Virtually no event defines Australia's origins and attitudes like the Melbourne Cup, the race for which the nation halts on the first Tuesday of November. Throughout Australia, politicians, businessmen, factory and office workers, schoolteachers and pupils, all down tools to watch or listen to the Cup and most have a bet, for many their only one of the year. Its social importance has not diminished since the observations made last century by Mark Twain: 'Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me.' For many people, it is their only interest in horse racing all year but it is close, intense and ties closely to every Australian's sense of nationhood. Former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke often said that to get to the heart of Australians, one needed only to study them at racing and the Cup is the shining example. There are other great races in the world with glorious histories - the Epsom Derby, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the Kentucky Derby. But all runners are at level weights so, theoretically, the winner should be the best horse. Only in Australia is racing's most glittering prize a handicap - giving the worst-performed horse as good a chance as the stars - and it typifies the country's love of the underdog. Greats have won it with handicaps as high as 145 pounds, moderates with as little as 76. The Cup's handicap status has been the source of great highlights and towering disappointments, massive betting plunges won and lost, and fuelled the colourful kiln that turns out marvellous stories behind the race each year. Last year, champion rider Damien Oliver won on Irish stayer Media Puzzle and hard men cried as he dedicated the victory to his jockey brother Jason, who had died just days before from injuries suffered in a terrible fall. Oliver's participation in the race was in the balance until race eve. Two years ago, Sheila Laxon, wife of 1988 winning trainer, Laurie Laxon, became the first woman to train the winner with Ethereal. Officially anyway. In fact, the 1938 winner, Catalogue, had been trained by a New Zealand woman, 'Granny' McDonald, but had won under her husband's name as Victorian state laws at the time did not allow a woman to hold a training licence. The history of the race is filled with colourful tales, not all entirely reliable. The first two Cups in 1861 and 1862 fell to a horse called Archer, who was from the town of Nowra, south of Sydney. Legend always had it that Archer and his trainer, Etienne de Mestre, had walked the 900 kilometres to Melbourne before winning. More recently, historians discovered that the pair had in fact made the trip by sea. One of the spookier Cup tales surrounded 1870 winner, Nimblefoot, owned by Walter Craig, a publican in the Victorian gold rush town of Ballarat. Craig dreamed that Nimblefoot won the Cup, with the rider wearing a black armband and told a famous bookmaker who was staying at his hotel. The bookmaker had heard such stories before and invited Craig to have a sizeable bet, which the publican did. The dream turned out to be correct - Nimblefoot did win the Cup that year, but the jockey wore a black armband as Craig had died in the meantime. Another famous winner was Zulu. He did his training pulling a dairy cart and was returned to the job for the remainder of his days after becoming the toast of Melbourne racing for one day in 1881. A jockey know only as Peter triumphed in 1876 on Briseis. Records list the 13-year-old jockey as Peter St Albans, but the last part comes from the district where he lived and his real family name was never known. He remains the youngest winner of the race. In 1948, jockey Ray Neville was a little older but still a teenager when he won the Cup on lightly weighted Rimfire. Neville had barely commenced his apprenticeship and the Cup win was the first victory of his career - and the last. Soon after, his weight ballooned out of control, and he retired from riding. The Cup has been a rich tapestry of the best horses, riders and trainers produced in Australia, along with others who never made another mark. The 1890 winner, Carbine, who carried a record 145 pounds and faced 38 other runners, went on the sire a Derby winner in England. The most famous winner of them all Phar Lap, won as an odds-on favourite with a huge weight during the Depression years when the magnificent red gelding carried the dole money of the nation. Legendary jockey Darby Munro won it three times and was credited with tactical genius after taking the 1946 Cup. The truth was that Munro was a very heavy drinker and was out drunk until early Cup morning. Gripped by a terrible hangover come race time, he was unable to restrain Russia in his usual pattern and let the horse run. Russia held on to win and a distressed Munro vomited on his neck as they passed the post. Archer's trainer, De Mestre was the genius of Cup trainers for the first century of its history with five wins, but Bart Cummings has overtaken him as the greatest of all trainers. His winning tally now stands at 11. In recent times, the annual influx of European stayers has added a new dimension to the Cup. The world's leading stable, the giant Godolphin yard of Dubai, has been unable to win, but Irish wizard Dermot Weld has taken the Cup home twice, with Vintage Crop (1993) and Media Puzzle last year.