Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Phar Lap: How a Horse Became a Hero of His Time and an Icon of His Nation – Geoff Armstrong & Peter Thompson

Writing on a topic or piece of history so well known, and revered, places any author on a hiding to nothing. Everyone (at least everyone in Australia) has some degree of familiarity with the story therefore despite how fantastic the story is, and Phar Lap's is fantastic, an author stands more chance of taking away from rather than adding to it. The second difficulty lies in knowing the readers inherent knowledge level, while everyone knows of Phar Lap, just how much they know is up for debate.

Take for example your reviewer here who has seen, being Melbourne born and bred, multiple times Phar Lap's hide on display at the Melbourne Museum however has to admit that before reading this book had the horses Melbourne Cup win registered in his brain as 1929 (it was actually 1930). Clearly I was coming from a low base of knowledge and needed more of the background. But your experienced follower of track history would be the opposite and desperately seeking new insights into the events.

The story of this horse is accurately reflected in the byline of this book, he was a hero and an icon to an Australian community ravaged by the Great Depression. But though the horse was likely blissfully unaware of it throughout his life the relationships around him were racked with greed, envy and angst. Interestingly Armstrong and Thompson chose to include the tragic story of one of the horses earliest track riders, an apprentice jockey Heaton Cashell 'Cash' Martin, who was unable to follow the horse to Melbourne and later died in a race fall just after Phar Lap had won the Victoria Derby in 1929.

Measurements of weight and odds are integral parts to the sport of kings, however they do not make easy reading. Rather than let the story flow the authors include significant amounts of data on the weights carried and the relative prices available from bookies. If Phar Lap was a hero to people and an icon then his story must be carried beyond the menial, and the authors are unable to do so.

In addition as a very recent and low level follower of horse racing (who is not interested in gambling) the attraction is the majesty and power of these beasts charging away at close to 60 km/h. That despite there being many memorable shots of Phar Lap throughout his lifetime none are included means that the publishers and authors have missed another method of bringing the magic home to the reader.

The story holds its own regardless and to understand better the love of the sport in Australia you need familiarity with it. While it could have been done better this book is ranked Tennis Balls.

Cover image thanks to Allen and Unwin

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