the time has come…

As I’m way behind on my vacation updates, I better get cracking. It’s been over a week since we went to see Outback Spectacular, and I’m finally on the mend, and able to write. I won’t bore you with the details of how unwell I’ve been, let’s just say I’ve been really out of it for the last week and a half. And though I promised you some posts about trips to Montville and the Australian Zoo, I’m afraid I was sick enough to opt out of going, and flew back to Emerald, instead. But I have hope that not only will I be able to visit Sydney for Easter vacation, maybe I’ll manage a stop-off in Brisbane, too. It would help make up for missing out, this time around.

When Imogen and I made plans to go see Australian Outback Spectacular!, it was going to be my second visit in several months, and I was actually expecting it to be the same show. Well, that’s what happens when your friend buys the tickets and you never go and look up any details. The first time I went, if you remember, I saw a show dedicated to the Australian Light Horse, and learned about the cavalry charge at the Battle of Beersheba.

I didn’t bring any extra cash with me to the show, figuring the only thing I’d need it for would be to buy a program, and as I had my program from the last show, I wouldn’t need another. But as we walked up to the entrance, I noticed that there was a picture of a horse on the program, far different from the look of the previous program. And yes, as you’ll see, I took a picture of the sign on the walkway, but I didn’t take the time to read it. Come to think of it, last time I was there, it was dark upon arrival. What a difference a few months will make! It took until I’d stepped inside and saw the biggest sign yet, to realize that I had come to see Spirit of the Horse, with a Tribute to Phar Lap.

Before anyone gets on my case, let me remind you that I know very little about horses, except for the ones I’ve read about in books or seen in movies. So, I’m familiar with all the ones that Marguerite Henry wrote about, as well as Black Beauty and the Black Stallion. I know about Man O’War and Seabiscuit, but only because I’ve read about them.

Also, I haven’t figured out if all Aussies follow horse racing, but I think it likely that they pay more attention to it than Americans do. At home, the only time we notice the Kentucky Derby is happening, is if there’s a serious contender for the Triple Crown. And though I just looked it up, I still don’t know which race occurs first, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. But here in town, we have a race course, and on a local race day or a national race day, even the employees in the grocery stores will be wearing fancy hats and fascinators with their uniforms! Do they do this anywhere in the U.S., besides Kentucky? Honestly, I don’t know, but they don’t in South Carolina.

I’m just trying to point out that though I’ve heard the name Phar Lap, somewhere in the history of my lifetime, I really never knew anything about this horse, and I’ve had no reason to do so. I don’t want to seem like a complete ignoramus to any Aussies, but I’m just pointing out that my lifestyle only takes on horse knowledge from the books I read.

Phar Lap is a huge deal to Australians and Kiwis (he was born in New Zealand, but raced in Australia), and they hold his memory dear to their hearts. In the 1920’s, with the Great Depression hanging over their heads, everyone latched on excitedly to the thrill of watching Phar Lap win race after race.

Ok, back to the Spectacular. We turned in our tickets, and I was pleased to find that we were wearing yellow on our hats, signifying that we would sit in Bunya Downs. Last time, I had a red hat and sat in the Warrego Station section, so now I have both hats to take home with me. We found ourselves there early enough that the gift shop wasn’t crazily crowded, so we had a good time picking up a few souvenirs for ourselves and friends (also, we got programs).

Coming into the big entrance room, with it’s chandeliers made from wagon wheels and mason jars, I realized that since we had scheduled our visit right after Christmas, we still were able to enjoy the Christmas decorations. From the greenery in the chandeliers to the tall tree with it’s fake cockatoos perched at the top, it was all lovely and homey.

