Phar Lap and the underdog narrative

The underdog narrative is popular in stories of Australian identity. Typically, an underdog is someone who, despite starting from behind, shows tenacity and fortitude to succeed against the odds. This spirit is frequently applied to descriptions of the Australian character, and the Phar Lap narrative is no exception. Ironically, while the story is rife with underdog characteristics in the way it is popularly constructed, if you look beyond the death of Phar Lap you will see what is far less frequently discussed, and that is that there were no happy endings, for any of the protagonists.

Phar Lap’s underdog status has been granted because of several factors. According to the story, he was initially dismissed by his owner David J. Davis on the basis of his looks. Second, once he started winning consistently, the racing establishment, which has been positioned as one of the main antagonists of the horse and his connections, tried to curb his streak by changing the weight-for-age scale of penalty weights.[1] However, whether this was a deliberate strategy designed to target and exclude a single horse, or was instead an attempt to open the field for other competitors, is a matter of perspective. Certainly the “anti-Establishment” angle is the favoured one. The idea that the Chairman of the Victoria Race Club (VRC) targeted Phar Lap, due to personal jealousy, is  particularly emphasized in the 1983 film version of the story. However, as a registered Thoroughbred, Phar Lap was no less a pedigreed racehorse than any other competing on the field at that time.

Further to this, another popular aspect of the Phar Lap narrative, frequently cited to support the horse’s positioning as an underdog, was his “cheap” price at auction. However it should be remembered that the 160 guineas paid for him was still too great a sum for Harry Telford, the struggling trainer whose interest in the colt was piqued by the horse’s bloodlines, to afford. Instead, Telford persuaded wealthy businessman Davis to purchase the horse.

After his initial dismissal of the animal, Davis agreed to lease him to Telford for a period of three years. Though the horse did not perform well in his early starts as a two-year-old sprinter, and lost eight of his first nine races, starting him over longer distances as a three-year-old soon brought victory. By the time Telford’s lease of Phar Lap elapsed, he was a rich man. Harry Telford is frequently portrayed as the archetypal Aussie “battler” made good, and, while the usual narrative arc holds true when the focus remains on Phar Lap’s lifetime, when the gaze shifts beyond it, we see that Harry Telford’s success did not last long beyond Phar Lap’s death.

In fact this holds true for all the key human figures in the Phar Lap narrative. The Australian triumvirate of trainer (Telford), jockey (Jim Pike) and handler (Tommy Woodcock) can all be neatly positioned into pre-existing archetypes common to such stories – providing the narrative does not travel any further than Phar Lap’s death. Going beyond this artificial endpoint in the Phar Lap chronicle reveals a less-than-happy ending for all the protagonists.

Telford failed to train any significant winners after Phar Lap died in 1932. He soon had to surrender Braeside, the training facility he was able to establish with Phar Lap’s success, and eventually retired from racing in 1957. He died in 1960. Jimmy Pike, always fond of a drink and a bet, had never been physiologically suitable to be a jockey, being naturally of a larger frame. Nonetheless, in order to meet the requisite weights he frequently endured the regime of wasting common for jockeys in those days, which left him with ongoing stomach problems. He retired as a jockey several years after Phar Lap’s death, in 1936. He met no luck as a trainer, and eventually died in poverty in 1969.

Of the three men commonly associated with Phar Lap, Tommy Woodcock did not fall as far, perhaps because, as a strapper, he never attained the elevated profile of either Phar Lap’s trainer or jockey. After Phar Lap’s death, Woodcock achieved some success as a trainer, however, in 1977, when his horse Reckless was the sentimental favourite to win the Melbourne Cup, he was beaten by the “big money” – the Bart Cumming’s trained Gold and Black. Reality failed to deliver a narratively-satisfying happy ending to Woodcock’s story, either.

Finally, let us not forget the horse himself. Phar Lap, in spite of his success and popularity, died in excruciating agony from arsenic poisoning. Though the ongoing display of his preserved remains seem to deny the fact that he only lived for five years, this is merely a comforting fantasy. The stories of those associated with Phar Lap, including the horse himself, are manipulated so as to fit the narrative arc common to the underdog tale. It is this removal of Phar Lap from the normal birth-life-death cycle, and his insertion into life everlasting via the museum, which subsequently renders him a symbol, rather than just a horse who ran fast.

