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).

The historic context of equine symbolism: from Europe to Australia

While the narrative of significance associated with the horse in Australia has gone largely unquestioned, internationally there has been a growing interest in exploring horse culture, specifically during the early modern period in Europe. While such work may not at first appear relevant to the Australian context, closer scrutiny of this history reveals a perhaps surprising correlation between the cultural associations of the early modern period, and some of Australia’s more familiar equine tropes. The horse has attained a level of symbolic power across cultures and continents, and, while these remain culturally specific,[1] much of Australia’s equestrian symbolism can be seen to have historical antecedents, particularly in English traditions.

Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham argue that the cultural significance of the horse stems from within a social elite, as it was this group who “possessed the means, as well as the inclination, to judge horses according to their symbolic value as well as their functional capabilities, [and] viewed them not as luxuries but as essential signifiers of status.”[2] In Elizabethan England, for example, the horse was understood as a meter of worth for his human counterpart,[4] and “[t]he symbolic reading of the meaning of a horse and a noble rider, a perfect combination of the steed’s flowing action and lithe muscle and the rider’s learning, control and agency, was obvious and meaningful to all at the time”.[5] Conversely, when horses were imported to the Philippines by Spanish colonists, their adjustment to the climate and environmental conditions led to a rapid decrease in size. This physical diminution was reflected in a reduction of the horse’s symbolic power, and “it became more closely associated with the humdrum affairs of the colonised. … Far from enhancing the dignity of the coloniser, the [horse] now served only to mock him”.[6]

While an exact translation of cultural meanings across history and geography is impossible, the origins of many tropes now attached to representations of the horse in contemporary Australia can be seen to lie within this period of England’s history. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, horses came to be associated with a distinct English national identity,[7] at a time when the notion of such an identity was itself relatively new.[8] As Ian MacInnes argues, “horses contributed economically to the construction of the idea of “nation”… [and] attention to the horse was by extension attention to the land and its products.”[9] A century or two later in Australia, the horse similarly contributed to the construction of the nation, both literally, in the case of physical labour and the advantages of mounted settlers, and metaphorically, in the cultural imagination.

Elsewhere, we can see the high regard in which the thoroughbred horse is held in Australia, particularly in conjunction with its association with horse racing, as a trope transplanted more or less directly from England.  The thoroughbred is strongly associated with English cultural identity, and Richard Nash argues that, as a specifically and intentionally bred horse, it functions simultaneously as natural and artificial. [10] Interestingly, Nash’s positioning of the thoroughbred as a cultural artefact resonates with the refashioned form of many racehorse remains. If, due to their breeding, these animals are already understood subconsciously as a cultural artefact, then the physical transformation of their bodies into a concrete one assumes an (albeit strange) internal logic.

A conjunction between the horse and a nation’s performance in battle is another association with origins in the early modern period. As the pace of modernisation increased after the seventeenth century, weapons, and the nature of warfare, also modernised, leading to a reduced role for the horse in military life.[11] In parallel to this, the significance of the aristocracy in military hierarchy also decreased. This signalled a democratisation of the traditional apparatus of the cavalry, and lead to the formation of the Light Horse brigades, which replaced heavy cavalry.[12] In an Australian context, we can see how this emphasis on egalitarianism influences the narratives surrounding the exploits of the Light Horse during the First World War – by the time Australia was shaping up for battle alongside the allied forces in Europe during the early twentieth century, the notion of an egalitarian nation had been internalised, and reconfigured into something of an identity narrative.[13] This is evident in the importance of the Light Horse narrative in Australia’s cultural imagination – a nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism.

In an era and society where the horse was ubiquitous, images and representations of this animal were encoded with assumed cultural knowledge,[14] but such a uniform understanding of the symbolism of the horse has passed into history. With what understandings are contemporary Australian equestrian representations encoded?  Or have such symbolic understandings vanished altogether, as the horse becomes more and more distant from everyday life for the majority of Australians? Interestingly, the iconic status of the horse appears to have become entrenched in inverse proportion to its ubiquity. This fact is noted by Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, who contend that horses are estranged from the modern developed world, unfamiliar visitors who, though not exotic, are not prosaic either, and who attract attention in public spaces because of this.[15]


[1] Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, “Introduction,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 3.

[2] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7.