As the crowd hadn’t gotten very large yet and our entrance to Bunya Downs was on the left side of the room, we were able to get a better look at the horses than I had last time. Jane, I wished you could’ve been there, because you’d have loved the horses, and I can’t tell you a thing about them except that they were beautiful. And brown.  : P

There was a lady singing from the stage, and then she introduced Bluey, who does his best to get everyone into the spirit of things. We get to practice our “coo-ee!” and our outback stomp (what you do instead of clapping, when you’re eating). He didn’t make us do the kookaburra call, this time. Of course, the usual reminder that cameras are not allowed inside the auditorium. Sigh. But ask me, when I get home, and I’ll happily show off the beautiful programs from both shows. Is taking pictures of the program allowed? Ok, I’m too lazy to do that right now. I’m still on the mend, you know.

I had just gone off my first round of antibiotics that morning, so by the time we sat down in our seats, and started looking at the food in front of us, I was praying my system would allow me to eat most of my food and not have to excuse myself at any point during the show. The starter course was a spinach and ricotta tart with a decoration around it of capsicum (red pepper) and tomato chutney and pesto. That ricotta tart would’ve been delicious anyway, but I’d been living on bread and butter for a week. It was so delicious that I have no more words for it.

After watching Bluey play with dynamite on the main ground, and set off some explosions, we were off to a great start with some glorious Australian footage on the big movie wall backdrop. This wall was part of the set for some performances, allowing a person to ride off the “stage” and their figure would continue into the movie. Or it would enhance a particular show, with just background scenery. Or you could listen to a recital of poetry, with it illustrated on the movie screen. So many options, and though I don’t know the dimensions, it maybe bigger than an IMAX screen.

The big screen took us through the history of the horse in Australia (The Horse That Built Our Nation), from the First Fleet to Cobb & Co to the Great Australian Cattle Drive. But as the big screen showed us… well, the big picture, mail coaches, cattle, sheep, road bandits, and many more characters would pour onto the “stage” to give us an idea of what it was like.

Then, we met the Johnson family and the battle of Bunya Downs and Warrego Station began. Johnno Johnson, the head honcho of Warrego, was my favorite last time, and I was a bit disappointed to find that he was played by a different guy this time. Mind, the new guy (Brad Lee, I think) did a great job, too. In checking my program, I’m guessing maybe Graham Moore needs a night off from the lead, every now and then, allowing someone else to get some time in the limelight. Because Moore was in the supporting cast that night, so he wasn’t sick. If you read my post about this show, last time, this was the guy who sang a glorious rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”. No wonder I fell for his performance. And before any of you teases get started, he’s too old for me and wears a wedding ring. So, shut up.  : P

The awesome performance of “Boys From the Bush” came onto the screen and the speakers, and we again got to watch the horses and their riders dance to the music. It looks like such fun, it just seems like the horses should be smiling, too. Maybe they do, inside.  : )  More stunt riders show off their skills, between Bunya Downs and Warrego, followed by some singing and teasing of Bluey, and then the main course arrived.

They feed at least a thousand guests at this time, and everyone has their food within fifteen minutes, and it’s still hot and tastes wonderful. It’s amazing how they manage it. A juicy steak, with mashed potatoes and vegetables. I was able to eat almost all of my steak and potatoes, but had to make myself stop. Didn’t want to overdo. While we ate, Johnno and his wife sang a duet to each other, and then Bluey declaimed “The Man from Snowy River”.  My only disappointment was that we never did get a rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”. Sigh.

With the beginning of Act 2, we started in on the history of Phar Lap, from the American David Davis buying the horse, and then disliking the sight of him, through to his training with Harry Telford, and finally becoming a champion under the gentler guidance of his strapper (handler), Tommy Woodcock. Phar Lap was a pretty lazy horse, and Telford believed that only a hard training regimen would break him of this, so we watched video footage of a horse running up and down sand dunes. Ouch. But Woodcock, who referred to Phar Lap as Bobby had a different method, and eventually taught Phar Lap how to win.

