May 19, 2024

Historical Cameo – Phar Lap

Originally appearing April 3, 2006

*Phar Lap — Australian National Hero

To commemorate the 74th anniversary of the untimely death of *Phar Lap, we
salute the mighty performer whose exploits gripped much of the English-speaking
world. His exotic name, Thai for “lightning,” aptly summed him up, for his sheer
power suggested a force of nature. Hailed as the best horse to race in Australia
for decades, perhaps for all time, Phar Lap successfully invaded North America
and thrashed a solid group of rivals in the 1932 Agua Caliente H. The strapping
chestnut never got the chance to build on this sensational debut or face the
cream of America’s crop, as he tragically died just two weeks later in
circumstances that many regarded as suspicious. Given such a dramatic plot, it’s
no surprise that his extraordinary career has formed the subject of books as well as a
marvelous film.

Foaled in New Zealand on October 4, 1926, Phar Lap was sired by the
English-bred Night Raid, an unalloyed failure as a racehorse on two continents,
and produced by Entreaty (Winkie), a mare who had little to recommend her. As a
yearling, Phar Lap went through the sales ring at Trentham in New Zealand.

Divining inordinate promise in that pedigree on the catalog page,
Australian-based trainer Harry Telford convinced a client, American-born
David J. Davis, to buy the gangly chestnut. The winning bid, from Davis’ agent,
was a modest 160 guineas. In analyzing the pedigree, Telford likely looked beyond the
nonentities up front and seized upon the potent influences deeper within. Among
those key factors was Australia’s own legendary Carbine, a superstar in 1890. It was widely thought that no horse could ever come close to Carbine’s
achievements, but in a few short years, the unheralded yearling, a descendant of
Carbine, would shatter that consensus.

Phar Lap hardly started off on the right foot. His owner categorically
rejected him when first laying eyes on his purchase, and the financially
strapped trainer salvaged the situation by arranging terms to lease the horse
from Davis. Because the colt was already rather big, Telford had him gelded.
An unfurnished two-year-old, Phar Lap did not make his debut until the fall and
finished off the board in his first four starts, finally breaking his maiden in
an ordinary six-furlong handicap. He was then put away for the winter, and when
returning early in his three-year-old season, he turned in three straight
unplaced efforts.

Despite his charge’s backward phase, Telford sensed something special in Phar
Lap and believed that he could have uncommon ability. Telford’s view found some
measure of vindication in the Warwick S., in which Phar Lap got up for fourth in
a deep and talented field, and even more so in the important nine-furlong Chelmsford S., in which Phar Lap charged late and just failed to catch the winner by a half-length. The
correspondent for the 1929 British Bloodstock Review (BBR) noted that he
was a “very long strider,” a distinctive trait that would be mentioned time and
again by admiring observers over the course of his career.

After flashing talent in the Warwick and the Chelmsford, Phar Lap finally put it all together
with four straight scores in six weeks, all dominating victories in major
contests. He captured the nine-furlong Rosehill Guineas by three emphatic
lengths, equaling the race record time, “with consummate ease,” in the BBR’s
phrase. Stepping up in trip to 12 furlongs in the AJC (Sydney) Derby, he
“completely overshadowed his 10 opponents” and “strode home at his leisure”
while setting a new race record. Phar Lap followed up four days later with a
stunning success in the 10-furlong Craven Plate against older horses. Back at 12
furlongs in the VRC Victoria Derby, he “strode home the easiest of winners”
while establishing another race-record time.

Three days after that last sensational performance, Phar Lap was sent off as the
heavy favorite in the two-mile Melbourne Cup, Australia’s signature prize, often
dubbed “the race that stops a nation.”  Piloted by Bobby Lewis when his
regular rider Jim Pike couldn’t make the weight, Phar Lap fought his new
partner’s restraint. Lewis, who was only following the trainer’s instructions,
realized that he had to give the big gelding his head. After compromising his
chances with the early tussling, Phar Lap had nothing left when the classy older
closer Nightmarch attacked, and the young three-year-old wound up third.

In a case of famous last words, the BBR suggested that, in light of his Cup
defeat, “There is the possibility he is not a true stayer.” This
embarrassingly off-base conjecture should remind us that it’s not wise to make pronouncements about a
horse’s ability or aptitude before he is fully developed and physically mature.