Interestingly, interpreting the figure of David Davis – both within and beyond the Phar Lap narrative arc – is more problematic. Perhaps as an American, Davis resists being stereotyped into an Australian narrative – or perhaps his foreign status renders him invisible. His story does not end in the same way as the others, as he continued to enjoy success as a racehorse owner, including owning another Melbourne Cup winner, Russia, who won in 1946. Though frequently portrayed as an antagonist to Telford and ascribed the blame for taking the horse to America where he died, Davis also not only paid a significant sum of money to have the skin mounted, but then donated the mount back to the people of Australia. As such, his role in the Phar Lap story resists any easy simplification.

Phar Lap is widely seen as embodying uniquely Australian characteristics. These, of course, can only be projections. The horse himself remains elusive. All that we have left of him are physical remains encased in glass within museum walls, along with some grainy footage. Photographs and racing memorabilia, such as race programs in which he is featured, frequently appear in the catalogues of auction houses. To own a part of Phar Lap is thought to be akin to owning a part of history. He has been positioned (both literally and metaphorically) as a key symbol of Australian identity.

Scholars of religion Carole Cusack and Justine Digance point out that Phar Lap sits alongside two other venerated Australian icons – the Anzacs at Gallipolli, and Ned Kelly – and argue that “all these heroes were ultimately ‘losers’: heroic achievers who died before their time”,[2] and further observe that “Australian icons persist in being somewhat iconoclastic.”[3] Nonetheless, Phar Lap’s “loser” status is not what is emphasised in the narratives that relate to him; instead, he is idolised for the way contemporary Australians view him.

Though initially renowned as a horse who brought hope to a generation during the Great Depression, the social and economic circumstances of that era now recede into the distant past, and the horse is memorialised today for different reasons. Phar Lap is seen as embodying key traits of Australianness. These are courage and tenacity, and achieving success despite the odds. However, as an historical figure, Phar Lap’s story needs to be shoe-horned slightly to fit the proscribed narrative arc of the underdog story. In reality, Phar Lap did succeed as a racehorse, by continuing to win races under increasingly heavy weight penalties. He was a popular figure of the day, though, as argued elsewhere, this is largely attributable to the emerging advances in media technology, which ensured his visibility.

Yet the horse continues to hold the nation’s imagination as a beloved symbol of Australian national identity. This symbolic status is evident in the deviation between what Phar Lap actually did, to an emphasis on what Phar Lap means to people.[4]


[1] Museum Victoria, Phar Lap webpage, accessed June 14, 2016 ; Biff Lowry, Killing Phar Lap: an Untold Part of the Story (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014), 35.

[2] Carole M. Cusack and Justine Digance, “The Melbourne Cup: Australian Identity and Secular Pilgrimage,” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 12 (2009): 886, accessed August 1, 2014, doi: 10.1080/17430430903053109.

[3] Cusack and Digance, “The Melbourne Cup,” 886.

[4] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” ReCollections: a Journal of Museums and Collections 8 (2013).



Last week I attended a screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival (touring edition) here in Canberra, specifically to see the documentary “Unbranded” (thanks to my cousin once again for the tip-off !). This film touches on several American icons, including the mustang (equivalent of our brumby), the cowboy, and the Wild West, and it won the People’s Choice Award in this showcase of outdoorsy and adventure films.

The edit shown was an abridged version of the whole documentary, and only ran for 46 minutes, though the film in its entirety  runs for an additional hour. Unfortunately access to a complete cut of the film is currently unavailable in Australia, so I base my judgments solely on the parts of it I’ve seen.

Now, it has to be said upfront that this film deals with an American context, and for several reasons (which I will explore shortly) the mustang in America and the brumby in Australia are two entirely different beasts – both literally and figuratively! Watching the trailer on YouTube, I was frustrated at the thought that brumby advocates here in Australia might try to use this film as yet another argument for adopting the U.S. model of feral horse management. In fact very little of that “mustang narrative” featured in the version of the film that was screened as part of the BMFF. Instead, it was much more of a “boys’ own” adventure-type film, focusing heavily on the journey of these four young men, rather than the plight of the mustang.