While still in training, Phar Lap lost his first race and didn’t place in the next following, but finally he won a race, and things took off from there. After his first win, he would win 32 of 35 races, giving Australians something to cheer for, when everything else in their lives was in a downward spiral. Some people didn’t like this winning streak, and in 1930, some criminals attempted to shoot Phar Lap, the morning of the Melbourne Stakes. They failed in their attempt, and Phar Lap won the race. Several days later, he won the Melbourne Cup.

With handicap weights in danger of crippling their horse, American owner Davis decided to bring Phar Lap overseas to race in North America. Phar Lap’s only race there was in Tijuana, Mexico, for one of the biggest winning purses ever offered. He won, and had circumstances been different, he would have probably gone on a racing tour of the U.S.  But on April 5, 1932, Phar Lap died of mysterious causes.

And it seems that ever since, scientists have been debating over the cause of his death. Some say it was gastroenteritis, after doing tests of his remains. But from what I’ve read online, the results continue to change. Back then, some thought Phar Lap had been poisoned, and in recent years, evidence sometimes supports this. Arsenic was used more commonly back then, in tonics, so it could have been accidental or a build-up over time. But some think, now, that Phar Lap was giving a large dose of arsenic in his last hours. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the exact truth.

Australians and New Zealanders continue to honor the memory of this great racing horse, including songs dedicated to him, such as “Phar Lap, Farewell to You”, which one of the performers sang for us in the show.

On further reading, it seems that Phar Lap’s heart is preserved in one museum, his hide stuffed and on display in another, and I think his skeleton is somewhere else. Sounds kind of unrestful. Even if his heart was abnormally large, I find the idea of a heart display kind of gross.

Alright, back to the show. Somewhere in there, we were served our dessert of pavlova, and it was wonderful. This is not ready-made from the store, or anything of that sort. All soft, scrumptious, delicious. For that many people, they could’ve scrimped on something, but they don’t. I don’t know how they manage to pull it off.

Some audience members get pulled into some competitions, some for children, some for adults, with ponies and beer barrels (not at the same time). Then, we get to see who can run an obstacle course faster, horses and riders, or riders on Honda ATVs. Yeah, the horses win, every time. And just when it looks like Warrego has an easy win, Bluey throws a sly stick into the works, and it’s time for a tie-breaker. The audience gets to pass a hat, row by row, and when you get the hat, you’re supposed to say “coo-ee!” and pass it on. Not everybody remembers to say it, but just passes it. I remembered to say it this time, though. I must say, the race was so close this time, I don’t know how Bunya Downs pulled it off. I think it came down to one hat on each side, and a few seconds difference. So, that was kind of fun, being on the winning side, each time I’ve visited Outback Spectacular.

With one final performance, the riders come out in uniform, carrying flags, and puts through a glorious performance to thrill your heart, with a stirring score by composer Bruce Rowland (The Man From Snowy River, Return to Snowy River) playing throughout. You felt like the whole thing was lifting you up and carrying you away, and I wasn’t even watching my own flag. If I’d seen a show like that with the American flag in it, I’d probably have cried. This country has a lot of history to be proud of, and these performers do their best to show us that. Bravo.

Unfortunately, the show had to end, and we walked out, wishing we could go watch it again, instead. On the way out, we stopped at the gift shop again, and I picked up a book about Phar Lap to read up on, and then outside we went. Last time, Johnno (of the glorious “Waltzing Matilda” voice) was sitting on his horse, Mystery, waving to people. This time, the character of Tommy Woodcock was astride Mystery, with Phar Lap beside him, and the area was uncrowded enough to get some nice pictures. A nice finish to a wonderful night.

I can only say that after I go home, I plan to come out here for a visit, every few years, and when I do, anybody who wants to come is welcome. Brisbane will have to be on the trip itinerary, as my friends from home have to see this most fabulous show. And if you’re an Aussie, you need to see it as well. This is no “cheesy” show for tourists. Every Australian I know who’s seen it, loved it. It’s a show to make you proud of who you are and of those who built your nation.

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