Sub Editor: We have two versions ready to go. If he wins, “Australian wonder horse beats the world.”
News writer: And if he loses?
Sub Editor: “New Zealand horse fails in Mexico.”
(Referring to Phar Lap’s last race in 1932 where he traveled to the United States to race against the best racehorses in the world at the Agua Caliente race track on the Mexican border.)
Phar Lap is an Australian movie based on the true story of legendary Australian racehorse Phar lap. I decided to showcase this movie in Friday’s-finest for mainly nostalgic reasons. You see, I watched Phar Lap more than any other movie when I was a child. The racing scenes made my hair stand up on end, no matter how many times I watched them. It’s a true ‘underdog’ and rags to riches story which occurred during the Depression era. The movie is a relatively accurate depiction of what took place and even the real strapper (stableboy) Tommy Woodcock appears in the film.
Phar Lap, the legendary Australian racing horse, is as well-known today for his mysterious death as for his fabulous accomplishments in life. Beginning at the end, the film flashes back to the day that Phar Lap, despite his lack of pedigree, is purchased on impulse by trainer Harry Telford. Phar Lap loses his first races, but Telford’s faith in the animal is unshakable. Suddenly the horse becomes a winner, thanks to the love and diligence of stableboy Tommy Woodcock. American-promoter Dave Davis arranges for Phar Lap to be entered in several top races, where his “long shot” status results in heavy losses for the professional gamblers. Just after winning an important race in Mexico, Phar Lap collapses and dies; though the film never comes out and says as much, it is assumed that the horse was “murdered” by the gambling interests.
My father was extremely fond of horses. Despite not owning one, he always enjoyed a flutter on the Saturday races. It was just part of our family routine on a Saturday afternoon, that we would put small wagers on the races, even us kids. Sometimes we went to the local Hawkesbury races which was a lot of fun. Later in my adult life I ended up living in a gorgeous cottage cabin alongside the Mornington racetrack in South-east Victoria, Australia. I remember one day attending the races there and as I walking up to the event the champion Australian jockey Damien Oliver passed me going the other way. That was a thrill. Interestingly another Australian movie was made about Damien Oliver’s Melbourne Cup winning ride called ‘The Cup‘ (2011).
If I was to choose just one Australian movie to take away with me on a Desert Island it would be this one. I still find it irrepressibly moving and charming. Phar Lap transports me to a time and place that I never grow tired of revisiting. The sights, smells and sounds of Australia and my youth all come flooding back. Tom Burlinson is excellent as Tommy Woodcock, the stable hand who was the only one who had any faith in the horse’s ability and brought the best out of Phar Lap even when everyone else gave up on him. Phar Lap is a remarkable story of heartbreak and triumph. Any horse or sports lover should watch and enjoy this movie. The cinematography, production and music in particular is outstanding. Also it remains one of the most popular Australian films.
- Billy Eliot, Phar Lap’s jockey at Agua Caliente had been devastated by Phar Lap’s mysterious death, gave his saddle to George Woolf as a gesture of friendship. Woolf went on to become one of America’s greatest riders, using the saddle on his favourite mount, Seabiscuit (2003), who, like Phar Lap, captivated a nation in the midst of the depression. The saddle was Woolf’s lucky charm. From that date on until the time of his death he used it. Coincidentally, the only time he did not use it, from the time when Elliot gifted it to Woolf, was in his last race which he, unfortunately, was killed in.
- After Phar Lap’s death, his stuffed hide was donated to the Melbourne Museum (where it is one of the main attractions), his skeleton to the Museum of New Zealand and his heart to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. His heart was remarkable for its size, weighing 6.2 kg, compared with an average horse’s heart weight of 3.2 kg.
The clip from the movie I included below is when Phar Lap makes his late entrance for the Melbourne Cup. Below that is the 1930 Cup win sequence.