Phar Lap was then freshened over the summer. He had formed a profound
personal attachment to his stable boy and constant companion, “Tommy” Woodcock,
and there is no shortage of vignettes about their poignant relationship. One
story has it that his charge wouldn’t eat without Tommy. During this summer of
rest and recreation in the country, Woodcock later said, Phar Lap strengthened
up magnificently.

Returning to action in the fall, he narrowly dropped his first start off the
layoff, but Phar Lap then reeled off nine prestigious stakes wins in a row in a
span of about 10 weeks. Along the way, he broke three race records, smashed a track
mark, and in arguably his most brilliant effort, he
destroyed his Melbourne Cup conqueror Nightmarch by 10 lengths in the 2 1/4-mile
AJC Plate. His final time of 3:49 1/2 shattered the Randwick track mark by 6 1/2
seconds and took a full second off the Australian/New Zealand record for the
distance. It was an electrifying performance, as the unearthly chestnut had
sprinted from the start, setting an impossible pace that ran his foes ragged,
with even his split-times reportedly breaking records. Phar Lap amazingly kept
motoring until his rider wrapped up on him, and he sauntered through the

The 1930 BBR termed him “a phenomenal racing machine,” adding that, “This
series of successes caused amazement, not because they were so numerous and so
profitable, but because of the way Phar Lap dominated his opponents.”
Photographs bolster this verdict, showing Phar Lap jogging up to the line with
ears pricked as his pursuers are straining their utmost. He was equally
effective running over left-handed or right-handed courses, fast going or bog.
No wonder he was dubbed the “Red Terror.”

At four, he reached the peak of his powers, stringing together 14 consecutive
stakes victories. Five of those incredibly came within a week, during the
Melbourne spring carnival.
Moreover, in winning the Melbourne Cup under 138 pounds, he did what even
Carbine failed to do when he was a four-year-old. Phar Lap could not repeat the
following year at five, lumbering an unheard-of 150 pounds, at least in part
because he was physically not right and headed to the sidelines thereafter.
Before that setback, he had won his other eight starts as a five-year-old and
established another Australian/New Zealand record of 2:02 1/2 for 1 1/4 miles.

The American expatriate Davis, who had agreed to let the trainer buy a share of the horse
after the lease expired, insisted on an American campaign for his star. His wishes prevailed over the trainer’s uneasiness about a trans-Pacific
assault, and his first target was the rich Agua Caliente H. in Tijuana.

The great gelding duly boarded ship and after a voyage of a little more than
two weeks, arrived in San Francisco on January 15, 1932. Among his entourage was
the indispensable Tommy, who remarked that his charge handled the trip “like an
old sea dog.” Acting as trainer with Telford remaining behind in Australia,
Tommy prepared his charge for the March 20 contest, his first race since the
Melbourne Cup the previous November and his dirt debut.

The American racing press was not altogether overcome with enthusiasm for the
invader. Writing in The Thoroughbred Record, “Roamer” questioned Phar Lap
and opined that the Agua Caliente publicity department was hyping the horse in
advance of the track’s marquee race. The Blood Horse was of a similar
view, saying that it “sides with many
horsemen in the belief that class in Australia is not class in America.”

Shouldering top weight of 129 pounds, Phar Lap delivered a powerful rebuttal
to these charges on race day under Australian rider Billy Elliott. Lobbing along toward
the rear in the early going, Elliott steered his mount to the far outside to
keep him in the clear. About halfway down the backstretch, he turned the huge
chestnut loose, and Phar Lap rocketed from a distant sixth to first, opening up a
three-length lead. Elliott then tapped the breaks to give him a breather on the
far turn. Reveille Boy, carrying only 118, loomed up boldly entering the stretch
and may have just poked his head in front, but as soon as Elliott asked for a
second burst, Phar Lap responded, striding right away to post a 2-length victory
in a track-record time of 2:02 4/5 for 1 1/4 miles.

Although the Agua Caliente did not feature such American heavyweights as the
brilliant champion Equipoise or reigning Horse of the Year Twenty Grand, Phar
Lap had well and truly dusted a couple of stalwarts in the handicap ranks.
Reveille Boy already had very respectable form to his credit and would go on to
capture the prestigious Merchants and Citizens H. at Saratoga later that year.
Spanish Play, who finished eighth, was a multiple stakes winner whom esteemed
turf authority John Hervey regarded as “high class.”

The American media now raved about the Australian superstar.

