The Melbourne Cup 1915 – Australia’s First Lady Owner
Featured Image: Mrs E A Widdis admiring her winning trophy
Although the attendance was higher for this year’s Melbourne Cup (88,000) the racegoers were even more subdued than the crowd of 1914. News had just been received that Australian casualties had from an abortive assault at Gallipoli reached nearly 30,000. A message also came through that the famous Australian jockey, Bernard (Brownie) Carslake, had been captured by the Germans, accused of being an enemy alien and interned at an Austrian prisoner-of-war camp. The iron-willed Carslake, who had a severe problem with his weight yet won six English classics, managed to disguise himself as a fireman, escape from the camp and make his way back to England, where he served out the war as a soldier and then resumed his riding career.
Meanwhile, Melbourne newspaper reports of Cup day said khaki was very much in evidence, and this year for the first time in the handicap’s history, the winner, Patrobas, was owned by a woman. The colt, which had earlier won the VRC Derby, was the property of Mrs E A Widdis, wife of a pioneering (but by this time well-to-do) Gippsland farmer, and she herself had chosen Patrobas from the catalogue at the Sydney Yearling Sales. Mrs Widdis deliberately watched as the running of the Cup from the rear of the members’ ladies stand so that one of her schoolgirl daughters, Muriel, would be sure of finding a decent view, and after Patrobas and Bobby Lewis scraped home from Westcourt, she tried in vain to push through the crowd so she could attend the presentation ceremony. Excited racegoers not believing that she owned the Cup refused to let her through. and although the VRC Committee delayed the presentation in hope of her appearance, Mrs Widdis’s husband, John, had to accept the trophy on her behalf.
When he found his wife Widdis was reported to have handed her the huge trophy, kissed her, and demanded: “Where the hell have you been?”
The story of Mrs Widdis’s triumph doesn’t end there. Membership of the Victorian Club was exclusive for men, and it was the custom for the owner of the Melbourne Cup to have drinks with the committee at the club on settling day, usually the day after the races. Mrs Widdis was escorted into the club and found herself standing before the full committee.
Tradition now demanded that the Cup-winning owner should open the bar so that all present could toast the horse. Although Mrs Widdis may have fancied a few sherbets with the elite of Victoria’s gentlemen, she appreciated the traditions of the club and the chauvinism of the day, and decided to use diplomacy. After a brief speech in which she thanked the committee for its hospitality, Mrs Widdis announced that instead of opening the bar she intended to donate £200 to patriotic funds and state that the money was to be listed as a gift from the club. The applause was long and loud as she departed the club.
Authors Note: Mrs E A Widdis is closely related the Widdis family of Willowtree and also Mrs Libby Robertson (nee Widdis) of ‘Turanville’. Mrs Audrey Widdis (Mrs Robertson’s mother) lived to be well over 100 on a property at Satur on the outskirts of Scone now acquired by Racing NSW to be added to the adjacent Scone Race Club.