MARK TWAIN, PHAR LAP AND THE MELBOURNE CUP
I’m writing this on Cup Day, which, this year, is also my brother’s birthday. The famous American writer Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and a whole lot of very funny stories, visited Australia in the late 19th century and was impressed with the whole Cup business.
He said, “Cup Day is supreme, it has no rival. In America we have no annual supreme day, no day whose approach makes the whole nation glad…the Cup astonishes me.”
He said a lot of other things about it which you can Google under “Mark Twain Melbourne Cup”. The description he gave of how people put aside special clothes for the day and how they celebrate could have been lifted almost from newspapers written today. The language is a bit more old-fashioned, but the things people do isn’t.
Some years ago, I wrote an article for the NSW School Magazine about Phar Lap, the wonderful horse who ran in the early 1930s. His name meant “Lightning” – “Sky flash” - in Thai and it was such a good name for a horse that could move like – well, lightning! He was also known to the Americans as “the Red Terror” and to his friends at the stable as Bobby, a gentle horse.
I researched the story and found that he was bought for a very small amount of money – 168 pounds (about $330). Yes, that bought a lot more in those days than it does now, but it was still not much for a racehorse. I bet the original owners were kicking themselves when he started racing.
In those days, there were a lot of people who were very poor because of the Depression, and having Phar Lap to cheer on gave them a little bit of happiness.
There were some people who weren’t happy – those who made their living taking bets on the races. Someone tried to shoot him when he was being led home from training one day and for many years after he died, suddenly, in America, there were all sorts of theories about his being killed deliberately. More recently, it has been suggested that he died of a bacterial disease which was not known to vets in the 1930s.
You can still see him in the Melbourne Museum, looking as if he could step down and win a race.
Me, I’d just like to cuddle him. Have I mentioned I love horses?