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The Phar Lap story has become part of New Zealand racing legend. This extraordinary horse was born in Timaru in 1926 and rose to fame on the Australian racetrack. His unexplained death, in America, remains a mystery. Around this basic information, Morey has created a tale of passion and intrigue, poverty and desperation.
Harry Telford spotted the potential in this horse at an early age. Bobbie, as he was known in the stable, was a big, ugly chestnut. Telford had dreams for the horse, named Phar Lap which translates as Good Fortune. That his wife and son, Cappy, came second in his life after the horse, is evident in this tale. Harry’s training regime was unusual for the time and he was ably supported by his strapper, Tommy Woodcock. The title of the book, Daylight Second, refers to the calling of the races in which Phar Lap won by such a huge margin the Daylight Second became the standard place call.
Much of the story is recreated using information from previous biographers and from news reports of the day. The chapters begin with a list of the races Phar Lap entered at that time and the details of each race can become repetitive. Nonetheless, each race shows the progress towards the big one: The Melbourne Cup. This was always (and probably still is) the Holy Grail for horse racing. The other important character in the story, is the Depression. The 1930’s were a time of unemployment, dwindling incomes and desperation in Australia and around the world. Trying to train and race a winner at a time of limited resources had an impact on fields and income.
Morey has created a tale which brings together all these elements with a very human touch: the love that Tommy the strapper has for Bobbie, the struggle of Harry’s wife, Vi, to feed her family on a sporadic income and finally the public interest in the success of this unlikely champion. It is the padding out of the facts with a human interest touch which makes the book enjoyable. Of course we all know the outcome and the division of Phar Lap’s mortal remains adds a macabre end to the tale. The heart and hide to Australia and the skeleton to New Zealand. While Phar Lap was bred in New Zealand, it was Australia that gave him a home and success, and America which claimed him in death.
I have always been fascinated by the Phar Lap story and this book filled in many gaps but also opened up a number of questions, the answers to which we will never know.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
by Kelly Ana Morey
Published by HarperCollins NZ
Recommended: This interview with Kelly Ana Morey in the Weekend insert of the Fairfax Papers.