A Melbourne Cup Special

Bro Tommy Woodcock

From WBro D Hudson (with excellent help from WBro Ben Quick of UGLV and his father Robin Quick)

Freemason Tommy Woodcock with Phar Lap

Brother Tommy Woodcock with Phar Lap

A Freemason, Aaron Treve "Tommy" Woodcock MBE (1905-1985), is synonymous with the Melbourne Cup and a great winner of that race; the famous horse Phar Lap.

Appearing on many Famous Australian Freemasons lists, Bro Woodcock has never met the burden of proof to be included in mine – until today. WBro Ben Quick of UGLV has been able to confirm Bro Tommy Woodcock’s membership of Freemasonry with Primary Evidence which he’s just emailed me. Too timely with the 2016 Cup run yesterday, I’ve slotted an extra two pages into Devotion News to report on this important confirmation. "Tommy" Woodcock was handler, and later trainer, of the famous racehorse Phar Lap. Woodcock was Initiated 11 Nov 1943, Passed 11 May 1944 & Raised 10 May 1945 in Smithfield Lodge 414 under United Grand Lodge of Victoria. Bro Woodcock’s Grand Lodge Certificate is number 111,197.

There is a strong Collingwood Masonic Centre link here –Smithfield met there until it handed its Warrant in 1995. Records show that Woodcock had remained a member of Smithfield until his death. He would have been initiated in the same Lodge Room that Lodge Devotion members are and eaten in the same room we do, probably signing in on the same table we still use. Bro Quick’s father, Robin Quick was an apprentice jockey under Woodcock and told Ben that Woodcock owned Phar Lap’s blankets and bridle which were only used for the best horses under his care. In 1979 Woodcock donated several of his personal mementos of Phar Lap to Museum Victoria.

Born in 1905, Tommy Woodcock was apprenticed as a jockey at twelve. Although lean, it was clear by his late teens that he was growing too tall. Instead, he applied his placid nature and natural affinity with horses to the business of caring for them.

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. From then on, Tommy and Phar Lap were virtually inseparable. Before big races, Woodcock would sleep outside Phar Lap's stable, and it was said that Phar Lap refused food from anyone but Tommy. 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. Some months later, Woodcock recognised the shooter at the races !

Phar Lap with Tommy Woodcock, Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Nov 1931. I love the way in these photos, Woodcock is always smiling at his equestrian friend

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. Phar Lap’s owner David Davis appointed Woodcock to train the horse for the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap, held at a gambling resort in Tijuana, Mexico. Phar Lap’s win in the race was the richest race of his career and was hailed as his greatest triumph; but just two weeks later on 5 April the gelding sickened and died in Woodcock’s arms in California. Despite autopsies, the cause of death was keenly debated for decades. Scientific tests in 2008 sponsored 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. The reticent Woodcock always harboured a sense of responsibility for the horse’s death but always discounted theories that Phar Lap was intentionally poisoned.

After Phar Lap’s death, Woodcock accepted stable work in America but had to return home to Australia due to American 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 stables at Mentone, relocating to nearby Mordialloc in 1961. Woodcock achieved success for loyal clients, notably (Sir) Reginald Ansett who is also reported in this edition as a Famous Australian Freemason. Woodcock 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.

Brother Tommy Woodcock died at Yarrawonga on 27 April 1985, aged 79, where he was cared for in his last years by his lifelong friends, the Hinchliffe family. His cremated remains were interred at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Melbourne.

Next time you are at Gipps Street, take a moment to reflect on this Famous Australian Freemason who climbed the exact stairs the Freemasons of today do and who, despite arising every morning at 4 am to care for horses, still attended evening meetings at Smithfield Lodge.

Above, the official United Grand Lodge Victoria membership record showing Aaron Treve "Tommy" Woodcock MBE (1905-1985) was a Freemason and member of Smithfield Lodge which met at the Collingwood Masonic Centre.

Special thanks to WBro Ben Quick of UGLV.
’ve drawn heavily on several sources for historical detail, particularly;

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 2 November 2016.

1936 'PHAR LAP MEMORIES: No. 12. ATTEMPTED SHOOTING', The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), 31 October, p. 6. , viewed 02 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30120190

Freemason Tommy Woodcock Masonic Record Card