Horse Racing & Australian Identity

By National Portrait Gallery

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the great horse racing heroes from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

Billy Cook and Pride of Egypt (1954) by Ern McQuillanNational Portrait Gallery

Horse racing 

The first horses that came to Australia arrived on the Lady Penrhyn with the First Fleet in 1788 and thus began horse racing. Horse racing became well established in and around Sydney by 1810. The first official race was organised by officers of Governor Macquarie's 73rd Regiment and held at Hyde Park. Today thoroughbred racing is the third most attended spectator sport in Australia, behind Australian Rules Football and Rugby League.

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless (1977 (printed 2010)) by Bruce PostleNational Portrait Gallery

Tommy Woodcock, strapper and trainer had a lifelong fascination with horses, starting with the six in hand that his Dad used to drive for the Cobb and Co. Coach from Kempsey to Bellbrook.

Tommy is best known as the strapper for Australia's iconic champion thoroughbred, Phar Lap.

Before important races, Tommy would sleep outside Phar Lap’s stable.

Reputedly, Phar Lap would refuse food from anyone but Tommy.

The Age featured this photo of Woodcock and champion race horse Reckless on their front page celebrating the 1977 Melbourne Cup.

This portrait of an extraordinary relationship between a man and his horse was re-published in many international papers.

Bruce had to convince Tommy to let him take this photo. Bruce grabbed a lilo and headed to the stable and eventually Tommy relented.


The actions of Reckless in the image were a surprise. According to Bruce, without a word of a lie, he looked at Reckless and Reckless looked at him, and this big stallion dropped down and put his head on his chest.'

Blue Mountain (owner, trainer and jockey, James Scobie) (1887 - 1887) by Frederick Woodhouse SeniorNational Portrait Gallery

James Scobie, horse-trainer, worked as a horseboy and jockey in western Victoria, starting when he was ten.

At fifteen he rode his first metropolitan jumping winner, as stable rider for Robert Howie of Ballarat.

He was a determined but friendly rival, ‘a fearless and dashing horseman’ according to one account.

From 1882 to 1893 he trained and rode the winners of major horse jumping races, including the prestigious four-mile Grand National Steeplechase which he won in 1887 on his horse Blue Mountain, shown in this painting.

Scobie considered Blue Mountain to be ‘vile tempered’ but also ‘the best thing I ever had through my hands.’

Scobie continued training almost to his death. He won his eighth Victoria Derby in 1937 and fifth South Australian Jockey Club Derby in 1939.

The artist, Frederick Woodhouse Senior came to Australia in 1858 to establish himself as an equine portraitist. The colonial taste for sports such as racing and hunting had created demand for paintings of champion horses.

"Frank Wootton" (Image plate from Vanity Fair) (c. 1908) by Sir Leslie WardNational Portrait Gallery

When Frank Wootton was nine, his father judged him to be ready to race.

The family moved to South Africa to avoid Australia’s fourteen year old minimum race age.

Frank won his first race aged ten, winning 17 races by the time he was thirteen.

The family moved to England, where Frank was known as ‘Wonderboy’.

He became the first Australian to top the jockeys' premiership list. He was the champion jockey in four successive season…all before he was twenty.

When Frank became homesick a kangaroo was imported to his home which further increased his profile and awe with the British public.


'I keep a kangaroo in the garden and spar three rounds with it every morning before riding out.’

After war service Wootton returned to racing in 1920 but he had become too heavy to ride on the flat.

He turned to jumping where he showed skill and under National Hunt rules he won the riders' premiership

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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