So while this inhibits my ability to critique the film in terms of its portrayal of America’s feral horse populations, it still provides a useful entry point to consider the differences between the situation of the mustang, and that of the brumby. In the United States, the mustang was declared a protected species (along with the burro) during the 1970s. Though descended from the horses of 16th century Spanish colonisers, these feral horses were seen as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … [Mustangs] are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [1]

While many brumby advocates would like to see the implementation of similar policy in Australia, with brumbies considered as part of the ecosystem (particularly in the Snowy Mountains), there is a huge geo-evolutionary difference between the continents of Australia and North America. In fact, the horse evolved in the grasslands of North America millions of years ago, and continued to have a presence there until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. This long period of co-existence means that the North American continent truly did evolve alongside the horse, an argument that, though often mistakenly applied to the Australian High Country, simply does not hold true here.

Another interesting difference between the Australian and American contexts is that the main opponents of the feral horses in the U.S. are ranchers, who see these equine populations as competition for the resources of public grazing lands. Conversely, in Australia, where many grazing licences were revoked in order to establish National Parks (eg in the central plateau of Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW, and around Mt Kosciusko), the graziers affected are now among the core supporters of the brumby. It would be interesting to know what the attitudes of the Australian graziers of the past, who did have to compete with feral horse populations for access to public lands, would think of the present situation.

Of course there are also environmental concerns regarding the impact of herds of mustangs in the U.S. Where the presence of natural predators (such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears) remains, populations may be maintained in a healthy balance, though where these predators are absent, or in optimal conditions, populations can explode. This also occurs here in Australia, though without the presence of any natural predators to curb population growth, expansion is virtually unlimited. In spite of much smaller numbers of feral horses than in Australia, the U.S. is currently struggling to effectively manage these populations. As well as free-ranging populations, tens of thousands of horses are held in government facilities. To kill them is a felony offense.

The notion of following in the U.S.’s footsteps and proclaiming the brumby a National Treasure is absurd. Australia lacks comparable eco-systems and our evolutionary history is completely different. Further, the problems being faced in the U.S. now represent a compounding of the issues currently faced by Australia. While I personally don’t like that the majority of brumbies removed from NSW National Parks end up at the abattoir, and believe they should be culled on site to minimise the stress and trauma to the animals, imagine if this were to be made completely illegal. The mind boggles!

In short, while there are definite similarities between the regard in which the mustang is held in North America, and the brumby in Australia, and parallels in the management issues each nation is facing, the environmental and political situations of each continent is so different as to render the sort of sweeping comparisons frequently made between the two by brumby advocates meaningless.


[1] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), accessed 25 May 2016

Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.


*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!


[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

Horses and the Heidelberg School

Tom Roberts is a renowned nineteenth-century Australian painter, part of the Australian impressionist movement (also known as the Heidelberg School). The National Gallery of Australia is currently staging an exhibition of his work, which many Australians would be very familiar with – think Bailed up, or Shearing the Rams.


Tom Roberts, Bailed Up (1895, 1927) Art Gallery of NSW

Roberts’ work, alongside other members of the Heidelberg school, has been influential in shaping an Australian national identity. However, it wasn’t just painters who were engaged in projecting a particular (white, Anglo, masculine) identity. You may recall a previous discussion on this blog about the Australian bush ballads, written during the same era that Roberts et al were painting. The fact is that both the artists and poets of this period have left a legacy that continues to define Australia’s identity over a hundred years later.

Art historian and comedian Hannah Gadsby believes that these artworks function as a cultural indicator of Australia’s obsession with masculinity, and argues that the figure of “the macho macho Australian man isn’t questioned enough.”[1]

Seeing the Tom Roberts exhibition I was struck by how frequently the horse features in his most iconic works, what the Gallery terms his “national narratives”. [2] Works that incorporate the horse include A Breakaway (1891), A Mountain Muster (1897-1920s), Bailed Up (1895, 1927) and In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895)


Tom Roberts, A Breakaway (1891), Art Gallery of South Australia (image copyright National Gallery of Australia)



Tom Roberts, In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895), National Gallery of Victoria

So while Australia’s most well-known and best-loved art-makers were constructing “works that are now embedded in the Australian psyche, as intended”, [3] our bards were doing the same, via poetry. In the works of ‘Banjo’ Paterson in particular, the horse is most visible via the figure of the stockman. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and The Dying Stockman to name but a few all idolise the figure of the stockman, to whom the horse is intrinsic.

The horse here is inherently linked to these constructions of a very masculine Australian identity. While there is no overt assertion that the horse belongs solely to a male-dominated world, the assumption, both in the poems of the bush balladists and the artworks produced by members of the Heidelberg School such as Roberts, is implicit.

