National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > The Heart of Australian Racing: The Melbourne Cup > Where does the Melbourne Cup belong in Australian culture - and why has it endured? > transcript

Where does the Melbourne Cup belong in Australian culture - and why has it endured?

Louise Douglas and Carol Cooper, National Museum of Australia, 13 August 2010

BRYAN MARTIN: Welcome back to our second session. How exciting was that to be part of the launch of the commemorative coin to celebrate the 150th Melbourne Cup. Congratulations to all concerned from the Royal Australian Mint for what they have produced. I know I will be putting my hand up and buying the special coins because their value will just gather as the years go by. What a wonderful thing for this very special Melbourne Cup, the 150th running, to have a coin struck and done so brilliantly. Congratulations to all from the Royal Australian Mint.

We move into session two which will take you us through to lunchtime. The theme here is: where the Melbourne Cup belongs in Australian culture and why has it endured since 1861. I would ask you to please join me in welcoming the chair for this session, Louise Douglas, who is the Assistant Director, Audience, Programs and Partnerships Division of the National Museum of Australia.

LOUISE DOUGLAS: What we thought we would do at the beginning of this session is show you some of the items that the National Museum has collected over the years that relate to the Melbourne Cup. We haven’t got the items here themselves but we have images. I have a number of curatorial staff in the room who have been involved in the acquisition of these objects. I am going to suggest to them that, as I speak about the images, they might want to throw a few comments in as we go along.

The first one is Peter Pan’s 1934 Melbourne Cup. We saw Peter Pan in the film earlier today. Wasn’t it wonderful to see the actual horse who is associated with this object? I believe there is quite a controversy about the fact that Peter Pan could be considered to be more of an unsung hero than Phar Lap. Our senior curator collections Carol Cooper might want to say a few words about that.

CAROL COOPER: He won the Melbourne Cup twice. Peter Pan was an amazing horse. He is one of five horses to have won the Melbourne Cup more than once and he was a Great Depression hero. He was a magnificent horse. His first win was a colt in 1932 and I can just imagine what the owners and the trainers felt like when he stumbled, he clipped the horse’s hooves in front of him and was at the back of the field but amazingly, a great horse, he managed to regain himself and he was off and won the Melbourne Cup. But apparently when he came into the yard to receive the acclamation, his nose and his knees both had mud stains on them. What an amazing win then. Peter Pan then suffered a viral infection so didn’t appear in 1933 but was nursed back to health in 1933 and then won again in 1934 which was an amazing win, again with a handicap so that was incredible.

One of the things I found out when I was briefly doing a bit of research, on top of a lot that has been done by my other colleagues at the Museum, in honour of the fact that Andrew Peacock was coming to have a photo opportunity with our cup last night - the photo is in the Canberra Times this morning - was the fact that he was called Peter Pan. Of course, Peter Pan, that mythical boy who never grew up was another hero, like Peter Pan the horse, of the Depression years as a symbol of hope. Eternal youth on the one hand and of course the everyday man. As Andrew said this morning, the egalitarian feeling that an ordinary person could also make a lot of money and a horse that wasn’t perhaps at the very top of the field could also win the Melbourne Cup. I would like to say to the Victoria Racing Club people who are here: can we have Peter Pan as one of the legends, because I think he really deserves that. Thank you.

LOUISE DOUGLAS: Now we have two objects relating to Phar Lap, the first one is the heart which Andrew Sayers spoke about this morning [Phar Lap’s heart]. There is absolutely no need for me to tell you anything about Phar Lap but perhaps you might be interested to know some of the details of the heart. Without actually seeing it in real life you can see just from the image that it’s a fragile object, and the whole question of travelling is really impossible for us.

After Phar Lap’s death in April 1932 the heart was removed and sent by stable vet Bill Nielson to Dr Stewart McKay, an authority on thoroughbreds, and Professor Welsh, a professor of pathology at Sydney University. As Andrew said, it weighs about 6.4kgs and is around 50 per cent bigger than an average horse heart. As you can see, part of the left ventricle was removed during the heart’s examination to demonstrate how thick the heart walls were.

It then came into the Australian Institute of Anatomy which was in existence then and when the institute closed the heart came to the National Museum in 1984. So it has had an interesting journey into our collection.

Phar Lap’s portrait was done by a well-known artist Stuart Reid. The jockey was to be portrayed wearing - David Davis, who was the owner at the time, and Harry Telford, who was the trainer - colours of the red body and green and black hooped sleeves before the horse had even raced under those colours. Davis arranged for the artist to have access to Phar Lap in order to paint him from life so the portrait was produced from those sittings. It is possibly a head study for a larger work which is now in the members’ dining room at Moonee Valley Race Club. We got this one from Frank Shepherd, who is a member of the Tattersall’s Club and a friend of both Davis and Telford, and who got it directly from Reid shortly after it was painted. It occupied pride of place in his dining room until his death so it came from the artist to Frank Shepherd and then to us.

We have some Maykbe Diva silks as well in the collection. They have been signed by Glen Boss, the jockey who rode the mare to victory three years in a row as we well know in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The conservators have spotted some slight staining on the silks, and they believe it’s champagne. We have some William Forrester silks as well that were worn to victory in two successive Melbourne Cup races on two different horses in 1897 and 1898, but we don’t have an image to show you. [Case study on Melbourne Cup jockey silks conservation].

The point I am trying to make is the Museum is very committed to making sure our collection contains significant objects associated with the history of the Melbourne Cup and that we continue to look for ways to display them. As Mat mentioned this morning, Landmarks, the big new permanent gallery that is opening in April next year in the Museum, will contain a special feature on Flemington and Phar Lap’s heart will be put back on display at that time.

Date published: 30 August 2010