Phar Lap: Hero to a Nation
Absently wiping tears from my eyes, I return the vinyl record to its protective sleeve. I have just listened to the soundtrack to the film Phar Lap (1983), the work of Australian composer, Bruce Rowland, also known for his outstanding scores for The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Return to Snowy River (1988). It is amazing to me how just listening to the haunting strains of Rowland’s music causes raw emotion to tear at my heart. Even as I write this there is a part of me sitting on the ground next to Phar Lap and his strapper, Tommy Woodcock, as the great gelding struggles and takes his last breath. My heart aches and tears slide silently down my cheeks. You might wonder why. How could I, an American born nearly 50 years after the great horse last set hoof on
a race track be so emotional about the death of Phar Lap?
If you are not familiar with the story of Phar Lap I encourage you to do some research on the great depression-era racehorse or grab a box of tissues and watch the movie (if you are lucky enough to have a copy of the long ago discontinued VHS tape). Briefly stated, Phar Lap was born and bred in New Zealand but was purchased as a yearling by American businessman, David Davis and brought to Australia to train
with Sydney-based trainer, Harry Telford. Davis and Telford did not see Phar Lap until after he was purchased and shipped to Australia and were shocked at what they saw. The horse was described as ugly and awkward with a face covered in warts when he arrived. Initially, Phar Lap was a disappointment. The
seemingly uninspired gelding ate more, slept more and ran slower than his stable mates. Phar Lap was cared for by
Tommy Woodcock, a young strapper (groom) working for Telford. Woodcock affectionately called Phar Lap “Bobby” and in the film we see the amazing bond between horse and human as Woodcock, through love, respect and encouragement, helps Phar Lap find his wings.
The gelding becomes a racing sensation bringing joy and excitement to a nation hard-hit by the Great Depression.
Phar Lap shows his amazing heart and strength of spirit as track handicappers attempt to stop him by asking him to carry weights far above what anyone would consider asking a horse to race with today. Still, Phar Lap won against all comers. After Phar Lap had outrun every horse in Australia, he was taken to Mexico to run in the 1932 Aqua Caliente Handicap, North America’s richest race. Overcoming a potentially career-ending quarter crack, the great gelding galloped victoriously across the finish line.
Days after Phar Lap’s courageous win he became ill. In the film, we see Tommy walking Phar Lap in a sandy round pen as the gelding struggles to keep his feet. The great horse groans in agony and crumples to the ground. Tommy pulls at Phar Lap’s head, begging him to get up. “Please, Bobby, please get up.” Tommy drops to his knees next to his friend. Phar Lap
puts his head on Tommy’s lap and as the young strapper strokes the red chestnut’s glistening coat and begs one last time for Phar Lap to not leave him, Australia’s greatest racehorse breathes his last.
The loss of the great horse was devastating not only to Phar Lap’s connections but to the entire Australian nation. But as I watch the film, it is the deep love Tommy had for Bobby which puts tears in my eyes and an ache in my soul. We suffer alongside the young strapper as his heart is torn apart by the loss of a great friend. The horse’s ability to connect with humans at a deep, emotional level has influenced me not only personally but also professionally as I seek to help others build relationships not only with their horses but also with each other
through horses. I have felt a deep connection with a special horse and I have seen this connection in others with their horses. It is the reality and the result of such a deep connection between a horse and his human and the understanding that each horse is with us for such a short while which brings up tears driven by deep emotions when I hear Rowland’s score for the film.
How have you experienced the horse-human relationship in our life? Please share your story in the comments
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!