Taking the People's Cup to the people

The VRC Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour and VRC Ambassador at large, Joe McGrath looks back on the past 18 years of the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour where the people’s cup is taken to the people.


Most marketing strategies have a life cycle. And that cycle can be fairly short. So, as we come up to the 18th year of the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour, albeit in a slightly different form in 2020, we acknowledge the Cup Tour’s journey of what is truly Australia’s greatest sporting icon – the 18-carat Lexus Melbourne Cup trophy. It has become a key engagement strategy for the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) and a journey of excitement for everyone involved over the past 18 years. It has hit many emotional high points and connected with many communities at their lowest.

509 destinations; 357 hospitals and aged care facilities; 360 schools and 1608 community events; the Cup Tour has travelled far and wide and over 500,000 kilometres along the way. It has travelled in planes, boats, horse-drawn carriages, cars, hot-air balloons, ships, horseback ... you name it, it’s done it.

The Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour is much envied – especially by other sporting codes looking for that marketing edge. It travels far and wide, across many varied communities and allows the VRC to promote the Melbourne Cup Carnival from a number of angles promoting community engagement. As was quickly realised, the Cup Tour took racing out of the sport pages and placed it into general news. It cultivates and ferments key relationships for the VRC and leverages the iconic status of the Cup with community, media, commercial sponsors and tourism markets.

From that first week of the first Cup Tour back in 2003, it actually didn’t take long for those involved to realise that the Cup was more than just a sporting icon: it was a cultural phenomenon.

It is ingrained in the cultural fabric of Australia as a nation and is an ‘untouchable’ in this country. I have often said, you can change the Minister for Defence and it will probably make page 3. If you looked to change the day of the Cup from the first Tuesday in November ... you’d be on the front page!

In the first year of the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour we travelled to around 20 destinations across Australia, visiting schools, hospitals, aged care facilities and race clubs. At that stage we displayed the trophy in a mahogany case as a static display at various functions and events. Until then, there was not much direct contact with the trophy itself.

The following year, we were at a nursing home in Perth, and the residents were provided with a presentation on the Cup. At the close of the session, this grumpy old man half-asked, half-demanded to hold the Cup. He expected us to say ‘no’. I turned to him and said ‘no problem’, gave him a fresh pair of gloves, part of the protocols of holding the Cup, and away we went.

Well, I think the nurses' reaction was probably more priceless than the old man as they couldn’t believe the reaction it brought on. The man openly wept and the look of amazement on the nurses' faces to see this grown man, seemingly made of stone, was priceless. Not sure why this all happened but the emotional chord it struck made you realise that the best thing you can do with the Cup, is let people hold it.

The introduction of smart phones and the subsequent advent of social media brought the Cup Tour experience to another level whilst engaging communities and promoting ‘social inclusion’. A tender process was set up and each year the VRC receives dozens of applications. In Australia specifically, there are a lot of dots on the map and many councils and race clubs see the Cup Tour as a great opportunity to bring some excitement to their town. An event reliant on storytelling, past Cup winning owners, trainers, jockeys and the like are engaged to share their Cup experiences.

We have visited towns affected by drought, floods, fire and others like Kyabram in Victoria, affected by the milk price gouging crises. To bring the Lexus Melbourne Cup and the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour Team into town has worked wonders for the local communities as they look to raise the spirits of people. In many cases we have also raised much-needed charitable funds along the way.

I loved surprising Mick Robins, the trainer of 1968/69 Cup winner Rain Lover, with his two retrospective Cups in Broken Hill. To see him absolutely speechless is one of my prized memories of the Cup Tour. But probably my best is early in the Tour presenting a miniature Cup to the nephew of Jack Scully, trainer of Old Rowley, who won the 1940 Melbourne Cup at 100/1.

Dermot Shannon pretty much ran the town. He was this big burly guy who looked more like a nightclub bouncer than anything else, but he had a heart of gold. He was into everything and in my brief time in Merriwa (edge of the Hunter Valley, NSW), I realised that not much went on in this town without his involvement. The town was having a really bad run with drought and farmers were walking off the land.

It came to the end of the night and as Dermot was wrapping things up, I interrupted his sign off by suggesting that there was one more thing to be done. A presentation on behalf of the VRC to the family of Jack Scully to rightfully accept a retrospective trainer’s Melbourne Cup trophy for winning the Cup in 1940.

Now, the big man apparently has never been lost for words, but this moment was different. When I presented him with the trophy, he was speechless, barely holding back the emotion. There was silence for what felt like an eternity, but was only about twenty seconds. I think this summed up the mood for a community who was being hit so hard at the time. After a while he regained composure, grabbed the microphone and said, in a stern, tough guy voice, ‘That never happened, alright?’ The audience was delighted and the show rolled on into the night.

We have come across people from all demographics from all parts of the social spectrum. We’ve met the wealthiest of horse owners and some not-so-wealthy; government officials, sporting icons and celebrities ... you name it, they all love the Cup and what it represents. And they all want a photo. Even a room full of top-end-of-town professionals who you’d think had better things to do with their time than queue up for a photo with the Cup.

But probably the most prized moments come when meeting the everyday person, the aged care resident or the 12-year-old kid who just wants to see the Cup and hear the stories connected with the great race. Your everyday person who takes pride in the Cup and what it represents to this nation.

The Melbourne Cup is part of the cultural fabric in Australia and forms part of the backbone of Australia’s cultural DNA. I have thought of late that it is ironic that the Cup is made of 18-carat gold and has this amazing glow and aura. The race was born at the height of the Gold Rush era back in 1861 and the Cup is made of the most precious metal on the planet.

And in a strange way, if you look into the Cup trophy, you see your own reflection. Maybe that’s an unintended message of its shape and form? Everyone can see themselves in the Cup – you just have to look.

Apart from being a handicap horse race which is, more or less, egalitarian in its nature, maybe that’s what it represents? A Cup representing its people. Boy, we need it to weave its magic at the moment.