Movie horse trainer, Heath Harris, and his wife at that time, Evanne, headed the team which was to educate this equine star, acclimatise him to the outside world (he’d never been out of Walcha), source and school other horses to double for him, train movie actors to ride like jockeys and instruct jockeys how to ride in movies.
Phar Lap used to tear shirts off the backs of stable boys, so Bobby had to learn to do it too. He had to work at liberty, come when he was called – even in a 40,000-hectare paddock –gallop freely beside a camera mounted on a tracking vehicle and, on cue, rear, strike, paw, nod, look left and right and play dead.
Much of his training took place at the old Sydney Showground, now the Centennial Park complex. Steve Gladstone, who still works at these stables, remembers when he first saw the big horse with trainer Harris: “I’d seen plenty of good horsemen but I felt this bloke was outstanding; I’d never before seen anyone work a horse with lungeing whips like he did.”
Whenever possible he would watch these schooling sessions and one day was asked to audition, resulting in his getting a job as a jockey, and as a wrangler at many of the film’s locations. He rode a chestnut “extra” in the memorable sand dune sequences (filmed at Cronulla) doubling for Martin Vaughan who played Phar Lap’s trainer, Harry Telford.
Steve Gladstone also rode in trackwork and racing scenes. “I remember producer Sexton saying to the late Roy Higgins, who was the picture’s consultant, that he wanted the horses to race and finish in a particular order. ‘Any trouble with that?’ he had asked. ‘Oh no, we do it all the time!’ replied Roy.” (Higgins won almost every major race on the Australian calendar and retired in 1983).
“All the good jockeys rode in this film, such as Neville Boyle and Peter Cuddihy… I can’t remember all their names but there were heaps of them,” says Gladstone. “When their scenes were finished an assistant said she’d take them to an office where they’d be paid. They didn’t know they were getting any money! They had just wanted to be in the Phar Lap movie – they idolised the horse.”
One of the film’s many challenges was finding a location that mirrored the American racetrack on which The Red Terror ran his last race in 1932. “American tracks aren’t turf, they’re dirt,” says director Simon Wincer, “but we somehow managed to find this little country track high up in the Snowy Mountains in Adaminaby and, thankfully, we obtained permission to plough the turf up and make it like the US style. “We erected a huge, old-style grandstand and incredibly the surrounding landscape was a great double of the Tijuana course where the original race had been.”
Other challenges were experienced by some of the film’s key players – notably James Steele (jockey Jim Pike) and Tom Burlinson (strapper Tommy Woodcock). Firstly, Steele had to lose 9.5kg – and learn to ride. “I got the part because I’m 5’5” (170cm) and looked like the jockey,” he told this writer when she interviewed him after the movie’s release. “When the racetrack sequences were being shot, many elderly people who were watching the filming would come up and talk to me as if I was the real thing.”
On the first day of his crash course in horsemanship he was shown a couple of stables where strappers were mucking out, grooming and picking out hooves. He thought all that looked easy enough. “The next day Heath Harris opened another door and simply said: ‘James, meet Towering Inferno – I’ll be back in an hour’, shut the door and went away.
“I was all alone with the animal,” says Steele. “He knew he was big, he knew he was a star and he knew I was scared of him.” Controlling a desire to scream for help, climb over the door and give up acting forever, Steele began cleaning the stable.
“But Bobby wouldn’t move out of the way. I kept saying ‘excuse me’ and gently prodding him but he just looked down his huge nose at me. Then I realised I had to pretend I was the boss and he seemed to believe me – thank God!”