Phar Lap (film)
Promotional poster from the 1983 Phar Lap film.
|Directed by||Simon Wincer|
|Produced by||John Sexton|
|Written by||David Williamson|
|Running time||107 minutes|
Phar Lap (also released as "Phar Lap: Heart of a Nation") is a 1983 film about the Australian racehorse Phar Lap. The film starred Tom Burlinson and was written by famous Australian playwright David Williamson.
Phar Lap, known affectionately as "Bobby" by his strapper Tommy Woodcock (Burlinson), collapses and dies in Woodcock's arms, at Menlo Park in California, in 1932. The news is greeted with great sadness and anger in Australia. The remainder of the film is done as flashback.
Five years earlier, Phar Lap arrives in Australia, purchased unseen from New Zealand. His trainer Harry Telford (Vaughan) and Telford's wife Vi watch as he's lowered onto the wharf by sling. Mrs Telford comments that she "Wonders what his (Telford's) American friend (owner Dave Davis (Leibman)) will think?". Davis is not impressed with the underweight, wart-ridden colt and orders Telford to sell him immediately. Telford protests, saying that the horse's pedigree is exceptional, with Carbine on both sides of his bloodlines. Davis agrees to lease him to Telford for three years, keeping only one third of the winnings. Telford must pay for his upkeep.
As Phar Lap is brought into the stables, he and Woodcock form a strong bond. When the young strapper complains about how hard Telford works the horse, Telford sacks him. He has to reinstate Woodcock when the horse stops eating.
Phar Lap fails badly in his first few races, but Woodcock educates the horse by holding him back in trackwork, sensing that he likes to come from behind. This pays off at the AJC Derby run at Randwick, Sydney. The film shows this as Phar Lap's first win although it was actually the RRC Maiden Juvenile Handicap in the previous racing season. The win saves Phar Lap from being sold and Telford from bankruptcy.
As the Depression bites, Phar Lap wins every race he enters. Davis attempts to capitalise on his success through shady betting schemes, something Telford wants no part of. In preparation for the Melbourne Cup, the premier race in Australia, Davis pressures Telford to scratch Phar Lap from the Caulfield Cup, to maximise Davis's betting returns. Under great financial pressure, Telford reluctantly agrees. As Woodcock walks the horse back from track work, someone tries to shoot the horse in the street. Woodcock and Phar Lap go into hiding at a stud farm outside Melbourne, arriving at Flemington Racecourse at the very last minute for the 1930 Melbourne Cup. Phar Lap wins, ridden by champion jockey Jimmy Pike. In the 1931 Cup, the VRC imposes an unprecedented weight, "to better horse racing". Phar Lap finishes eighth, and the racing authorities face jeering crowds. The horse is now back under Davis's control, after the three year agreement runs out. Telford is fed up with the horse anyway, preferring to concentrate on his new stud and stables outside Melbourne. Fearing that Phar Lap will never be allowed to race under a fair weight in Australia, Davis accepts an offer to race him in Agua Caliente, Mexico, for the richest prize money ever offered in North America. Woodcock is promoted to trainer, but he soon clashes with Davis over his softer methods. An injured Phar Lap wins the race in Mexico, blood streaming from a split hoof. He dies soon after, in suspicious circumstances.
The Thoroughbred gelding who played Phar Lap was Towering Inferno. He was bred by Shirley Pye-Macmillan at Walcha, New South Wales and later owned by Heath Harris. Towering Inferno was killed by lightning on 15 April 1999. The real Tommy Woodcock played a trainer in the movie.
Differences from country to country
In the United States version of the film the story is played out in a more traditional way with the film opening with Phar Lap getting off the boat. This was done to make the ending more dramatic, since in the United States the story of Phar Lap was not well known.