Even the small majority of Australians who claim ignorance and disinterest in the sport of thoroughbred racing are familiar with the name Phar Lap.
The story of this champion is so compelling that it became the basis of a successful motion picture. A two-hour movie, however, could not begin to cover all the elements that went into the making of this legend. Therefore, even though his story has been told in much more detail than we intend to offer here, we thought it would be appropriate to have a look at what some consider as being the greatest horse ever to set hoof on the Australian turf.
David Davis and Harry Telford owned Phar Lap. The name derives from a word common to the Zhuang and Thai languages used for lightning that translated literally, means ‘sky flash.’ Reliable sources suggest that a University of Sydney medical student named Aubrey Ping conceived the name.
Ping’s idea for the horse’s name was ‘farlap,’ which Telford, who eventually handled training duties, liked, but modified to make one letter longer, and then split in two to more closely mimic the tendency of the time that saw many Melbourne Cup winners employ two-word names. The chestnut colt was also known as ‘Red Terror,’ ‘Bobby’ and ‘Big Red,’ due to his hide colour and considerable 17-hand height. An indication of the influence this horse created was that years later, great American racehorses Man o’ War and Secretariat were referred to as ‘Big Red.’
Phar Lap was foaled on the southern island of New Zealand on 4 October 1926. His sire was Night Raid. This horse made 35 jumps, but had nothing other than two wins and one third-place finish. Night Raid’s greatest contribution to the sport would be Phar Lap, along with 12 other stakes race winners, including a second Melbourne Cup winner, Nightmarch. Phar Laps’s dame was Entreaty, that only raced on one occasion, but did produce Fortune’s Wheel, the mare that formed the bloodline that led to Sunline. Both sides, sire and dam, of Phar Lab’s bloodline had some DNA from none other than Carbine.
Telford persuaded Davis to purchase Phar Lap sight unseen at the 1928 Trentham Yearling Sales. Davis was extremely disappointed when he first laid eyes on the colt, even refusing to pay for training. Telford, lacking the credentials to enjoy success as a trainer, was reduced to making a deal forgoing pay for training Phar Lap in order to receive two-thirds of any prize money the horse could produce.
That arrangement proved very beneficial for Telford, because Phar Lap would make 51 starts for 37 wins and 5 placings. Had either Telford or Davis known that, it is unlikely that they would have gelded the stallion and given up any future stud fees. Since Phar Lap died of an overdose of arsenic before the conclusion of his racing career, the propriety of the decision turned out to be moot.
Phar Lap did not initially offer much potential. He won only one event as two-year-old, ridden by an apprentice, after finishing dead last in his first race. He was being run as a sprinter, which is often the case with young horses.
He came back as a three-year-old, but did not offer much hope. He failed to place in his first four races. Seeking solutions, his handlers made the observation that he liked to chase down the pack, so they began instructing his hoops to rein him in at the beginning of races. They also began trying him at increased distances. The rest, as they say, is history.
Phar Lap immediately took a second, and then won four consecutive, including the AJC Derby over 12 furlongs. Due to his intimidating size, he was already being given close to 54 kg. He ran third in the Melbourne Cup that year, coming in behind the winner Nightmarch, his half-brother.
Nine consecutive victories followed. He won the SAJC King’s Cup over 12 furlongs whilst carrying 9.5 stone. He had at the conclusion of his three-year-old campaign made 25 jumps for 14 wins, 1 second and 1 third place finish.
As good as was the conclusion of Phar Lap’s three-year-old season, he made it look paltry with his accomplishments as a four-year-old. He had nothing less than a second place, with 14 consecutive wins. First up was a second in the Warwick Stakes, where he dropped down to 8 furlongs. Then came four wins in a row. The lead up to that year’s Melbourne Cup saw gangsters attempt to assassinate Phar Lap on 1 November. Undaunted, Phar Lap several hours later won the Melbourne Stakes, and won the Melbourne Cup three days later.
At five, Phar Lap showed no signs of slacking his pace. He won 9 of 10 starts, with his only loss being the 1931 Melbourne Cup where he was compelled to carry 10st 10lbs, five pounds more than the previous burden placed on Carbine in 1890. He finished a dismal eighth. It was to be his last race in Australia. He was shipped to Mexico to take place in the Agua Caliente in pursuit of the largest purse that had ever been offered in North America. Phar Lap won and set a track record, despite suffering from a serious hoof injury. It was his last race.
Early on the morning of 5 April 1932, Phar Lap was seen to be in serious difficulty by his strapper. He died within hours after bleeding to death internally. Various theories emerged over the years as to the exact cause of death.
The latest to gain credibility, even though no hard evidence exists, is that American gangsters looking to protect their bookies poisoned him.
The legacy Phar Lap left behind has carried on far beyond the six years of his life. He came along at a time when the public was eager for a distraction from the hardships of the Great Depression. He was immortalised in a 1983 movie that is must-see for horse racing fans, animal lover, and anyone with any hint of interest in Australian culture.