Australia’s Greatest Race Horse – Phar Lap

In the annals of Australian horse racing there have been many great champions. Ajax, Archer, and Carbine are just a few of the horses that have distinguished themselves on the Australian turf. Of all these, one is remembered more than the rest. The legendary Phar Lap accounted for the best horse racing story to come out of the Australian continent.

Filled with dramatic twists and turns, the story of Phar Lap is one that all fans of Australian horse race betting should be familiar with. It is a story of highs and lows, and an ending that is still the subject of controversy today. Here are some fascinating things that you might not know about Phar Lap.

Horse Racing and the Great Depression Champions

The 1930s were an era of financial uncertainty in the United States and many other parts of the world. America was in dire straits following the stock market crash of the late 1920s. Many people had lost millions, and not only the rich were affected. People were out of work and had little or nothing to eat. At a time when the spirits were low, an unlikely source of hope was found in horse racing champions.


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In America there was Seabiscuit. Thousands of people would flock to the track whenever the horse ran to try and better their circumstances. The race track was the only place where you could possibly double your last dollar and buy food for a few days. Betting on Seabiscuit was almost a sure thing every time the horse competed.

Things were also difficult in Australia, and the continent had its own beacon of hope in a horse named Phar Lap. Foaled in New Zealand, Phar Lap was acquired by horse trainer Harry Telford who made the decision to race the horse in Australia. The horse’s name is Thai in origin. It means “sky flash” and was a befitting name for a horse that came out of the pack like lighting during his racing career.

Phar Lap was a chestnut gelding that had an impressive pedigree which included a sire that had produced another Melbourne Cup winner. Expectations for the horse were high. Phar Lap did not disappoint.

Criminals Try to Kill Phar Lap

From the very beginning Phar Lap was a success. He won easily in his early races. Everyone was pleased to see the horse run, and he became a favorite in Australia among the working class types that enjoyed horse racing.

Not everyone was thrilled. As the achievements of Phar Lap grew so did the desire of a criminal enterprise to silence the horse once and for all. On November 1, 1930, Phar Lap completed a morning workout in advance of the prestigious Melbourne Stakes race that very afternoon. As the horse was being returned to his stall, shots were fired from an unidentified gang of thugs. The criminals missed and Phar Lap escaped unscathed.

Even more impressive is that the trainer of Phar Lap did not withdraw the horse from the Melbourne Stakes that day. Phar Lap did indeed run in the race and won it in spectacular fashion. There has always been speculation that the attempted shooting was done in an effort to prevent the horse from winning the race. Many people stood to make a huge profit if Phar Lap lost the race to a rival with longer odds.

Phar Lap retuned to the race track just a few days later to capture the Melbourne Cup. Those responsible for the attempted shooting were never identified.

Phar Lap Comes to North America

Having conquered the biggest racing stages in Australia, a decision was made to ship the horse to North America where he would compete in Mexico. Phar Lap won the Agua Caliente Handicap in record time while carrying the most weight of any horse in the race. Plans were then made to embark upon the domination of the American racing curcuit.

Mystery and controversy would again surface in the life of Phar Lap. This time the horse was not so lucky. On April 5th, 1932, the groom of Phar Lap arrived at the barn to find the horse in sever distress. He was running a high fever and evidence severe pain. Only a few hours passed before Phar Lap was dead from an apparent bleeding in the intestines. Tests performed on the horse’s remains in 2000 seem to confirm this.

Other tests conducted in 2006, however, suggests that Phar Lap died from a dose of arsenic poisoning. It has been suggested that the poisoning may have been carried out on the orders of American gangsters with connections to the Mafia.

The hide and skeleton of Phar Lap have been preserved for racing fans in museums in Australia and New Zealand. Each year thousands of visitors come to the museums to view the remains of the great Australia horse race champion.

Why is Phar Lap Still so Popular?

When one looks at the accomplishments of Phar Lap in the overall context of horse racing, the emotions can be mixed. He was without question a great horse, but others from Australia were surely better. Black Caviar and other Australian race horses accomplished many amazing victories and made far more money than Phar Lap.

Perhaps the reason that Phar Lap endures as a memorable link with Australian horse racing has more to do with just his success on the track. People love a good story, and the horse has one that will not go away. To this day there are racing fans that try to puzzle out who may have been responsible for rhe attempts on the life of the horse.

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