The Thoroughbred Record recap was glowing. “Truly a super-horse is
Phar Lap,” it said, adding, “only a prejudiced judge…would fail to admit Phar
Lap is a horse of the highest class.”

The Blood Horse summary struck the same chord. Observing that the
mighty gelding “toyed with his field,” it stated, “It is now apparent that Phar
Lap is a horse of such caliber that he will be at home among American horses of
the highest class.”

In his magisterial Racing in America, 1922-1936, Hervey wrote that the
Agua Caliente performance “proclaimed him all if not more than he had been
represented,” and marveled that Phar Lap “progressed by a series of prodigious

Present that day were two future Hall of Famers, both awe-struck — jockey Eddie Arcaro and astute horseman Charlie

Soon after, Phar Lap traveled back to Menlo Park, California, for a break.
His career mark stood at 37 wins, three seconds and two thirds from 51 starts.
He ranked as the all-time leading money winner in Australia/New Zealand, and he
was closing in on the world title, with The Blood Horse listing his
earnings as $332,250 at that time. Except for his eighth in the Melbourne Cup
under staggering weight when not at his best, all of his other unplaced efforts
were at two and early in his three-year-old year.

The jubilant Davis entered into negotiations for a movie deal, and racetracks
were clamoring to host specials pitting the Australian wonder against the best
America had to offer. Famed Churchill Downs impresario Col. Matt Winn was
planning to lure top-flight Europeans as well and make it a global spectacle.

Such future hopes, brimming with promise, were cruelly dashed when Phar Lap
was stricken on April 5. His first signs of intestinal distress were followed by
a rapid downward spiral, and veterinary treatment brought the great one no
relief from his suffering. Within hours, he was dead.

The tragedy elicited poignant responses.

“He was to have been, we thought, to racing in America what Babe Ruth is to
baseball, what Bobby Jones was to golf, what Bill Tilden is to tennis, and what
Knute Rockne was to football,” Roy Carruthers was quoted as saying in The
Blood Horse.

“Kildare” penned a poem for the The Thoroughbred Record — “Two weeks
ago in Mexico / We saw him canter in, / And now to think that he is dead, / It
almost seems a sin.”

In The Blood Horse, turf writer J. A. Estes was moved to verse as
well. In part, his poem reads, “I never saw one like him; never one / That
looked like Phar Lap; that could run / And break their hearts, and run again, /
And come home fresh as summer rain.”

As the news broke, speculation was rife in Australia that the gelding had
been deliberately poisoned. Conspiracy theories seemed all the more plausible
because unknown assailants had shot at Phar Lap two years before, on the morning
of his Melbourne S. victory in 1930, and it was widely thought that nefarious
bookmakers were behind it. While the 1931 BBR dismissed the incident as a
journalists’ prank that was never a serious criminal enterprise, it was
unnerving for the gelding’s connections, who surrounded him with armed guards,
and the public.

Another long-held hypothesis was that Phar Lap had accidentally ingested a
toxic substance when grazing in an area that had just been sprayed.

In their lavishly illustrated and meticulously detailed Phar Lap
(Allen & Unwin, 2000), Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson persuasively settle
the vexed question of his demise. The great gelding’s symptoms are consistent with a disease that had not even been identified until the 1980s, Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis, or severe intestinal inflammation. The authors
note that travel stress is often a trigger for the disease, another factor that
fits Phar Lap’s case.

As the 1932 BBR phrased it, his death was regarded “almost as a national
calamity” in Australia. While it is often noted that his phenomenal career
coincided with the bleakest days of the Great Depression, giving the proverbial
man on the street an underdog to cheer, it should also be remembered that
Australia was still a relatively new nation at that time. Coming along a decade
or so after the heroic
service of Australian/New Zealand troops in the First World War, Phar Lap also
boosted national pride and reinforced a shared sense of identity.

Like a precious saint’s relic, Phar Lap’s corpse was too much of a treasure
to reside in only one place. His hide, skillfully preserved by a New York
taxidermist and looking quite life-like, is on display at Museum Victoria
in Melbourne, Australia. His skeleton was handed over to New Zealand, so that
nation may have its due as his native land. And his massive heart, reportedly weighing
considerably more than an ordinary Thoroughbred’s with a left ventricle twice as
thick, is preserved in Canberra. Appropriately, the heart of the Australian hero
lies in repose in Australia’s capital.

Although Phar Lap will always belong in a special way to Australia, and New
Zealand, he has joined racing’s pantheon, and so he belongs to us all.