington and announced that the spring meeting would be postponed for one week. Even though they were criticized for acting hastily, the steward's decision turned out to be a wise one. The weather picked up well and on both Derby and Cup Days the going was surprisingly good.

The main effect of the racing on Derby Day was to bring the Hotham Handicap winner, Nimblefoot, from long odds to a prominent place in Cup discussions. Nimblefoot was an aged gelding, whose form over the previous three years had been so poor, that the handicapper had assessed him at only 6.0 for the cup.

"The Bay horse Nimblefoot, standing about 15 hands 3 inches was bred by Mr John Lord, of Tasmania, and is by Panic, out of Quickstep whose dam, the imported mare Mirror figured in the championship race at Melbourne in 1859. Nimblefoot does not much resemble his Sire, and is indeed a somewhat lathy horse put loosely together and does give the idea of possessing any great staying power".

As a young horse Nimblefoot had been quite a good a good galloper and as a three-year-old, had run second to the well performed Fishhook in the St. Ledger, and second to the very good Volunteer in the Queen's Guineas, both races at the Launceston Cup meeting.

At that time he was owned by Mr S. Blackwood, who then sold him to well known Melbourne bookmaker Joe Thompson for 300.00 pounds, who, after winning one race with the Gelding, passed him onto Ballarat publican Walter Craig, for 200.00 pounds. In Mr Craig's ownership, Nimblefoot raced very badly, and after refusing an offer of 50.00 pounds for him, he sent Nimblefoot back to his native Tasmania in the hope that a long spell would bring him back to his early form.

It was from Tasmania that Nimblefoot came back to do his Cup preparation under the care of the prominent Flemington trainer, W. Lang.

On Tuesday 10th November 1870 public transport was strained to the limit to cope with the crowds. The trains from Spencer Street conveyed fourteen thousand people to the course, the four horse omnibuses of the Melbourne Bus Company somehow transported two thousand, as many more went by cab, thousands tramped from their homes, and every form of private carriage was out on the road.

By post time for the big race, the attendance was estimated at 30,000 of whom 4000 patronised the grandstand reserve, 16,000 crowded on the hill, and 10,000 spread across the flat, then referred to as the outer paddock. 28 runners lined up for the cup, and the big field included the winners of the previous three cups. Tim Whiffler, Glencoe and Warrior as well as the 1870 Sydney Metropolitan winner, Croydon.

Down the years, a curious tale has been told of Nimblefoot's win. In some quarters the story is now dismissed as legend, but contemporary sources indicate that the strange as it is, the story is true.

" The jockey riding Nimblefoot was Day, who in times gone by, made some noise as juvenile pedestrian, and who on the cup day of 1869 met with such injuries, and made him an inmate of the hospital for a considerable period".

The race provided one of the most controversial finishes in cup history. At the final turn Lapdog and Nimblefoot broke clear, and all the way down the straight had the race between them. Inside the distance Lapdog led by a half-length, but young Day on Nimblefoot, got the last ounce out of his mount, and as they hit the line only inches separated them. Most onlookers were certain that Lapdog had just lasted long enough, but the Judge gave the race to Nimblefoot. The time of 3.37 was a new race record.

About the four months before Cup time, Walter Craig dreamed that he was watching the running of the Melbourne Cup, and was amazed to see it won by his own horse "Nimblefoot". He walked over to the jockey and while congratulating him, he noticed that the man wore a mourning band of black crepe, "Why are you wearing that?" Craig asked. "Oh" replied the jockey "the horse belonged to Walter Craig who died three months ago".

From this Mr Craig concluded that Nimblefoot would win the Cup but that he himself would not live to see it.

The morning after the dream, Mr Craig recounted this story to several friends. As anybody curious enough can verify by reference to the public library, the story of Mr Craig's unusual dream was recounted in the Melbourne Age of Monday, 9th November 1870, the day before the Cup. And it is a fact young Day who rode Nimblefoot wore crepe on his arm, as can be seen from contemporary painting which hangs on the wall of the VRC committee room.

"Come Melbourne Cup day 1870, excitement in Ballarat centred around Craig's Hotel. About four o'clock in the afternoon a telegram came for Mrs Craig. When she read it she burst into tears. Nimblefoot had won the Cup. His rider wore a black armband, for Walter Craig had died early in the morning of the 17th August 1870".

There is another unusual tale concerning Mr Craig and Nimblefoot.

As long before the 1870 Cup, in the previous February, a group of Melbourne racing men, including prominent bookmaker Joseph Slack, were sitting in the Billiards room of Craig's Hotel, Ballarat when the talk turned to doubles betting on the Sydney Metropolitan and the Melbourne Cup. Mr Craig jokingly asked Slack what odds he would offer against Croydon and Nimblefoot for the double. As both horses were poorly performed, Slack counted the number of people present, and then told Mr Craig he could have 1000.00 to eight drinks, a bet that was promptly accepted. After Mr Craig's death, which of course cancelled out all debts of honor, Slack stated that he would abide by the wager and remade it with the firm of solicitors Hepburn and Leonard, who were acting on behalf of Mr Craig's widow. Slack duly paid the 1000.00 to Mrs Craig's representative in the lounge of Menzies Hotel Melbourne.

The print above of Nimblefoot has been copied from the original painting by Thomas Hamilton Lyttleton (1826-1876) now hanging in the hotel bar.