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Woodcock, Aaron Treve (Tommy) (1905–1985)

by Andrew Lemon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Tommy Woodcock, with Phar Lap, 1932

Tommy Woodcock, with Phar Lap, 1932

Museum Victoria, MM 106658

Aaron Treve (‘Tommy’) Woodcock (1905-1985), strapper and horse trainer, was born on 8 October 1905 at Uralgurra, near Bellbrook, New South Wales, third of four children of New South Wales-born parents Aaron Treve Woodcock, coach driver, and his wife Annie Catherine, née Smith. The family moved in 1911 to Port Macquarie, where Tommy received his schooling. In 1918 he began an apprenticeship with a Randwick trainer, Barney Quinn, riding his first winner at Moorefield racecourse in February 1922. After finishing his apprenticeship Woodcock found the city competition too strong. He rode in the western districts until, aged 21 and increasing in weight, he relinquished his licence. Returning to Sydney, he bought a truck and worked as a contractor but continued to ride track work for Randwick trainers, including H. R. (Harry) Telford.

In early 1928 Woodcock first encountered Telford’s New Zealand yearling purchase, Phar Lap, and soon established a profound bond with the young horse that he called ‘Bobby Boy’. After Phar Lap’s third spectacular win, in the 1929 Australian Jockey Club Derby at Randwick, Telford engaged Woodcock as full-time stable foreman and strapper responsible for the champion’s care. Phar Lap’s record featured thirty-seven race wins in four years, most with Jim Pike in the saddle, including the Victoria Derby (1929), two Cox Plates at Moonee Valley (1930-31), the King’s Cup in Adelaide (1930), the Futurity Stakes at Caulfield (1931), the Craven Plate at Randwick (1929-31) and four wins in the 1930 spring carnival at Flemington including the Melbourne Cup. As strapper, Woodcock shared Phar Lap’s celebrity status, particularly in November 1930 when he shielded Phar Lap from a gun attack three days before the Melbourne Cup.

Phar Lap’s owner David Davis delegated Woodcock to train the horse for the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap, held at a gambling resort in Tijuana, Mexico. Phar Lap’s win in this, the richest race of his career, was hailed as his greatest triumph; but just two weeks later on 5 April the gelding sickened and died, in Woodcock’s arms, at Menlo Park, California. Notwithstanding autopsies, the cause of death was keenly yet inconclusively debated for decades. Scientific tests sponsored in 2008 by Museum Victoria supported circumstantial evidence that the horse died from an accumulation of arsenic, a component in legitimate tonics administered by his trainer, strapper and veterinarian. Woodcock, reticent with explanations, harboured a sense of responsibility and always discounted theories that Phar Lap was intentionally poisoned.

After Phar Lap’s death Woodcock accepted a retainer from an American millionaire and horse breeder, Willis Sharpe Kilmer; he was obliged, however, to return home because he had contravened United States of America immigration laws. In 1934 he obtained a training permit from the Victoria Racing Club. He managed a farm at Ringwood during World War II and resumed training in 1946 with immediate success, winning the VRC Australian Cup with Knockarlow. The next year he established small stables at Mentone, relocating to nearby Mordialloc in 1961. Woodcock achieved success for loyal clients, notably (Sir) Reginald Ansett, Bill Stutt (a bloodstock dealer) and Dr Graham Godfrey. He won the 1959 and the 1967 VRC Oaks with Amarco and Chosen Lady. As trainer he shared in the success of his apprentice Geoff Lane, the top Victorian jockey in 1959-60.

National celebrity again came Woodcock’s way late in his career with a stallion named Reckless, which had failed to win in his first thirty-three starts. In 1977 Reckless became the first horse to win the Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane cups in one season, but, as the sentimental favourite, was narrowly beaten in the Melbourne Cup. Woodcock’s gentle manner and affinity with horses won him universal affection. In 1978 he was appointed MBE and a biography by Margaret Benson was published. The actor Tom Burlinson sympathetically depicted Woodcock’s role in the Phar Lap story in the successful Australian film Phar Lap: Heart of a Nation (1983).

Woodcock had married Tasmanian-born Emma Jane Bone on 21 January 1931 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. A devoted couple, they did not have any children of their own, but cared for a number of children from broken homes. Following Emma’s death in 1983 Woodcock grieved privately but continued training until, later that year, he contracted pneumonia and retired to the farm of friends at Yarrawonga. In 1984 the Victoria Racing Club honoured him with a lifetime trainer’s badge and instituted the Tommy Woodcock trophy for the strapper of the winning horse in the Melbourne Cup.

On 27 April 1985 Woodcock died at Yarrawonga and was cremated after a funeral at St David’s Anglican Church, Moorabbin. A memoir edited by Jan Wositzky was published the following year, displaying Woodcock’s gifts as a storyteller in the Australian vernacular. In 1977 the Age journalist Sally Wilkins had described him as a ‘skinny little pixie of a man, white-haired and stubbly-chinned, with braces and a giddy-up gait’ but Woodcock was still photogenic. He was a non-drinker and non-gambler, whose first passion was always his horses.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Benson, Tommy Woodcock (1978)
  • J. Wositzky (ed), Tommy Woodcock 1905-1985 (1986)
  • G. Armstrong and P. Thompson, Phar Lap (2000)
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 October 1977, p 8
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 April 1985, p 36
  • ‘Phar Lap arsenic mystery solved’, 18 June 2008, Museum Victoria website (http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/mv-news/2008/phar-lap-arsenic-mystery-solved/, accessed 10 December 2010, copy held on ADB file)
  • Trainers’ records (Victoria Racing Club)

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Lemon, 'Woodcock, Aaron Treve (Tommy) (1905–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/woodcock-aaron-treve-tommy-14876/text26065, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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