Directed by Simon Wincer. Australia. 1983.

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Having just watched the Kentucky Derby (my favourite sports event) and Seabiscuit on the same day, Phar Lap was the next logical choice. This is a 1983 film from Australia about a colt who had a phenomenal record yet died under mysterious circumstances. The film's implication is that, after his biggest victory at Agua Caliente in Mexico on April 5, 1932, he was killed by organized crime but it never says so specifically and no evidence has ever turned up to prove or disprove it. Phar Lap, like Seabiscuit, was the little horse that could. He came from nowhere and won 37 of 51 races and placed second or third in five others. In eight of his stakes races, he set new records, winning the Melbourne Cup, the Victoria derby, The W.S. Cox Plate, the Melbourne Stakes and many others. 

Phar Lap (a phonetic spelling of the Thai word for ''lightning'') was known to his trainer Harry Telford (Martin Vaughan) and his stable boy Tommy Woodcock (Tim Burlinson) as "Bobby" though he was also called "Big Red", "The Red Terror", "The Wonder Horse", and  "The Big Fellow". Like Seabiscuit, Phar Lap became a hero to many during the great depression because he was bought for a song and no one believed he would amount to much. As the film opens, Dave Davis (Ron Liebman), the wealthy owner is out to protect his investment, but does not believe in the colt, calling him a cross between a sheepdog and a kangaroo and reluctantly agrees to lease him to Harry for three years. After losing his first few races, Phar Lap is trained to come from behind and overtake horses and the film details his rise to fame including the often-strained relationships between owner, trainer, and the stable boy who loved Bobby and wanted to protect him from Harry's tough training methods.  

The film also describes the corruption in racing at the time and the fierce betting that took place among mob interests. Because of his constant victories, Phar Lap became a threat to some of the high rollers and one told the owner, ''Look Dave, if something's good that's O.K. But if something's too good, that upsets the entire system.'' In Mexico, Phar Lap was forced to carry 129 pounds for his shot at the $50,000 purse and had to wear heavy bar shoes to protect his feet from a painful heel injury. Even though he was racing on dirt for the first time, he established a record time, coming from last place to win in a crowded field but it was to be his last race.  

Phar Lap is a very entertaining film and the horse racing sequences are splendidly done, though there is never much suspense about the outcome. Burlinson (The Man From Snowy River) is outstanding as the strapper who eventually becomes a trainer and Liebman invests his not entirely unsympathetic character with a humanity that stands in sharp contrast to some of the ruthless moguls running the sport at the time. While the film is often marred by some trite dialogue and melodramatic music, you will fall in love with Bobby as I did and perhaps shed a tear at a very moving conclusion. 


Howard Schumann
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