Almanac Horseracing: A boy, his mare and The Cup



It’s September. The time when the magpies are swooping (the feathered variety), the daffodils are in full bloom and the bare branches of the trees are starting to be painted green as the new growth bursts through. There’s something about the air too. It loses the chill of winter. The scent of mowed lawns starts to hang in the air again. Is there anything nicer than the smell of freshly mown grass? All of these happenings point to the arrival of spring; and in Victoria, the Spring Racing Carnival.


This year, the Spring Racing Carnival officially commenced on the 29th August and runs through until November 21st, which is Ballarat Cup Day. A little bit of Spring Carnival up my neck of the woods. 2020 sees the historic merging of the AFL finals series and grand final with the business end of the Spring Carnival. What a time for sport lovers!


I come from a family who love their horse racing, so Melbourne Cup week is always front and centre. Thoughts of races have been rattling around this week as I’ve been researching the Melbourne Cup for a short story that I’m writing. I thought I’d share some of the research about Cup jockey Peter St Alban’s that turned up. If you live in Geelong or travel in racing circles, you may know the story of Peter St. Alban’s, but I was ignorant to the fabulous story of his ride in the Cup.


“Year by year, the Cup Day becomes more and more the national holiday par excellence, the one which is observed by all classes, and which is devoted by all to the same amusement. Many who care little of the excitement of the racing enjoy the unique spectacle presented on the Flemington course on one day in the year.”


As I read this description, it struck me that it could have been written of the 2019 Melbourne Cup. However, it was an article from the Argus in 1876. The hype and excitement around the Cup has changed little in more than 140 years! The article goes on to discuss the enormous crowd of 75,000 people in attendance, the beautiful and outlandish fashions and the excellent level of racing on show. 1876 felt much closer than it had.


1876 was the year that Peter St. Alban’s rode the three year old mare, Briseis, first to the line in the Melbourne Cup. That year was significant for a number of reasons. First it was the biggest cup field to that date, with 33 runners. For the record, 1890 held the biggest field in history with 39 runners! The 1876 Melbourne Cup also goes down in history due to St. Alban’s being the youngest jockey to ever win the race. On the day, he was noted as being 13 years of age – the youngest age a jockey could saddle up in the cup. History tells us though that St. Alban’s was only 11 years of age, a week or so shy of his twelfth birthday!


St. Alban’s was born as Peter Bowden, the son of Michael Bowden who was a stud groom at St. Alban’s stud in Geelong, which was owned by Jim Wilson. He rode under the name St. Alban’s for his whole career.  Peter had won his first race on Briseis in the Geelong Maiden Plate earlier in the year, but wasn’t due to ride the mare when she went to Sydney due to his inexperience. Instead, he travelled with her to Randwick as her strapper. Despite this, he ended up riding her in Sydney and they won three races together. The boy and the filly must have had quite an affinity for each other.


Tom Hales was booked to ride Briseis in the 1876 Cup – her second try at the big race. He was an outstanding jockey of the time, with more than 500 wins by the end of his career including every major South Australian and Victorian race except the Caulfield Cup. But the mare would only carry 6 stone, 4 pounds – near 40 kgs in the Melbourne Cup and Hales couldn’t make the weight. The story goes that Hales suggested Peter ride the mare due to their relationship and winning form.


Due to his age, Peter and Jim Wilson had to lie about his name and report his parents as unknown. He claimed he was 13, making him eligible to ride in the Cup. Mounting up in his black jacket and white cap on that Tuesday in November, Peter knew what the mare was capable of. First time past the post, Briseis wasn’t in the first runners, but the group bunched up on the turn for home and she was ready to strike. She and Peter hit the front a hundred yards from the post. She is reported as winning by anywhere from a nose to a couple of lengths! What is clear is that she and the young boy that she carried had won the Cup.


The more that I’ve read, the more I’ve loved the story of Peter and the gutsy mare. What an understanding the two of them must have had! It’s stories like this that make the Melbourne Cup more than just a horse race.


After their historic win, it was a sad story in the end for both Briseis and Peter St Albans. The mare had to be put down at her first year at stud after an incident during covering. Peter went on to become a horse trainer after a fall, but died in 1898 at only 34 years of age. The paper writes that the turn out to his funeral was one of the largest Geelong had seen. To this day each year The Geelong Race Club awards the Peter St. Alban’s trophy to the champion jockey on the Geelong circuit.



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About Nicole Kelly

Is a teacher, mother, writer and all-round lover of words!


  1. That’s a great yarn, Nicole.
    I had not heard that one before.

  2. Nicole Kelly says

    Thanks Smokie – Yes, it’s amazing really. Can’t imagine throwing my 11 year old on a thoroughbred in the Melbourne Cup! Different times!

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Fascinating tale Nicole. Very different times, yet those words from 1876 show how timeless and ingrained in our culture the Cup is.

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