Sleeping with champions

By Esme Mathis November 6, 2023
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Legendary trainer Tommy Woodcock’s affinity with horses was captured before the 1977 Melbourne Cup.

When photojournalist Bruce Postle went on assignment for The Age’s Melbourne Cup issue in 1977, he told the editor he’d already secured the perfect front-page shot. Tommy Woodcock, strapper and horse trainer, was rumoured to sleep alongside his horses before a big race. Sneaking into the stables with an air mattress, Bruce persuaded Tommy to lie down beside the stallion Reckless – and took one of his most celebrated portraits. The image appeared on the front page of The Age the next day and Reckless placed second in the Melbourne Cup.

Aaron Treve Woodcock Jr, known professionally as Tommy, was born in 1905 in Uralgurra, near Kempsey in northern New South Wales, where he spent his early years surrounded by horses. At 14, he moved to Randwick in Sydney’s east after attending school in Port Macquarie and was apprenticed as a jockey under Barney Quinn. When Tommy outgrew that job, he found employment as a trackwork rider and exercising racehorses for Randwick trainers. Among them was Harry Telford, at that stage leaser (and later part-owner) of the legendary Phar Lap. 

In 1929, Telford hired Tommy to become Phar Lap’s full-time stable foreman and strapper. The champion thoroughbred – known to Tommy as ‘Bobby Boy’ – became the most decorated racehorse in Australian history, winning 37 races from 51 starts. It was said that Phar Lap only accepted food from Tommy, who’d often sleep beside him. “No one can speak with the same intimacy of the great horse as Woodcock,” reported Brisbane newspaper The Courier-Mail in 1936. “Phar Lap…demanded by intelligent actions, looks and sounds that Woodcock spend his waking and sleeping hours within reach of his nostrils. They were inseparable.” 

But success made the champion gelding a target. In November 1930, three days before claiming the Melbourne Cup, Tommy shielded Phar Lap during a drive-by shooting. Two years later, Phar Lap collapsed in America and died in Tommy’s arms. The racehorse’s untimely death prompted sensationalist media coverage and rumours of suspected arsenic poisoning. “…this goliath of equines, massive and mighty of speed, was the plaything of schemers, gangsters and murderers,” lamented The Courier-Mail

Heartbroken Tommy spent the next 40 years training horses, running stables and apprenticing jockeys. But in 1977, Reckless thrust him back into the limelight. The stallion had failed to win his first 33 starts but then became the first horse in history to win the Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane cups in a single season. 

Tommy was widely admired for his gentle demeanour and kindness. In 1978, he was awarded an MBE, and his biography, written by Margaret Benson, was published. Tommy’s special relationship with Phar Lap was later the subject of the 1983 feature film Phar Lap: Heart of a Nation. Tommy died in 1985.

Related: Is the Melbourne Cup still the race that stops the nation?