This tacit acceptance of a very narrow and particular vision of Australia suffuses the NGA’s exhibition. Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to Roberts’ work through my PhD, or perhaps it’s my critical thinking at play, but I couldn’t warm to the exhibition.

However, an idle Google image search delivered a real gem in the below work by Anne Zahalka. Zahalka, by adding a long plait to the rider, immediately repositions the figure as female. The jolt this small addition delivers serves to highlight at least part of what is missing from these works, which have entered the Australian canon unquestioned. And that makes for a refreshing change.


Anne Zahalka, Untitled (1985), copyright remains with the artist



[1] Hannah Gadsby, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz Episode 2, Closer Productions 2014.

[2] Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, 4 December 2015 – 28 March 2016.

[3] ‘About’, Tom Roberts exhibition website, National Gallery of Australia. Accessed 16 February 2016


Culling koalas

Last week I came across this article about a koala cull in Cape Otway, in Victoria. According to the article, almost 700 koalas were culled during 2013 and 2014, in a bid to deal with over-population in the region. ‘Interesting’, I thought. ‘I wonder what the public response will be?’

Well, in short, there has been very little public response in the intervening days. One of the only* online news article with comments appeared in the Geelong Advertiser. Of the 11 comments that were left there last week, only one person mentioned the ‘iconic’ status of the koalas. In fact there was no mention of any sort of cultural attachment to koalas in any of the news articles, until the International Fund for Animal Welfare commented on the issue, referring to the koala as ‘our national icon’ [1].

I find this particularly interesting, given the public outcry whenever the possibility of a brumby cull is mentioned, particularly in NSW and Victoria. These debates are constantly peppered with references to the brumby’s iconic status, and its important place in our national heritage. And yet the koala, an animal native to the east coast of Australia, is culled, despite being listed as vulnerable in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, and no one seems to care.

My issue is not that the cull happened. By all accounts it was necessary from a welfare point of view, with the koalas descended from a previously relocated population, and further relocation was deemed unfeasible [2]. Nor was it carried out in a brutal fashion. The animals were reportedly sedated before being euthanised [3], which is the same method in which the family pet would be put down by a vet, certainly not cruel.

The issue I have is that the over-population and subsequent culling of koalas in a small region doesn’t raise a tenth of the ire as the proposed culling of brumbies, which are an introduced species. Yet brumbies are in a very similar situation to the Otway koalas, suffering from over-population in the Snowy Mountains region, and, as reported last spring, apparently starving. Perhaps this is because conservationists and brumby advocates continue to dispute the actual number of brumbies? Well, according to The Australian Koala Foundation, the same goes for the Cape Otway koalas [4]. So maybe the lack of outcry is because the koalas were euthanised, rather than shot? Well, in 2008 there was no complaint made at the shooting and complete eradication of rabbits in Sydney’s Centennial Park, another ‘secret’ operation.

What emerges here is that the discourse around brumby management is different to that of any other animal, whether native or feral. The constant reference to the brumby’s iconic status, and it’s national heritage, have seemingly elevated it from the realm of ‘animal’, and conferred upon it an almost untouchable symbolic status. What remains to be seen is how the issue will play out, and what the ecological cost will be.

*The Australian also did a piece on this topic, with comments, however this cannot be accessed by everyone, as it pops up as ‘subscriber only content’. Suffice to say debate in the Comments field was typified by anti-‘Greenie’ sentiment. Of the 32 comments posted as of today, no mention was made of national heritage or iconic status.


[1] ‘Koala Cull Highlights a Bigger Problem’, International Fund for Animal Welfare web page (Australia) 5 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015

[2] ‘Hundreds of starving Cape Otway Koalas killed in ‘secret culls’,’ The Age website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 march 2015

[3] ‘Starving koalas secretly culled at Cape Otway, ‘overpopulation issues’ blamed for ill health,’ ABC website, 4 March 2015, accessed 4 March 2015

[4] ‘Almost 700 Victorian koalas killed in secret cull,’ ABC News website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015

The Cup in popular culture

This time next week it will have been run and won. If you’re an Australian you’ll immediately know I’m talking about the Melbourne Cup, a horse race that has traditionally been run on the first Tuesday in November.*

The Melbourne Cup, we are told, is an iconic race for Australians. It is, according to its trade-marked tag-line, ‘the race that stops the nation’. Having spent two of the most recent Cup days living in Western Australia, it was interesting to see how little of a ripple the Cup had in the day-to-day life of Westralians. This has led me to ponder how it is experienced by the other non-Eastern States and Territories (the Northern Territory and South Australia in particular).