[3] Peter Edwards, Karl A.E. Enenkel and Elspeth Graham (eds), The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World (Leiden: Brill), 2012; Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (eds), The Culture of The Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World (New York: palgrave macmillan), 2005.

[4] Elizabeth Anne Socolow, “Letting Loose the Horses: Sir Philip Sidney’s Exordium to The Defence of Poesie,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 137.

[5] Socolow, “Letting Loose”, 137-38.

[6] Greg Bankoff, “Big Men, Small Horses: Ridership, Social Standing and Environmental Adaptation in the Early Modern Philippines,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 117.

[7] Ian F. MacInnes, “Altering a Race of Jades: Horse Breeding and Geohumoralism in Shakespeare,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 175; Richard Nash, “’Honest English Breed’: The Thoroughbred as Cultural Metaphor,” in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 246.

[8] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[9] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[10] Nash, “’Honest English Breed’,” 246.

[11] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[12] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[13] Catriona Elder, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2007), 41-42; 46; 49-52.

[14] Pia F. Cuneo, “Visual Aids: Equestrian Iconography and the Training of Horse, Rider and Reader,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 70 – 97.

[15] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 1.

New and exciting terrain!

While it’s great working on one particular avenue of thought, and exploring and refining it until you really feel you’ve mined the issue in full, there’s nothing quite like moving on to a new topic!

Yep, I’m a thrill-seeker alright! So you can imagine my excitement when my PhD supervisor agreed that I was ready to move on to the next section of my thesis, which is all about the horse as a symbol in Australian culture.

In recent months I have been dealing with ideas about the horse as heritage, and have moved away from the museum context and the centrality of the Object, within which my thesis was originally conceived. However, in this next section of research the content demands a return to the museum. After all, in terms of material culture, the horse occupies a very interesting position in museum collections, where the objects relating to it are very frequently also made from it; these objects are simultaneously both THINGS and representations of SENTIENCE.

Think of Phar Lap, in many ways Australia’s ultimate equine symbol. His heart, such a visceral object, is not exhibited alongside other visceral objects, but with images of him as a whole horse. His parts stand for the whole, and that whole itself stands for something we believe to be quintessentially Australian. He is portrayed as a “battler”, a figure of hope, and a hero. He is no longer a horse – he has become a symbol of something more. I want to dig deeper into the strange nature of many such equine objects, and  to explore the role the museum plays in re-framing horses as symbols.

Sitting down at my laptop, with a new Word document opened in front of me, I quickly bash out a range of questions I want to frame the next section of my research around, and feel that familiar thrill of a clean slate, an open road – a new research beginning!


The Australian Pastoral

The pastoral is a literary genre with several defining features, including bucolic depictions of shepherds, the idea of a ‘Golden Age’,  the notion of a simple life in nature, and an implicit criticism of city life, among others. It is generally acknowledged that there is no single definition of what a pastoral is[1], though Paul Alpers has argued that it is best articulated when the ‘representative anecdote’ that defines it is the narrative of herdsmen and their lives (as opposed to the landscape, or an idealised vision of nature). [2]

Given this, I actually think it is a useful genre to apply to Australian bush poetry, such as that perpetrated by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. If you replace the herdsman with a stockman, you pretty much have it! The disdain for city life over the ‘honesty’ of the bush, the nobility of the simple life of the stockman, and the vision of some sort of mytho-historical Golden Age in Australia’s past are all features of these bush ballads.

We have already looked at this issue from a different angle, in the post about Clancy of the Overflow, and whether or not he was a real person. By positioning that poem (and others like it) in the pastoral vein I am basically declaring that the whole world of the outback bush poem exists not in the realm of history, but of myth.

Virgil’s Eclogues are widely regarded as early examples of the pastoralist mode. In Eclogue I, we open with two shepherds conversing; one is lamenting the fact that he has been exiled from his homeland. Ivor Indyk has brought this two-thousand-year-old Latin poem into a contemporary context by drawing a comparison between the exiled shepherd and the fate of Australia’s dispossessed first people, arguing that: ‘Australian pastoral is haunted by a similar sense of violation, caused by an upheaval of no lesser magnitude – that of the displacement of an indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.’ [3]

Now this is interesting, because I have come across a couple of authors recently who claim that the hyper-masculinity of the bushman’s code is symptomatic of a denial of the truth of Aboriginal dispossession.[4] Nanette Mantle argues that it is ‘one of the functions of myth … to survive and surmount unpalatable realities’[5]. In the pervasive myth of the Australian stockman, we could read the horse as a symbol of the transplanted British colonisers themselves.

