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).


In defence of public collections

Yesterday, Victorian auction house  Mossgreen auctioned off a large private collection of Phar Lap memorabilia, consisting mostly of race programs for events the horse competed in. The collector is an American named Gary Madeiros. Though he is portrayed as a sports fan, he is also acknowledged to be a former stockbroker who “knows how to accumulate and monetise.” [1]

Madeiros assiduously collected the Phar Lap material, writing to race clubs in Australia, and buying the last item in his collection, Phar Lap’s Agua Caliente race book, from the owner of a bar in “not the nicest neighbourhood” of San Francisco 5 years ago.[2] Now, the collection is valued at over $150,000,[3] though it was not being sold as a collection. Instead, every one of the 28 race programs was auctioned off separately. This, according to Mossgreen’s Max Williamson, is “to try and get them to collectors rather than museums.” [4]

Really? Why? What’s the objection to such objects going to museums? Of course the hard fiscal reality is that the greatest amount of cash will be realised by selling such items individually, and targeting wealthy private collectors rather than cash-strapped public institutions. But the above statement makes it sound like it is somehow morally preferable for these items to go into private hands, as though museums are the lesser choice.

This baffles me. Sold to private collectors, these socially and historically significant items will be squirelled away, enjoyed exclusively by those with the wealth to own them. Or perhaps they will go into a bank vault somewhere, where the next canny investor, fully cognisant that time will only increase their worth, sees them as a sound investment. This, of course, is completely anathema to the spirit of the museum. While it is true that only around 5% of a museum’s collection can ever be displayed at any one time, for reasons including space restrictions, resourcing, and conservation concerns, as public institutions museum collections are always available to their stakeholders – that is, the public – for research, even when not on display.

In rare instances (such as that of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia, and his hide at the Melbourne Museum), some objects that are held in such high regard by this public are retained on perpetual display in spite of what might be regarded best-practice conservation measures, simply because these objects are too important, and too well-loved, to ever be taken off exhibit.

Imagine if, at Phar Lap’s death, instead of Harry Telford’s donation of the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, or David Davis’s donation of the hide to National Museum of Victoria, these objects had been disdainfully withheld, and alternately been put into the hands of the highest bidder, disappearing into private collections? Do we imagine for one second that these iconic objects would be as accessible to Australians as they are today? As they have been for almost a century?

I understand someone’s desire to collect as an investment, and to reap the financial rewards of their collection. It’s what the art market is founded upon, after all. But I also strongly object to any intimation that historically significant material disappearing out of  the public sphere, unavailable for public access, is somehow preferable to its acquisition by a museum. Not for the material itself, and certainly not for Australian society more broadly. The only people to benefit in these scenarios are the investors who are selling, and the increased profit margins of the auction houses.


Chris Johnston, “Phar Lap ‘stuff’ worth $150,000, and climbing,” the age online, 7 May 2016, accessed 10 May 2016

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

Object lessons

As regular readers would be aware, part of my PhD research involves a survey of museum objects that are made from parts of the horse. It seems a strange idiosyncrasy of our love of this animal, that when those who are highly prized pass on their remains are often fashioned into objects, which subsequently enter our museums and galleries.

This is particularly true with racehorses, and Phar Lap is perhaps the best known example, with his mounted hide at the Melbourne Museum, his heart on display at the National Museum of Australia, and his skeleton at Te Papa Tongarewa, in New Zealand. But there are many other such objects, and recently my survey turned up another intriguing example. Part of the Museum of Old and New Art State Collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, these two candlesticks are quite astonishing, both for their fine craftsmanship, and their provenance.

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The long straight stem of these candlesticks is not made from the usual silver or other metal, but comes from the cannon (or metacarpal) bones of a nineteenth-century racehorse named Quiz. The remainder is made from turned Huon pine, a timber unique to Tasmania. According to the website 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930, the ‘mouldings and incisions [are] typical of smaller turned artefacts of the nineteenth century. [They] reference the mouldings and details of classical architecture.’ [1]

The underside of one of the candlesticks is inscribed in black ink with the text ‘Canon bones of the horse Quiz the Property of Mr W.H. Mence who was killed on the Brighton racecourse whilst running in the Town plate’. This inscription is grammatically ambiguous, and from an animal studies perspective begs the question, was it the canon bones, or the horse himself, who are here referred to as ‘the property’ of Mence?

The 1854 Hobart Town Plate was a weight-for-age race, meaning horses carried a certain weight according to their age – in this case, three-year-olds carried seven stone 12 pounds (50kg), four-year-olds carried eight stone 12 pounds (56 kg), etc, up to horses aged six and over, who had to carry nine stone 10 pounds (61.6 kilos!). The race was contested over a distance of 4 miles – that is almost six and a half kilometers, a huge distance. Quiz, being described as ‘aged’ (ie he was over six years old) [2], had to carry the full weight.

