In horse racing there are certain names that when mentioned, you know exactly what horse is being spoken of. Say the name Phar Lap and the image of a large chestnut gelding that was born in New Zealand, made famous in Australia by winning all the big races, and died via mysterious circumstances in the U.S. immediately comes to mind. Phar Lap is one of a handful of racing legends that transcends the sport to non racing people. His story is a tale of folklore and fact that has reached beyond the boundaries of racing.
Phar Lap has been written about by many of the great writers of the turf for over eight decades. A very fine movie, perhaps my favourite racing related movie of all time, has also told of his legend. This article is not intended to uncover anything new, or to point fingers, or comment and create new hypothesis of a legend that lived over eighty years ago. No this article is a retrospective appreciation of his accomplishments, which are incredible, and an awe encompassing look at an immortal of the turf. There has been only one Phar Lap, we are not worthy of another.
Born of average breeding by the standards of the times, Phar Lap was bred by Alick F. Roberts at his Seadown Stud in Timaru, on the South Island in New Zealand. The chestnut son of Night Raid – Entreaty by Winkie entered the world on October 4, 1926. He was a large gangly colt and not very attractive, and did not generate much interest.
Sydney based trainer Harry Telford was looking through the Trentham Yearling Sales catalogue when he spotted the Night Raid – Entreaty colt and liked his pedigree. Telford was a struggling trainer on the circuit and could not afford the glittering pedigrees on offer. He would look farther back in the pedigree, looking for the names that he thought were of consequence. The colt had Galopin 5x6x5 in his lineage. Two of those crosses were through his legendary son St. Simon. There was also a 5×5 in breed to the well respected Musket in this pedigree. Taking into account that Night Raid was a grandson of both Bend Or and Spearmint, the latter was sired by the legendary Australian champion Carbine, the back class of Phar Lap’s pedigree was superb.
Telford instructed his bloodstock agent brother Hugh to purchase the colt at the sale, but to not go over one hundred and eighty guineas. Telford had also spoken to client Dave Davis about the colt, who agreed to back the venture. Hugh Telford was able to get the colt for one hundred and sixty guineas. Harry though it was a fortunate stroke of luck. The colt was boarded on a ship and sent to Sydney.
When the big chestnut yearling arrived at Sydney docks, Harry Telford was shocked. The colt looked in an awful state. He had warts covering his face and was somewhat emancipated. He did possess a large frame, which Telford liked, and a good disposition.
When Harry brought him to the training yard he found that his new acquisition had an awkward gait. Upon first sight Davis was furious. He refused to pay for his training and wanted to sell at any cost. Telford had faith however and talked Davis into a lease arrangement in which the owner would receive one third of the winnings while Harry covered his up keep and everything else. The deal was for three years.
Telford had not named the colt when he began a training regimen. One of the lads under his employ was strapper Tommy Woodcock. Grooms or handlers in Australia are referred to as a strapper. Woodcock became the strapper for the colt and gave him the nick name “Bobby”. Woodcock formed a close bond with the colt. Tommy and Bobby would become an inseparable pair.
Bobby however was not a name that Telford wanted in a racing program. He wanted a seven letter two word moniker because he felt that was the right kind of name for a Melbourne Cup winner. Since Dave Davis had no interest in the colt, Telford chose the name Phar Lap, which was a hybridized version of farlap, a Thai word that means lightning. The name would soon become a lightning rod synonym for success. The colt still however answered to Bobby when his buddy Tommy called to him.
Harry Telford had Phar Lap gelded, for reasons that are unclear today. Perhaps it was because he was so large, or that his not very fashionable immediate pedigree dictated that he would not be a well received stallion prospect, or that Telford simply wanted Phar Lap to concentrate on racing and not be pre-occupied with the ladies. Regardless the reason Phar Lap would not have the chance to procreate.
It took a while for Phar Lap to find himself as a race horse. He ran unplaced in his first four starts, but won the final race of his two year old season. He came back as a three year old with another sluggish beginning as he was again unplaced in his first four races. After placing second in the Chelmsford Stakes to the good colt Mollison, Phar Lap began to get a good understanding as to what was needed to become a winning racer.
Phar Lap had won only once in his first nine starts. Beginning with the Rosehill Guineas and then the AJC Derby, Phar Lap was now on his way to embark on a career unprecedented in Australian racing history. He also had acquired the riding services of Jim Pike, one of the leading jockeys of the time in Australia. As with many large late developers, Phar Lap was able to coordinate his long limbs into a smooth action that generated ground devouring speed. Combined with his powerful muscle structure, Phar Lap became an imposing sight at full gallop.
Bobby won two more races in succession, the Craven Plate and the VRC Derby. Telford entered him in the Melbourne Cup, the famous national party that centers on the two mile race. Phar Lap finished third to Nightmarch, another son of Night Raid that had become a leading handicapper in Australia. Following another third place in the St. George Stakes to Amounis, Phar Lap won the next nine races to complete his three year old season. Amounis and Nightmarch were among the vanquished a few times during this skein of victories.