Karen Welberry has postulated that in Australian literature the horse, and particularly the brumby, is central to mediating anxieties of belonging. She cites the example of Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, where the ‘silver horses signally became more ‘native’/suited to life in the high country than legitimately native animals and/or indigenous trackers employed to hunt them down.’ [6]

I wonder if this is why the image of the stockman, despite the fact that at one time there must have been a considerable number of Aboriginal stockmen, is pervasively white? The horse as a symbol of Britain’s domination of Aboriginal land would certainly explain why the horse seems so central to a particular ‘type’ of (white, Anglo) Australiana. In addition to this figurative function, the horse also played a very literal role in dispossessing Aboriginal people of their land, through the physical advantage it gave to colonists and early settlers.

For this reason, the Australian pastoral has an uneasy afterlife, with an echo felt every time we claim a unique relationship to the horse as Australians.



[1] Alpers, Paul J. What Is Pastoral?. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 8.

[2] ibid, p.22; p.26; p.28 

[3] Indyk, Ivor. “Pastoral and Priority: the Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.” New Literary History vol. 24 no. 4 (1993): 838.

[4] Welberry, Karen. Wild Horses and Wild Mountains in the Australian Cultural Imaginary, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature no. 3 (2005); Mantle, Nanette. Horse & Rider in Australian legend. (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004)

[5] Mantle, Nanette. Horse & Rider in Australian legend. (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004): 3.

[6] Welberry, Karen. Wild Horses and Wild Mountains in the Australian Cultural Imaginary, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature no. 3, (2005): 25.

Of horsemen and heroes

Another interesting piece appeared on the ABC last week, this time on Radio National. You can read about it or listen to the audio, but what it comes down to is a question about whether ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s character Clancy was a real person or not.

Judy Taylor, whose great grandfather was a fellow named Thomas Gerald Clancy, insists that “[it may be] true that there’s some literary license taken, [ but there’s no] doubt as to the fact that the person that it’s based upon is real, and that that person is our great grandfather.” Her cousin Antoni Jach (who also shares the Clancy ancestor) takes a broader view, saying that “writers use their imagination. … So Clancy is a character that comes out of the imagination, but based on people he has probably met.” Jach raises the interesting point that Henry Lawson also wrote about a Clancy, several years after ‘…The Overflow’ was published. “So then maybe Clancy becomes a certain type, [a] mythic and symbolic figure.”

On the question of veracity I tend to agree with Jach, but what I am more interested in is this idea of the mythic figure. It’s interesting that, even in 1889 when the poem was published, the figure of the stockman was clearly being romanticised. The argument between Clancy being a real person or a fictional creation neatly encapsulates a broader debate regarding the notion of Australia as an outback nation, populated by accomplished horsemen roaming the land on horseback. While we know that it’s certainly not an accurate picture of Australia today, the issue of Clancy as real vs fictional points to a question about whether this ‘vision splendid’ was ever true.

It could be argued that the desire to believe that he was real, and was based on an actual person, reflects the desire to believe that yes, there once were such noble figures, who loved their lives on the land, and lived as ‘real’ Australians. Now this latter view can be contradicted by Mr Thomas Gerald Clancy himself, who wrote a riposte to Patterson’s poem, part of which I quote below:

And my path I’ve often wended
Over drought-scourged plains extended,
where phantom lakes and forests
Forever come and go;
And the stock in hundreds dying,
Along the road are lying,
To count among the ‘pleasures’
That townsfolk never know.

Over arid plains extended
My route has often tended,
Droving cattle to the Darling,
Or along the Warrego;
Oft with nightly rest impeded,
when the cattle had stampeded,
Save I sworn that droving pleasures
For the future I’d forego.

So of drinking liquid mire
I eventually did tire,
And gave droving up forever
As a life that was too slow.

(You can read the entire poem on the ABC page linked above, or if you prefer, here)

I certainly don’t dispute that there were drovers, or that the life had the potential to be a good one, at times. But I think it’s important to separate the romantic view from the reality, at least if we really do want to consider this as a legitimate part of Australian history. To do so, we need to accept that the glorious life of the drover was not one shared, in its entirety at least, by anyone, but that such idealised and fictional versions of it represent it at its best – if not at its truest.