When I was a kid I would beg to be taken to either Luna Park or the museum. While thrilled by the centrifugal delights of the St Kilda fairground, I preferred the gloomy, echoing precincts of the museum and the exhibit I found most exciting of all was a stuffed horse.
There were many nose prints on the glass case. Not only those of little boys but of grown men. There was something about Phar Lap’s stance, intensified by his motionlessness, that was riveting. I marvelled at the way his veins and ligaments were as vividly preserved as his hide.
Behold the real thing. The horse that more Australians had cheered more loudly than any other. The horse that had carried much more than the most famous jockeys. It carried, we were reminded constantly, ‘the emotions of a nation’. And it expressed the sense of loss that characterised Australian history. The tragedy, the defeat that gave us so much of our national mythology. We wrote our history in the blood of the fallen at Gallipoli, in the failures of Burke and Wills, and of Lassiter to find his lost reef. In the defeats of brave pioneers confronted by a brutally indifferent nature that wiped them out with drought, flood and bushfire.
And Phar Lap embodied another idea that of being done in by our enemies. Phar Lap was a story of betrayal, like that of Les Darcy. He was not just a horse he was a four-legged messiah who had died a redemptive death.