The Cup certainly registers here in the ACT; we even flirted with making it an Official Public Holiday, but it didn’t quite get off the ground (apparently the hospitality industry complained about a drop in revenue – too many people taking the preceding Monday off and leaving town for an extra-long weekend). A recent invitation to a Cup Day event in my building on campus reads in part: ‘[The] Melbourne Cup has transcended its origins as a horse race to become a social and cultural phenomenon.’ So when I say that we are told how important this race is to us as Australians, I’m not just making it up – as you can see from this government webpage!

Surprisingly though, there has only ever been one cinematic representation of it, the 2011 film The Cup, which recounts the events leading up to the 2002 Melbourne Cup for the camp of winning horse Media Puzzle. Even though IMDB doesn’t reference these two with a ‘Melbourne Cup’ keyword, I think we should also include the 1983 classic Phar Lap, as it incorporates this horse’s famous Cup victory of 1930, as well as his failed ’tilts’ in both 1929 and 1931, and the 1985 film Archer.

But aside from these two equine biopics, I couldn’t think of any other films that depicted the Cup race. And, as someone with a passing knowledge of the Cup’s history, that’s no reflection on the quality of the yarns out there.The Cup’s 153 year history is peppered with remarkable stories. This is evidenced by the number of books out there, recounting each Cup on a year-by-year basis.

Take, for example, inter-State rivalry between Victoria and NSW as played out in the Cups of 1861-1863. The first two of these were won by Archer, a horse from NSW who beat the Victorian favourite Mormon in the very first Cup race, cementing said rivalries. He walked away with the winnings in 1862, as well – however in 1863, due to a mix-up of public holidays (it was in Victoria and it wasn’t in NSW), Archer’s paperwork was not received in time, and he was refused a place among the starters. This led to other non-Victorians withdrawing their horses in protest, and subsequently only seven horses took the field that year.

Or if that sounds too bureaucratic and uninteresting, how about the 1870 Cup, which was won by Nimblefoot, owned by publican Walter Craig. Craig had dreamed of his horse winning the Cup, but with the jockey mounted upon him wearing a black armband. Craig told several people about this dream, concluding that Nimblefoot would win the Cup, but that Craig himself wouldn’t live to see it. Amazingly, the very night after he had the dream, Craig died. Sure enough, Nimblefoot went on to win the Cup – with his jockey wearing a black armband!

Or if that’s too far in the past, how about the (admittedly unsuccessful) comeback story of Phar Lap’s beloved strapper Tommy Woodcock, who went on to train racehorses himself. Woodcock raced the stallion Reckless in the 1977 Cup, but instead of the fairytale ending, Woodcock was pipped to the winner’s post by the big money, the horse Gold and Black, trained by Bart Cummings. This touching image, by photographer Bruce Postle, shows Woodcock and Reckless the night before the Cup race.

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, on the eve of the 1977 Cup

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, on the eve of the 1977 Cup

Another shoulda-been story is that of the mare Wakeful, the twentieth century’s declared ‘First Lady of the Turf’. A crowd favourite, she won or placed in 41 out of her 44 starts, often carrying very heavy weights. Her last race before retirement to stud was to be the 1903 Melbourne Cup, in which she was assigned the top weight of ten stone (63.5 kgs). By all accounts the seven-year-old mare fought valiantly, but was outdistanced by the younger and lightly-weighted Lord Cardigan, placing second. While no-one usually remembers who came second, I am pleased that Wakeful still holds a place in the hearts of racing aficionados.

So, those are my suggestions for any up-and-coming film makers who happen to be reading this, and who might wish to further cement our national reverence for a horse race into the Australian cultural landscape!

*It wasn’t always, though – from it’s inception in 1861 until 1874, the Cup race was run on a Thursday

The Bulletin Debate

Where is the ‘real’ Australia? Can we find it only in the ‘Outback’, or the ‘bush’? Is it in the red desert at the centre of the continent? Is it Sydney Harbour, flanked by the Bridge and the Opera House? Is it among the surfers and sunbathers of Bondi Beach? The rich heaping mines of Western Australia? The gold towns of Victoria, bursting with colonial architecture?