Given a holiday along the southern shores of Australia, Phar Lap came out for his four year old debut in the Warwick Stakes of eight furlongs finishing second to Amounis. That would be the last non victory until the final race of the seasonal campaign. Fourteen races in a row fell to “The Red Terror” as he was known to the Australian public. The press, which had been so dismissive of Phar Lap when he was young, had now become his greatest ally.
Phar Lap was adored by the racing public. He represented a ray of hope during the economic upheaval known as the great depression during his rise to fame. During this latest win streak he consistently defeated Nightmarch, Amounis, Tregilla and Second Wind. He was not popular with bookmakers or with the racing officials who owned the horses he dominated. The weight he was assigned to carry increased substantially. At weight for age he was unbeatable. In handicaps he was approaching unbeatable. He won with as much as 143 lbs on his back.
During the streak when Phar Lap was preparing for the Melbourne Cup, he came close to being a victim of nefarious intent. Woodcock was aboard a lead pony and bringing Bobby back from a training session when a mysterious car began to follow them. A gun emerged from the vehicle and fired a single shot toward the threesome and then sped off. Thankfully the bullet missed Tommy Woodcock, Phar Lap and the lead pony. This led Davis and Telford into taking precautionary measures. Phar Lap was sent away to a place unknown to the press and public, later to be revealed as St. Albans Stud near Geelong, while guards were hired for the horse and the key personal in Phar Lap’s life.
There was more drama to unfold in this story. Phar Lap and Tommy were to be vanned on the morning of the Melbourne Cup from St. Albans to Flemington. However the van sustained engine trouble and was late arriving at the race course. Phar Lap got there less than an hour before the start of the race. Despite the hasty arrival, Phar Lap won the great race impressively carrying nine stone twelve (138 lbs). He carried fourteen pounds more than runner up Second Wind and twenty-two pounds more than the third place finisher. This win was cheered wildly by the fans in attendance, and is considered as his greatest victory.
At the end of the four year old campaign, the lease arrangement between Harry Telford and Dave Davis had expired. Davis sold a fifty percent share in the gelding to Telford, but from now on Phar Lap would race in the red and green colours of Davis instead of the red, black and white colours of Harry Telford. Nothing else changed as far as Bobby was concerned.
Phar Lap began the season with an eight race winning streak. As the streak continued, weight was piled on his back increasingly. By the time the 1931 Melbourne Cup arrived, the published weights shocked every racing journalist in the country, as well as Phar Lap’s army of fans. Ten stone ten (150 lbs) was assigned to the champion. This unprecedented impost has never been assigned for a two mile race before or since. Unfair, preposterous, and outright villainous were the words used by the press and public pertaining to the weight assignment.
Davis and Telford felt obligated to start Phar Lap in the race, even though the impost meant certain defeat and could even hurt their star. Bobby put in a valiant effort but the huge weight took its toll and he faded to eighth place at the finish line. Steamed with the VRC for the impossible weight piled on Phar Lap, Davis then accepted an offer to bring the big chestnut to North America and start him in the new, and very lucrative Agua Caliente Handicap at the track with the same name located just south of the Mexico/United States border.
There was much to take into consideration for such an adventure. First off, Phar Lap would be entering the northern hemisphere spring time, and not the autumn of the south which his biological clock would be indicating to his system. Second, the race was to be run on a hard sun baked dirt track, which is a surface he was totally unfamiliar with. Third he would be eating different meals and grazing different grass when turned out.
Plans were made for Phar Lap to make the long oceanic voyage to San Francisco months ahead of the race. Another change for Phar Lap was that Harry Telford decided to stay in Australia with his stable and did not travel to America. Tommy Woodcock was named as Phar Lap’s new trainer. This was a logical choice, since Bobby was closer to Tommy than any other human. A short voyage across the Tasman Sea aboard the Ulimaroa to New Zealand was followed by the long journey aboard the Monowai across the Pacific to San Francisco. Three months worth of food and hay came along the voyage, as well as Dave Davis and his wife Bea, Woodcock, jockey Billy Elliott, veterinarian Bill Neilson and strapper Cashy Martin. A sand pit, which was one of Bobby’s favourite leisure pastimes, was also installed for the long voyage.
The combination of arriving off an extended trip to the cool North California weather, and then take an eight hundred mile van ride to the heat of the Mexican desert a week later would sap the strength of any animal. Phar Lap took it all in stride. He developed a foot injury while acclimating to the different track conditions at Aqua Caliente, and there was a fear he may not be ready for his North American début. Track management billed Phar Lap as “The World’s Greatest Galloper” and promoted the race through his participation.
