The Melbourne Cup is a handicap event, which means that horses carry a different amount of weight based on their ability in order to even up the playing field. In handicap races, the best horses generally carry the most weight, and while the Melbourne Cup is renowned for not penalising the top horses as significantly as some other races, the weight they have to carry still has a huge impact on the final result.
How much do horses typically carry?
The Melbourne Cup generally sees horses carry a little less than in many shorter races – unsurprising given the gruelling nature of the 3,200-metre race. In 2020, as an example, the top weight was a relatively low 58.5 kilograms, while at the other end of the scale, two horses carried just 51 kilograms.
This weight, of course, comes primarily in the form of a small human known as a jockey. Jockeys put themselves through some extremely strenuous processes to ensure they ‘make weight’ – which basically just means that, after a race, they weigh in at less than the weight the horse was required to carry. If they are too light, the rest of the required weight is made upon thin lead weights carried inside the saddle cloth.
How much of an impact does this weight have?
In short, the answer is plenty. Over the course of 3,200 metres, a few extra kilograms can make a major difference, and the historical weights of winners of the Melbourne Cup are testament to this. Last year, Twilight Payment carried 55.5 kilograms to victory, and even this – a relatively low weight in most races – put him well above the average carried by winners at the event, at least in recent years.
The most successful winning weight at the Melbourne Cup is just 54.5 kilograms, with eight horses having saluted carrying this amount. On seven occasions each, the winner has carried only 52.5 kilograms, and likewise for 53 kilograms. In contrast, Makybe Diva is the only horse in the past 35 years to have carried at least 58 kilograms to victory, which she did in 2005 – and it’s worth remembering that she was one of the greatest racehorses in history.
The historical outliers
In the modern era, it’s rare to see a horse carrying much more than Makybe Diva’s 58 kilograms in the Melbourne Cup, while the minimum weight is 50 kilograms. In the past, however, the weight fluctuations were much more significant. In 1890, Carbine carried what is still – and will likely forever remain – the highest weight for a winner in the race when he lugged a huge 66 kilograms over the line. 41 years later, the prodigious Phar Lap was given a weight of 68 kilograms, such was his dominance – he did well to finish in eighth.
At the other end of the spectrum, Banker carried the lowest ever weight by a winner in 1863 in what was just the third edition of the race. After a chaotic first couple of Melbourne Cups, this incarnation saw just seven runners take to the track, and with just 33.5 kilograms on his back Banker beat all six of his opponents past the post.
Weight plays a pivotal role in many horse races around the world, levelling the playing field by placing a disadvantage on the best horses. The Melbourne Cup is no different, and as past results have demonstrated, having a lighter weight on your horse’s back can have a major impact on its chances of securing a win.