The ‘real’ Australia is, of course, in all of these places. And yet, debates about the true Australia have been raging for a long time. In 1892, in the pages of the nationalist periodical the Bulletin, Henry Lawson published a poem titled ‘Borderland’, in which he obliquely criticised the romantic bush poetry of men such as A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson by comparing the images depicted in poems with the reality of life in the bush. The poem begins

I am back from up the country, very sorry that I went,
Seeking for the Southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I’m glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country’s rather more inviting round the coast

(You can read the poem in its entirety here)

Two weeks later, Paterson responded with ‘In Defence of the Bush’, whicch basically made the claim that, if life in the bush was tough, it was still better than life in the ‘squalid street and square’ of the cities. He concludes with the sentiment that Lawson had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,

For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.

It’s worth reading the whole poem, here. In fact it’s worth reading all the poems in their entirety, as they’re quite witty, and occasionally scathing.

Paterson’s riposte attracted a lot of other poets to respond, mostly supporting Lawson’s original critique. Some challenged Paterson (who was a Sydney-based solicitor) to actually try life in the bush:

I’m wonderin’ why those fellers who go buildin’ chipper ditties,
‘Bout the rosy times out drovin’, an’ the dust an’ death of cities,
Don’t sling the bloomin’ office, strike some drover for a billet
And soak up all the glory that comes handy while they fill it.

began Edward Dyson in ‘The Fact of the Matter‘, while Lawson returned with ‘The City Bushman‘, in which he accuses Paterson of being exactly that. He also reminds him that:

True, the bush `hath moods and changes’ — and the bushman hath ’em, too,
For he’s not a poet’s dummy — he’s a man, the same as you

My very favourite, though, is Francis Kenna’s ‘Banjo of the Overflow‘, the last four stanzas of which read:

I am tired of reading prattle of the sweetly-lowing cattle
   Stringing out across the open with the bushmen riding free;
I am sick at heart of roving up and down the country droving,
   And of alternating damper with the salt-junk and the tea.

And from sleeping in the water on the droving trips I’ve caught a
   Lively dose of rheumatism in my back and in my knee,
And in spite of verse it’s certain that the sky’s a leaky curtain —
   It may suit the “Banjo” nicely, but it never suited me.

And the bush is very pretty when you view it from the city,
   But it loses all its beauty when you face it “on the pad;”
And the wildernesses haunt you, and the plains extended daunt you,
   Till at times you come to fancy life will drive you mad.

But I somehow often fancy that I’d rather not be Clancy,
   That I’d like to be the “Banjo” where the people come and go
When instead of framing curses I’d be writing charming verses —
   Tho’ I scarcely think he’d swap me, “Banjo, of the Overflow.”

Kenna’s claim that ‘the bush is very pretty when you view it from the city’ neatly encapsulates the essence of the debate. According to the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, this ballad-off was the literary version of the age-old argument between romance and realism.[1]

It seems, however, that the up-beat glorified bush of Paterson’s imagination has won out. Today, The Man from Snowy River is a national icon, while Waltzing Matilda (also penned by Paterson) is our unofficial national anthem. This eclipsing of one vision of Australia by another is well illustrated by the $10 note, which in the pre-polymer days featured the craggy-faced Henry Lawson, however his image has since been replaced; the post-1993 $10 banknote depicts not only ‘Banjo’ Paterson, but his fictional creation from Snowy River as well.

We have already spent some time on the blog looking at the figure of the stockman, and the way he is perceived by the Australian public. We also briefly examined the ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ poem, in light of whether or not it actually represented a real person. While debates about the ‘real’ Australia are clearly well-established, it seems that the more urban we become as Australians, the more we want to cling to the bushman-hero origin myth.

While in 1892 there was an actual debate about where the real Australia lay, from our representations – the Olympic opening ceremony, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, etc – it seems that today we just accept the bush iconography, despite the fact that it represents only a small minority of Australians. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, less than 12% of our population lives in regional or remote locations,[2] while the 2011 census reports that only 2.5% of Australians are employed in agricultural industries.[3]

Through my readings, I am starting to arrive at something of an idea about why this might be. But that’s a blog post for another day!


[1] Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (second edition). Oxon: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] “Australian Population Distribution,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed June 27, 2014,

[3] “Australia: Industry Sector of Employment,” Australia Community Profile, accessed July 1, 2014,