Filling historical gaps, Claire Mabey

Daylight Second
Kelly Ana Morey
HarperCollins, $37.00,
ISBN 9781775540526

I am certain that I’ve seen Phar Lap. Somewhere, in the back of my memory, is a child’s-eye view of a very large horse in a glass case in a museum, somewhere. Claimed by Australians like pavlova and Crowded House, he’s up there on the shelf reserved for New Zealand national icons: All Blacks, Phar Lap, kiwifruit, Helen Clark.

And yet, I have no facts, no diary records, photographs or parental certainty to back this memory up. All I know is that Phar Lap has always been there, a crucial piece of national history, shrouded in mystery, surrounded by awe and clapping. I’ve never been to the races, and while I have ridden a thoroughbred (once, terror, never again), I know very little about how they are bred and trained, nor how they live out their days.

Daylight Second is a remedy for the fog and gaps, helping to shift the obscure myth of a beast from New Zealand folklore into a fully-fleshed character who lived and galloped. Kelly Ana Morey’s meticulously researched approach to the life of New Zealand’s most treasured horse is both entertaining and educational. From start to finish, Daylight Second is an intriguing blend of the fictionalised human (and horse) story intertwined with a reportage of the events that took place from the moment Phar Lap’s (or Bobbie’s, as he’s more affectionately known by his human companions) and Harry Telford’s lives met.

The book begins with Phar Lap’s trainer, Harry, as an old man grappling with his regrets. “Other regrets. Bobbie. Yes, Bobbie. There had been no other choice, not really, other than for the horse to leave Australia. […] But Harry’s gut instinct told him it was a mistake.” Morey deals with the uncertainty over Phar Lap’s death upfront, leaving us with the host of theories that nobody, including Morey, has tied to finality. The loss of the great animal, whose giant heart, skeleton and skin are scattered between Australia and New Zealand, weighs heavy on the central, rather brusque, character, until the end of his life.

Rewind, from the end to the beginning: Morey brings to life the peculiarities of Harry’s life as a husband, father and as a horse trainer. Born in Ballarat, raised in New Zealand, Harry and his brothers inherit their knowledge of, and instincts for, horses and racing from their father Henry. In 1927, now living in Sydney, Harry strikes it lucky when he unravels the genealogy of Lot 41, the son of Night Raid and Entreaty with the genetic presence of an “exceptional mare”, Miss Kate. To his new wife’s anxiety (money is a constant thread throughout the book: either too scant, or flush with winnings), Harry purchases the large colt from New Zealand, thanks to the investment of the full price of two hundred pounds from American Mr David Davis.

The tension between Harry, as trainer, and Davis, as owner, simmers throughout, as the colt’s talent blossoms, right up until the final race and final days in America. So, too, does the tension between Harry and his introverted wife, Vi. These relationships, as well as that of charming strapper Tommy Woodcock and bubbly wife Emma, provide shifting counterpoints to the reportage of Phar Lap’s training and racing. While Phar Lap’s progress and the constantly pressing decisions on his diet and exercise regime offer a steady and methodical pace to the book, the unpredictable and often tragic internal lives of the human characters offer a depth of empathy for those who were impacted most by the highs and lows of being close to Phar Lap and his successes.

Morey uses fact alongside the tools of fiction to create suspense artfully throughout the book. As Phar Lap’s strength starts to show itself on the track, so too does the ugly rivalry within the racing world. Attacks and threats pepper the chronology, foreshadowing the tragic end in the most ironic way: “ ‘This is it,’ Tommy says as the car draws level and he glimpses the metallic glint of a double-barrel shotgun resting on the ledge of the partially opened rear passenger window.” The grubbier underbelly of gambling in the racing world puts pressure on everyone with a stake in Phar Lap.

After surviving threats on his life, winning countless races and racking up over £50,000 in prizes, the racing world attempts to move the goalposts: “With Phar Lap, in particular, everyone is tired of seeing one horse gather in the rich stakes without having to meet any real opposition”, the newspapers report. The remedy is official weighting rules, meaning that Phar Lap and his ilk are forced to carry a 10-pound penalty while competitors are able to claim allowances. This game-changer occurs alongside descriptions of Phar Lap’s declining form, due to a kidney infection that “a double dose of Fowler’s and some Epsom salts in this next feed” doesn’t fix. Harry is forced to rest Phar Lap for most of autumn and winter. During his well-deserved recuperation, Davis and Harry receive racing offers

from all over the world, and although Harry has nominally lined up a busy spring season of racing in Australia for Phar Lap for the remainder of the year, Davis seriously considers every offer, especially the more outlandish ones.

Davis’s desire for cash and glory drives what happens next. Harry concedes:

Bobbie can’t keep racing in Australia for much longer. Nor is New Zealand an option. They’ll handicap him out of the game … We could just do the weight-for-ages and a couple of the big stakes races this year, then retire him.

For Davis, on the other hand, retirement is not an option: “I have big plans for him.” The lure of Agua Caliente in Mexico means that Bobbie and Tommy are on the ship to America. The rest is history.

At the time of writing, our old cat became suddenly ill and died. Big Al was never in the running for prizes, wealth or fame. But he was exceptional: unusually large, unusually friendly, and everyone’s favourite. One of the loveliest details discovered in Daylight Second is that of Phar Lap’s genial and gentle nature: “He was all our favourite long before he started winning races, simply because he’s such a friendly horse.” Even when anticipated, the episode of his death is shocking and moving. Morey has taken great pains to detail the lives of those who were intimately linked with Phar Lap’s ongoing health, happiness and success. The weight of the efforts of Harry, Tommy and their families fading along with him, Phar Lap’s death was shocking for his fans, but devastating for his family.

Daylight Second is a great read and a welcome and worthy addition to the true story of a great New Zealand icon.

Claire Mabey is co-director of LitCrawl Wellington.

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