There were only three horses running, and the accident that led to Quiz’s death was apparently caused when the horse of one of the spectators, a Mr Waters, took off with him on board and joined the field. The horse and rider contacted Quiz, and, it was reported by both The Courier and the Colonial Times, Quiz was killed instantly [3]. This fact William Mence, the stallion’s owner and jockey*, was quick to correct. Writing to The Courier, Mence states that, following the contact between Quiz and Waters’ horse, ‘I was thrown into the air with great violence from the buck of that noble animal, who was caught by a gentleman on the ground. I led him from the fatal spot, injured and exhausted as I was, with the blood gushing through his nostrils; with difficulty he reached his stable, and fell down dead. The cause was the bursting of a main artery, which may be more fully explained before a higher tribunal.’ [4] Mence closes his account with the statement that the horse’s death represents a loss to him of over one thousand pounds. [5]

There is no information regarding the process by which Quiz went from racehorse to candlesticks, but in outlining the history of these objects there is speculation that the choice of the canon bones for this purpose was a deliberate one. According to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, ‘[b]ecause the cannon bones bear a considerable part of the horse’s weight while it is in motion, their proportions are important indicators of breeding quality. Both this fact and the size and straightness of the bones may have influenced the decision to commemorate the horse in this unusual way.’ [6]

Those familiar with racing memorabilia will know that the horse hoof inkwell (or pincushion, or ashtray) is a not uncommon form of commemoration, possibly for the same reason as those outlined above – when galloping there is a split second where a horse places all it’s weight on one hoof, hence the symbolic importance of the hoof itself. However, these candlesticks are really quite unique. I can’t help but wonder about their creation, and why Mence (if it was indeed Mence) chose to re-purpose his horse in this way.

There is in such objects the added element of the (very literal) objectification of the horse. In his letter to the editor, Mence emphasizes the monetary value of the horse several times. Quiz’s transition from prized racehorse to idiosychratic decorative arts object/s illustrates the commodification of the horse within society.

The trend for turning animals-into-objects continued well into the twentieth century. This form of commemoration appears to have gone out of favour at the same time as the horse gave way to the automobile. This fact is actually highly significant. While from a contemporary animal studies perspective we might view the re-purposing of an animal into an object as somewhat disrespectful, it is no accident that the practice died out as the ubiquitousness of the horse faded, replaced on the land and in the streets by machines. In this sense, while we may not see it this way today, perhaps the creation of objects such as the candlesticks really was a mark of respect.

* It was not unusual in the colonial period for a horse’s owner to also serve as the jockey when racing.


[1] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

[2] ‘Brighton Races,’ The Courier 3 November 1854, p. 2.

[3] ibid; ‘Local intelligence: Accident at the races,’ Colonial Times 4 November 1854, p.3.

[4] ‘The death of “Quiz”,’ The Courier 7 November 1854, p.2.

[5] ibid

[6] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

Blogging a dead horse

Last week I blogged about the Spirited exhibition, though I didn’t mention something that caused me some consternation at the time –  an object label discussing the cause of Phar Lap’s death:


This label perplexed me, as I was of the understanding that the ‘mystery’ surrounding Phar Lap’s death had been solved using cutting-edge synchrotron technology, which demonstrated once and for all that it was arsenic that killed the horse. This angle was covered on an episode of Catalyst that aired in 2008.

In querying the alternative position regarding what killed Phar Lap I came into contact with writer Geoff Armstrong, who has published several books on Phar Lap. Armstrong is of the opinion that he died of an illness known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis  a condition that was only documented in the 1980s, and so could not have been diagnosed at the time of his death and necropsy.

Geoff Armstrong has very kindly given me a copy of the book They Shot Phar Lap, Didn’t They?, co-authored with Jeff Thompson, which includes a response to the synchrotron research.


I am looking forward to reading it, and considering this alternative to what I had thought was the truth. Curators are good at keeping an open mind, and seeing both sides of things. Academics, I’m continually reminded, must have an opinion. I will share mine in a future blog post!

Putting him back together again

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Remember that little rhyme from your childhood? Well I promise it will be ringing in your ears after this week’s post, which once again revolves around everyone’s favourite dead Australian racehorse, Phar Lap!

In November last year, the CSIRO (that’s the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) facilitated the ‘reunion’ of Phar Lap’s remains via robotic technology. To be clear, the remains all stayed where they are – the heart in Canberra, the hide at the Melbourne Museum, and the skeleton at Te Papa in New Zealand – but they were able to be viewed simultaneously by the students of three participating schools, which were located around the country in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

This is not the first time that there has been interest in putting the pieces of Phar Lap together. In 2010, as part of the celebrations surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cup, then-Racing Minister of Victoria Rob Hulls proposed reuniting the Phar Lap body parts. ‘What do they think he is? Phar Lap is unique, not Humpty Dumpty’, said racing journalist Max Presnell at the time.