The race was pure Phar Lap magic. Slowly away at the start, Phar Lap got his powerful motion in gear along the back straight and blew past the field around the far turn. He opened up a three length lead. When Reveille Boy, carrying eleven less pounds, made a serious charge down the home stretch to get to the champion’s neck, Phar Lap just kicked in another gear and pulled away for a two length win at the finish line. The performance was eye opening, to say the least. Phar Lap had been everything the advanced press had said about him.
However there was a fear that the dominating performance was not appreciated by all in attendance. Racing in America during the early thirties had a well known seedy underbelly that had criminal elements attached. High stakes gamblers were known to associate with such sketchy individuals. While this was generally a nudge nudge, wink wink type of identification, there was always a more than normal but less than obvious finger pointing to such activity. To have a horse come from outside the realm and dominate so easily, the system would be sent into chaos, and chaos was widely avoided by such elements looking to control the proceedings in their favour.
Phar Lap was taken back across the border to California immediately following his smashing display. His destination was Edward Perry’s Atherton Ranch at Menlo Park near Tanforan. News of Phar Lap’s win at Agua Caliente spread across the American papers like wild fire. Plans were being hatched as to organizing races against many of the elite American horses such as Twenty Grand and Equipoise. Fans flocked to Menlo Park to visit “The Red Terror” and came away impressed with his grand size and genial personality.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Sixteen days after his masterful victory in Mexico, the news wires reported that the great Phar Lap was dead. The date was April 5, 1932. Since that day there have been reports, articles, interviews and speculation as to the exact cause of the great champion’s demise. When the autopsy showed that arsenic was found in his system, the press went wild with accusations that Phar Lap had been poisoned. Counter reports stating that there was not enough arsenic to kill the horse have been published. Back and forth the press has debated the death of Phar Lap, which still goes on to this day. No one knows for sure, but there does seem to be more evidence toward the poisoning theory than not. The fact is, a great horse died at the age of five in his prime, whether by accident, disease or nefariously, and was taken away from the fans who adored him.
The saddest part was that Tommy Woodcock held Bobby’s head in his lap when the big gelding passed away. He had been frantically trying to help his friend, but the pain Phar Lap was enduring overcame the horse. Woodcock was inconsolable for a long time.
Phar Lap’s body was brought back to Australia. A national mourning for the fallen hero took place. Phar Lap was more than a great race horse, he was a cultural icon. He brought hope to a country that at the time needed something positive to cheer about. Phar Lap’s long ground devouring stride, his ability to carry huge weight on his back over a distance of ground and his breath taking motion when at full speed captivated even the most skeptical of equine followers. Phar Lap was a legend in his own time.
The heart of Phar Lap is now on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and has been weighed at fourteen pounds, almost twice the weight of an average thoroughbred’s heart. His body hide was sent for taxidermy and is now on display at the Australia Gallery at Melbourne Museum, while Phar Lap’s skeleton is on view in Wellington at the Te Papa Museum. The pride of place Phar Lap holds in Australia is unequalled by any other horse in the world.
When looking at Phar Lap one can see where his physical dominance comes from. He stood a massive 17.1 hands, had powerful hind quarters with well pronounced croup, gaskins and thighs. His cannons were straight and thick and he had great length from hip to hock. He had fine sloping shoulders indicative of outstanding stayers. Bobby girthed at seventy-nine inches and had a strong straight neck. His head was considered plain, but it belied a fierce competitiveness from this gentle giant.
There were many names of endearment attached to Phar Lap. Woodcock called him Bobby, Dave Davis referred to him as “Big Fellow’, Jim Pike called him “Old Boy”, and the American press dubbed Phar Lap, “The Wonder Horse”. Turf writer Charles Hatton once said of Phar Lap “He doesn’t run, he bounds. If he had been able to face Twenty Grand or Equipoise over a good distance of ground, the Australian would be the first past the finish line every time”.
His remarkable record is even more impressive when one considers what he accomplished following his apprenticeship as a two year old and early in his three year old season. After his one for nine beginning to his career, Phar Lap won thirty-six races from forty-one starts. He finished second or third twice each. The only race in which he did not finish in the money was the 1931 Melbourne Cup when he was required to carry 150 lbs in the two mile race.
Another remarkable facet to Phar Lap is his enduring popularity with the Australian, and to some extent the world at large. His legacy of domination and affection seemingly undiminished over time. Here I am writing about a horse I never saw, but have read about all my life. I have enjoyed a movie depicting his story and I am still admiring his feats of accomplishment some eighty years after the fact. It is horses such as Phar Lap that fuel the passions for the sport among us. One of the most astute horsemen I have admiration for is Charlie Whittingham, who was present at Agua Caliente for Phar Lap’s only race outside Australia. This is what he had to say.
“I never got to see Man O’ War. But he’d have to be a helluva horse to be better than Phar Lap”
(Illustration of Phar Lap by Richard Stone Reeves)