Phar Lap: 'This is not a horse'

Phar Lap: 'This is not a horse'
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Harry Telford (Martin Vaughan) watches his new horse arrive on the docks from New Zealand. His wife, Vi (Celia de Burgh), wonders why the horse looks so skinny. The buyer, Dave Davis (Ron Liebman), thinks the horse is a joke. He tells Harry to sell him. Harry offers to lease him for three years, in return for two-thirds of his winnings. Harry believes in the horse’s bloodlines. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

This is the first scene after the introduction. By moving the horse’s death to the front of the film, the story is able to end on a high note, when he wins at Agua Caliente. In the American release version, the death is put back at the end of the film, to maintain a tension that would not have been possible in Australia, where the story was too well known. The arrival on the docks is a flashback to five years earlier, and it too contains the elements of a classic story: the ugly duckling horse with facial warts that no-one wanted will become a champion. Seabiscuit (2003), an American film about another champion racehorse, begins with a similar idea. Immediately, Williamson establishes that horseracing is about money, with dialogue about how much he has cost, what he will be worth, who will pay for what. Tom Burlinson gets no lines in these scenes, but we already sense his growing bond with the horse. There is also the sense that Telford is another kind of ugly duckling – a man who struggles to inspire confidence in other people, even his own wife. The horse and the trainer are both underestimated.

Phar Lap synopsis

The great racehorse Phar Lap dies in the arms of his strapper, Tommy Woodcock (Tom Burlinson), in Agua Caliente, Mexico, in 1932. Australia mourns his loss, amid suspicions of foul play. Five years earlier, a scrawny colt with facial warts is lowered onto a dock in Sydney. He has been bought sight unseen from a New Zealand catalogue. The buyer, Dave Davis (Ron Liebman), is furious. He tells his trainer, Harry Telford (Martin Vaughan), to sell the horse. Telford makes a deal to train the horse and pay his costs for three years, in return for two-thirds of his winnings. At his stables, the young strapper Tommy Woodcock takes an instant liking to the big red horse. He protests when Telford works the horse extra hard, to cure him of 'laziness’. Telford sacks the strapper, but has to bring him back when Phar Lap refuses to eat. Phar Lap is terrible in his first races, until Woodcock realises the horse likes to come from behind. He persists with the horse he calls 'Bobby’, while other trainers jeer.

As the Great Depression hits Australia, Phar Lap starts to win, saving Telford from bankruptcy. Davis begins to take an interest again, but Telford is reluctant to be part of Davis’s shady betting schemes. Davis persuades the trainer to scratch him from the Caulfield Cup, so that Davis can win a fortune on the Melbourne Cup. Gangsters try to shoot the horse in the street. Woodcock and Phar Lap hide out on a stud outside Melbourne. They arrive late at Flemington Racecourse on Cup day, to the cheers of a besotted crowd. Phar Lap has become the people’s horse and the bookies’ nightmare. When he wins the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the snobs at the Victorian Racing Club decide to slow him down with more weight. Telford re-negotiates his agreement with Davis. Telford’s new horse stud outside Melbourne is a constant drain on funds. Woodcock clashes with his boss again; he’s working the champion too hard, to pay for a stable full of dud horses.

Phar Lap starts in the 1931 Melbourne Cup carrying an unprecedented weight. Woodcock fears it will kill him, because he won’t give up. The horse finishes eighth, and the crowd turns angrily on the Victorian Racing Club committee. Davis accepts an offer to enter Phar Lap in a special match race for the biggest prize money ever offered in North America. Tommy Woodcock goes with him, as trainer. At Agua Caliente racetrack in northern Mexico, Phar Lap becomes lame with a split hoof. He wins anyway, with blood streaming from the hoof. A few days later, the horse sickens and dies, in suspicious circumstances. The story ends where it began, with a nation in mourning.

Phar Lap curator's notes

A movie about Phar Lap was as inevitable as a movie about Gallipoli, given the Australian public’s appetite for patriotic history in the early 1980s. It is perhaps more surprising that both would be written by an avowedly political playwright like David Williamson, although he had written about sport in Australia’s culture in his hit play, The Club, which Bruce Beresford filmed in 1980. Gallipoli (1981) was also partly concerned with sport – the two young men are runners before they go off to war. In fact, Phar Lap is also a political movie, as well as a highly entertaining movie about a horse.

Much of the film is concerned with money rather than just the horse. The sentimental bond between Tommy Woodcock and the big red 'Bobby’ stands as one pillar of the story, setting up a relationship based on love and honesty. Every other relationship in the film is more or less concerned with money. Telford has to pay the horse’s costs, and it almost breaks him; Mrs Telford (Celia de Burgh) constantly urges him to dump the horse, because he’s costing too much money. Davis regards his racing interests as an investment, a way to make shady bets; Telford races the horse too hard in order to milk him for cash to pay for his farm; the VRC officials persecute the horse because an animal that good is bad for the bookies; someone eventually kills him for the same reason – although the film is careful not to overstate the case that Phar Lap was poisoned (recent tests on the horse’s mane hairs suggest that he ingested a massive amount of arsenic in the hours before his death, the source of which is still unknown).

No one in the film except Tommy Woodcock – and to some extent Bea Davis (Judy Morris), wife of Dave Davis – actually cares about the horse’s wellbeing. He’s just a cog in the manifestly corrupt business of horseracing, in which everyone, including the officials, is on the take. In fact, Williamson reserves a special scorn for the officials, especially Lachlan McKinnon, head of the VRC, who’s played by Vincent Ball. McKinnon isn’t just a snob, he’s an anti-Semite, as is made clear in a scene in which he describes Davis as 'a pushy little Jew’. Williamson has always written with an acute sense of class consciousness and Phar Lap is partly a story about the persecution of a little Aussie battler by the ruling classes – even if the horse was born and bred in New Zealand. This is not inaccurate: Phar Lap’s place in the Australian consciousness is ultimately connected with the times in which he raced. A horse that could be backed to win at every start was always going to be popular with punters; that horse becomes a saviour for some people in the Great Depression. Even people who never made a bet loved the idea of Phar Lap, because he helped the spirits of a country in need of heroes.

The film is well constructed by director Simon Wincer – both as a folkloric tale of a young man’s bond with a special horse and as an exciting spectacle. There are a couple of magically charged moments, such as when Tommy Woodcock runs Phar Lap onto the track at Flemington for the 1930 Melbourne Cup. He and Phar Lap have been hiding for a few days after some gangsters tried to shoot them in the street. They are late for the start, and the film captures genuine excitement in the arrival. Tom Burlinson was already strongly associated with horses in the public mind in 1983. He starred a year earlier in The Man from Snowy River (1982), a huge popular hit. There’s a little of that film’s hyperbole in Phar Lap, especially when Simon Wincer is trying to suggest the depths of the bond between man and horse, but Phar Lap is just as clearly a film about people who care very little about the horse. If Gallipoli (1981) was partly a film about Australian innocents slaughtered by the ruthlessness of British generals in the First World War, Phar Lap brings some of that ruthlessness closer to home.

Notes by Paul Byrnes.

Production company:
John Sexton Productions, Michael Edgley International
John Sexton
Simon Wincer
David Williamson
Bruce Rowland
Vincent Ball, Tom Burlinson, Celia de Burgh, Ron Liebman, Richard Morgan, Judy Morris, James Steele, Martin Vaughan, Peter Whitford