Hulls succeeded in bringing the skeleton and hide together at least, but the heart is too fragile to travel anywhere, even off the Museum campus.

ImageThe skeleton and mounted hide on display at Melbourne Museum, 2010. Image: Isa Menzies

I’m really not certain what to make of this desire to put Phar Lap’s body parts back together, or at least to put them all in the same place. It seems like people expect something magical to happen – perhaps something like this?

I wonder what it says about us as a society, that we were so quick to spread his dismembered body throughout the land, relic-like, and now we are seemingly obsessed with ‘putting him back together again’?



Phar Lap: bridge to a PhD

Did you know that a search for the phrase “Phar Lap” on the digitised newspaper collection of the National Library of Australia brings up 49,279 results? As a comparison, a search for “Don Bradman” brings up only 31,727 results.

Why am I telling you this? Because Phar Lap is what got me into this in the first place!

ImagePhar Lap’s mounted hide at Museum Victoria, 2010. Image: Isa Menzies

The inspiration for my PhD came after two years working as the curator of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia,  where I witnessed first-hand the particular reverence that visitors have for this object. The heart is currently displayed in the context of an exhibit on the Melbourne Cup, and while working on this exhibit and learning about the horseracing industry, I became fascinated with what I saw as a very one-sided story being told by the Museum, with the more recent and less palatable history of the race neglected in favour of an historicised and highly celebratory narrative. It became apparent that exhibits such as this were active in propagating what I would call the myth of the Melbourne Cup.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but discussion of the Melbourne Cup usually includes some mention of Phar Lap. The horse and his historical significance give the Melbourne Cup leverage as an important ‘tradition’ (as do other ideologies of national identity, like the Aussie battler and egalitarianism). Little thought is given to what the contemporary race looks like, and this works to the advantage of the racing industry.

Museums are a major site of cultural production; rather than focusing specifically on the Melbourne Cup, I decided to see how other horse remains were being used in the museum context, and if horses were carrying a greater burdern of nationalist rhetoric than other objects. 

So, that’s my story, though I should probably add that my interest in horses is not merely professional. I started riding at the age of 7, and during my teenage years I worked at a riding school taking out trail rides. At that time I also had my own pony, a flea-bitten grey (that’s a description of his colour, not a pejorative term!) called Peppin. After about a decade of not riding, I started dressage lessons in my late twenties for a couple of years. I don’t currently ride or own a horse, as it’s not the sort of activity that is financially suitable for an unemployed full-time student, but at some point in the future I hope to take it up again, with the hope that – one day – I will once again have a horse of my own.

Phar Lap and the other Lindsay

ImagePhar Lap, by Daryl Lindsay 1932; Museum Victoria collection

I’m attending a conference later this year called ‘The Afterlives of Pastoral’, and my paper will be focusing on some of the things we have discussed previously on this blog, like the idealisation of the bush in the works of Banjo Patterson and others, and, more specifically, the role that the horse plays in these constructions.

When I came across the above print, part of the collection of Museum Victoria, I was struck by the overwhelmingly bucolic atmosphere pervading the work. If you didn’t recognise the name in the title, or the iconic big red horse himself, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it might have been painted a hundred years prior to its actual execution in 1932.

The artist was Daryl Lindsay, younger brother of Norman, and an artist in his own right. Prior to taking up art, Lindsay worked as a jackaroo in Queensland in the years preceeding WWI, and following his retirement he returned to the life of the bush, sketching the cattlemen of the Northern Territory in the 1960s. However unlike either of his artist brothers Lionel or Norman, Daryl did not work for the nationalistic publication the Bulletin.

In the above portrait Phar Lap was painted from life by Lindsay, though the print was not published until after Phar Lap’s death, when it appeared as a colour supplement in the Sporting Globe. The experience of painting Phar Lap was not to be Lindsay’s last with the horse. In 1941, Lindsay became the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the same venue that housed the mounted hide of the venerated horse. During his Directorship, it seems Lindsay was frustrated by the popularity of the Phar Lap mount, which exceeded the popularity of the artworks themselves. This was amusingly depicted in 1954 by Eric Thake in his cartoon, “Gallery Director, or ‘This way to Phar Lap'”.


Gallery Director, or ‘This way to Phar lap’, by Eric Thake 1954; Museum Victoria collection

This print always brings a smile to my face; not only is it funny in it’s own right, but it’s amazing how things have not changed in the 60 years since it was created. People continue to worship at the ‘altar’ of Phar Lap, particularly embodied by the skin but also increasingly by the heart and skeleton too. Phar Lap’s heart is the most requested object at the National Museum of Australia, and acts as a testament to the ongoing popularity of the horse.

I wonder what Daryl Lindsay would have to say about that?