To most followers of Thoroughbred racing in North America, Australian racing means the Melbourne Cup, the "race that stops a nation". Ask a North American racing fan to name a famous Australian racehorse, and the answer will likely be one of Phar Lap, Makybe Diva, or more recently Black Caviar. However, there was a horse who may have been even greater than Phar Lap, but because he raced so soon after the famous 1930 Melbourne Cup winner, has been all but forgotten by contemporary racing fans. In her first book, Sydney-based turf writer Jessica Owers tells the story of Peter Pan, who won the famous 2-mile race in 1932 and 1934, and after retirement enjoyed some success as a sire of stakes winners.
Readers who enjoyed Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" will see similarities right away. Owers thoroughly researched her subject over 3 years, digging through archives in order to piece together this accurate account of Peter Pan, who was to Australians what Seabiscuit was to Americans, a source of hope and national pride during the Great Depression. She covers the human angle of his story through owner Rodney Dangar, trainer Frank McGrath, and jockeys Andy Knox, Jim Pike, and Darby Munro.
The book is written in chronological order, starting with the chance mating of imported English stallion Pantheon with Dangar's broodmare Alwina. She shows how Peter Pan quickly rose to the upper echelons of the Australian turf, winning the Melbourne Cup as a 3-year-old, in just his seventh career start. American readers will find Owers' race and workout accounts familiar to them, as Australian racing also clocks internal fractions, in contrast with Europe where such records are often not taken. Peter Pan was a consistent horse who could rattle off 12-second furlongs over long distances, easily wearing down opponents lacking the stamina to keep pace.
Just as Secretariat had Sham and Seabiscuit had War Admiral, Peter Pan had a bitter rivalry with Rogilla during his 4 and 5 year old season, culminating in their epic stretch duel in the 1935 Autumn Plate with Peter Pan holding on by a head. Although being one of few dual-Melbourne Cup winners in history automatically places Peter Pan among the greats, perhaps his greatest feat was cutting back in distance shortly after his second Cup to win the 1 mile All Aged Plate at home at Randwick, setting a new Australasian time record in the process.
Sadly, Peter Pan could not continue his winning ways forever. Owers showed how the great horse, weakened by injury, was never the same, and arguably Rodney Dangar may have run him one or two races more than he should, before retiring Peter Pan to a successful career at stud. In the appendices Owers includes Peter Pan's complete race record, his 6-cross pedigree, and a map of Sydney's Randwick Racecourse as it was in the 1930's, his home during his racing career. A photo section including both color and black-and-white photographs is included at the center of the book.
Clearly this will be an enjoyable read for fans of racing history, especially for those familiar with the stories of Phar Lap and Seabiscuit who would gain a greater appreciation of the "forgotten horse" lost in their shadows. Owers has ensured that Peter Pan will no longer be forgotten, and this reviewer is impressed with such a well-written first book.
Peter Pan: The Forgotten Story of Phar Lap's Successor can be purchased from Amazon.com for $29.95 or as an e-book for Kindle for $16.90.
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