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Phar Lap

Phar Lap, Australia's Wonder Horse.


Phar Lap’s list of race victories reads like a roll-call of Australia’s greatest races: Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate (twice), Victoria Derby, AJC Derby, Futurity Stakes, Chipping Norton Stakes, Underwood Stakes, Memsie Stakes, Rosehill Guineas, Craven Plate, VRC St Leger, Chelmsford Stakes. Add to that the world’s richest race (Agua Caliente Handicap) and a sad demise and you soon realize why Phar Lap inspired a movie in his honor and was a household name in Australian and abroad.

Phar Lap was born October 4th, 1926 in New Zealand before being sold as a yearling to David J. Davis, an American-born sportsman living in Australia, for 160 guineas. Davis’ first view of the giant 17.1 hand chestnut, whose name is Thai for “lightning”, was not a positive one. He had bought the colt based on his pedigree alone, and he had thought he was really getting a good bargain, until he saw the horse. Phar Lap arrived in Australia thin and rather clumsy, with an awkward gait. He also sported warts all over his big head.

Davis was quite angry about how Phar Lap looked and moved, and even angrier at the trainer Harry Telford, who had talked him into buying the horse. He decreed that he would not waste any more of his money by having the horse trained, and leased him to that same trainer. It would be Telford’s responsibility to pay for the training and feeding of Phar Lap, and then he would be able to keep two-thirds of the money that the horse won. Telford had long studied the pedigrees of racehorses, and felt that Phar Lap’s breeding was good enough that he had champion potential. He was gelded so that the young horse would better concentrate on his racing.

“Bobby”, Phar-Lap’s stable nickname, was attended by a stable boy called Tommy Woodcock. The horse was known to be a good natured prankster, and enjoyed playing little tricks on Woodcock. Phar Lap was so devoted to the stable boy that he would not eat unless Woodcock came to be in the stall with him.

Phar Lap got off to rather a slow start in racing, not placing at all in his first four races. Finally, on April 27th 1929, he won the Maiden Juvenile Handicap at Rosehill when ridden by 17 year-old apprentice Jack Baker. Once Phar Lap ran a strong second in the Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick on September 14 1929, he really began to get attention from the racing community as a whole. For the rest of his all too short life, Phar Lap would only fail to place one time, in the Melbourne Cup of 1931. His powerful leg muscles and strong heart were a credit to him as he won race after race, including 14 from 16 as a four year-old.

Phar Lap’s winning ways did not please everyone. On Derby Day, November 1 1930, someone tried to keep him from running the Melbourne Stakes by taking a shot at him. He was unhurt, thanks to the quick thinking of Tommy Woodcock, and went on to win the race that day. He also won the Melbourne Cup three days later despite a troublesome and delayed float trip. By the end of that week the horse nicknamed Big Red had survived a shotgun attack and won four races.

Phar Lap went to Mexico by ship with luxurious accommodation by equine standards to compete in the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap. Even though he had traveled such a long way, and also had an injured hoof, he won the race and proved to the racing world that he really was the wonder from Down Under.

Following that win Phar Lap next traveled to the United States. He was enjoying a spell at a private ranch in Menlo Park, California while his owner was busily negotiating more races for him. Early in the day on April 5, 1932, Tommy Woodcock discovered that Phar Lap looked and acted ill. He took the horse’s temperature, found it was elevated, and then discovered that the horse was in considerable. By midday Phar Lap began to hemorrhage and soon after died. Woodcock was inconsolable, throwing himself onto the horse’s body and sobbing.

Australians, Americans, and people around the world were shocked and stunned at the sudden death of Phar Lap. An autopsy was done, and it was discovered that the horse’s intestines and stomach were much inflamed, which led to the belief he had been poisoned. Rumors started to fly that Phar Lap had been poisoned deliberately. The ranch where he was staying had recently been sprayed with an insecticide that contained arsenic. It was also rumored that Tommy Woodcock had accidentally given the horse too much of a tonic that contained arsenic. Called Fowler’s Solution, it was given to horses in order to help them have an appetite. Scientists later confirmed that, whether intentional or not, Phar Lap almost certainly died from an overdose of arsenic.

Phar Lap still stands on display at the Melbourne Museum as a tribute to his greatness. The National Museum in Canberra has his big heart which weighs an amazing 6.2kg, almost double the size of a normal racehorse.


About the author: David Duffield provides horse racing tips, ratings, lay betting and sports tips that will help you turn into a winning punter. 

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