Love Letters to Phar Lap on his 90th birthday

5 October 2016

It is too cold for anything, but especially this. It is 10am and I’m shaking as I’m being strapped into a harness on the roof of the Royal Exhibition Building. My nervousness is from a combination of things – the ridiculous climb up the rickety stairways that labyrinth up the side of the old architecture, the incessant cold wind and spitting rain, the very large group of high-heeled, suited-up slick TV reporters. I duck under a blocked off walkway. As I climb up the railing I can hear screaming below. 350 people are being herded together, their beige plastic ponchos making up the shape of Phar Lap’s head. At the command of a walkie talkie, the crowd begin to sing happy birthday to the late horse, Phar Lap.

I have a very distinct kid memory of Phar Lap. I saw him in the museum, I was towered over by this immense chestnut horse. His eyes were small, glassy and black. I’m not a horse girl, the extent of my horse knowledge being the lyrics to ‘Hello World’, but Phar Lap is definitely Australia’s most famous ex-pat. A thoroughbred racehorse, Phar Lap was a champion who dominated Australian competitions during the start of the Great Depression. From my friend telling me stories of his gangly, warty bod, to the Phar Lap infographic that was printed on the grease paper underneath these chips from a Newcastle pub, Phar Lap is a relic; an accessible icon that’s been patriotically immortalised through the rise of popular culture. His surprise death, thought to be an arsenic poisoning, has been the subject of public mystery for decades.

The press swarm is led into the museum, towards Phar Lap, where we outnumber the small group of women, children, and old women. I nearly walk into a table that is spread with a stack of pink, heart shaped paper and red heart shaped stickers. A miniature red post box sits in the middle. We are instructed to send “messages of love” to Phar Lap, who will then pick his favourite and post replies. As I later learn during the speeches, Phar Lap is quite the social media whizz with over 85,000 friends. I meet the eyes of a child wearing a birthday hat. It’s blue, with a horse head popping out from the side. The press scramble and crawl on their knees around Phar Lap. Sweaty men in suits swing their oversized cameras around, and I have to keep ducking. Children are edged out.

Then a large silver tray is wheeled out through the crowd. A massive cake, with carrot decorations edging its sides, is presented to the taxidermy horse hide.

“Are they real carrots?” A woman behind me gasps.

The curators had a discussion about a sugar or oat cake, but kept it carroty and classy.

There are three children with the cake. They have to keep smiling for the 15 minutes of photos, staying frozen, holding a large knife over the cake as the press rearrange themselves around their feet, all capturing the perfect moment of cutting Phar Lap’s birthday cake. One of the kid’s hands are knotted into the hair of a stuffed plush horse (probably Phar Lap). I stare at our reflections in the horse case. The cameras click click click at the kids and the cake and the horse hide. A woman holds her baby to his face as a TV camera hovers uncomfortably close, the light bulb as round as the baby’s head.

A woman working at the museum is presenting a giant red orb. I can see the painted veins, the branching vessels and lumpy sinew as she rotates the giant organ. The replica of Phar Lap’s heart that she is cradling weighs six and a half kilos. She hands it to a child to take over to Phar Lap’s mounted hide. His mother enthusiastically puts him in a shiny burgundy jockey jacket and hat. As he poses in front of the horse, holding a fake massive heart, I expect him to gouge himself on the rotting heart. The press will regroup around the scene, chanting Khaleesi-style as blood drips down the kid’s ravenous maw.

The woman also has replicas of his hooves. From their streaky, bleeding colour, she says that it should have been obvious that he was eating something not right. She runs her fingers across the lines of brown, before presenting us with the skull. Different parts of Phar Lap are stored in different parts of the country and world. His skeleton resides in the Museum of New Zealand, while his preserved, whole real heart (as of 2014) sits in Australia’s National Museum. Behind me the press are still with Michael Reason, resident Phar Lap expert and the author and curator of the Phar Lap collection at Melbourne Museum. I have a brief look at the exhibit before I leave – the costumes are very cool, as is the archived bits and screaming porcelain horses. 

As the room starts to clear, I spend some alone time with Phar Lap. He is smaller than I remember. Leaner. His hair is shorter and redder. A group of women stand next to me, talking about shaving their horses. This attracts a larger group of horse riders, who talk about the aesthetics of shaved horses. I fold and put my paper heart into the miniature post box on my way out. Happy birthday, Phar Lap.

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