Recently I tried to explain Phar Lap to an American friend. ‘He was a big deal,’ I offered inadequately.
Phar Lap was such a big deal – and remains such a big deal in the Australian consciousness – that even now his preserved heart is the most-requested object visitors ask to view at the National Museum in Canberra.
Newspapers of the day reported Phar Lap’s every movement in glowing terms: the Red Terror was the darling of the public and the scourge of the bookies.
Hundreds of admiring punters gathered around him at any public appearance; days before his 1930 Melbourne Cup win there was an assassination attempt when a shotgun was discharged at him from a nearby parked car. Subsequently the champion thoroughbred had a police escort to the Cup. Phar Lap was, in short, a rock star of the turf.
Only one documentary was made about Phar Lap during his lifetime: The Mighty Conqueror. This ten-minute film was produced by Neville Macken with some involvement from pioneer female filmmaker Paulette McDonagh, and although completed in 1931 it was not publicly screened until the time of Phar Lap’s death in mid-1932. It features superb close-ups of Phar Lap with handler Tommy Woodcock, rare footage of him doing track work, and interviews with his most frequent rider Jim Pike and with trainer and co-owner Harry Telford. Phar Lap is shown winning several races including the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the 1931 Randwick Plate – the only known footage of this race and the last time he would run at a Sydney race meet. The film finishes with Phar Lap being loaded on to the Ulimaroa at Sydney docks in November 1931, ultimately bound for the USA.
It also features footage of the area around Randwick racecourse – with its undeveloped open fields it’s very different to the Sydney suburb we know today.