Saturday, 28 August 2010

At Least We Didn't Put Him in the Senate

You know you are a genuine 'fair dinkum', (now where have I heard those words lately?), Australian when you look at the stuffed figure of Phar Lap, and at his tack, his rug (the red-and-white checked one he was wearing at the moment of his death, sob), his metal shoes, his rubber shoes, all his little bits and pieces, (now housed in the Melbourne Museum - except his enormous heart, which used to be on display in Canberra's magnificent Institute of Anatomy and is, I imagine, now in the National Museum of Australia,) - and feel weepy. And the fact that Phar Lap was actually born in New Zealand doesn't alter his 'true blue' status for an instant. After all, is it not also quintessentially Australian to idolise and claim as our own any high-achieving New Zealander we can lay our hands on?

Our emotional response to Phar Lap has little to do with any real experience of his performance though. After all, there can't be many people still alive who can claim to have actually seen him race, (he's been dead since 1932). That doesn't matter - he is an element in the national myth that we go on telling ourselves. His is the wonderful tale of the chestnut horse whose name means lightning in his trainer's Chinese doctor's dialect, and who, from his first win as a three-year-old, went on to win 32 of the 35 races he ran between 1929 and 1932 and, after being shipped to America, almost immediately managed to win a race splendidly and was then poisoned with arsenic in mysterious circumstances, possibly by gangsters, anxious to protect their illegal bookmakers' profits.

We have all been brought up on it and, if the young couple I saw at the museum the other day are anything to go by, we will continue cheerfully indoctrinating future generations into the cult: 'Look, Bobbie,' the young dad told the two- or three-year-old boy in the push chair beside him, ' Phar Lap, the greatest horse that ever lived.' 'Horsey,' cried Bobbie, 'horsey, horsey,' 'Phar Lap, Bobbie,' his father persisted, 'Phar Lap, the greatest horse that ever lived.'

Perhaps it was because Phar Lap's races took place during the Great Depression that he became so especially loved by the Australian public. His spirited efforts must have provided a measure of joy and excitement at a time when there was not much of either about. Or maybe he really did have some special quality that was all his own. A newsreel of his final race runs on a continuous loop at the museum and watching him as he comes up from way at the back of the field to overtake all his competitors and win, by a nose, but with apparent ease and pleasure, in track record time, you can't help admiring the eagerness of his performance, the courage and willingness he seems to display (or is this just evidence of how successfully I've been brainwashed?)

Whatever the reason, when the news of Phar Lap's death was revealed, shocked Australians are reported to have wept openly. Letters of condolence, like this one:

Dear Mr Telford
I am writing to express my sympathy to you in the loss of your beloved horse Phar Lap.
We have all watched his wonderful career and was so pleased at his great success in Aqua Caliente it's hard to realise that Phar Lap is no more
Again expressing my deepest sympathy
I remain
sincerely yours
(Miss)) Gwen Sculthorpe

- poured in to his trainer, along with poems like this (and, whatever you might think of it, I suspect such a literate response might not be forthcoming today):

'From the last barrier he sped to proudest victory
But ere the Latin cheers had died was he borne
On lightning wings - unbitted and riderless
Home to the West, whence he came
Here his immortal spirit dwells - and soars.
From the land of his birth to Yarra's field
And other fields of noble triumph
And his proud laurels adorn not his grave
But his memory eternally - Phar Lap!'

Prints of a mural showing Phar Lap, surrounded by Pegasus and Greek gods, helping to pull the chariot of the sun were bought by thousands of people who wanted to create a little shrine for the horse in their homes, while those of a less sentimental temperament invested in bottles of Phar Lap Big Red Shiraz Cabernet in order to drown their sorrows.

There are elements of Phar Lap's story that I think are especially appealing to the Australian psyche. There is his dash and keenness. There is the fact that when he was young he was under-rated, thought to be gangly and useless and not up to much. There is his tragic end at the hands of foreigners. Really, he was an equine ANZAC - plucky and doomed.

In addition, there is our passion for any form of sporting contest - exemplified right now by our tendency to regard politics more than anything as a kind of horse race. In the recent federal election campaign, in fact, this blurring was more noticeable than ever, with huge attention being given by the media to the betting markets and their shifting election-related odds. It is still far from certain who will be the victor of the election race - the chestnut or the stringy bay - but, as we study the breathtakingly close photo finish, we should remember Phar Lap. His story has much to teach us - most particularly that arsenic is definitely not the way to go.

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