There are many intriguing stories in horseracing but few have captured the hearts of racing fans more so than that of the mighty Phar Lap. Phar Lap dominated Australian racing during the early years of the Great Depression. More than 80 years after his untimely death, Phar Lap remains a legendary symbol of the Australian Turf.
Horse Trainer Harry Telford persuaded American businessman David Davis to buy Phar Lap at the Trentham Yearling Sales in New Zealand. Telford’s brother, Hugh, attended the sale and purchased the colt for a mere 160 guineas. They thought it was a great bargain until the horse arrived in Australia. He was big, gangly and his face was covered in warts. Phar Lap was so ugly that Davis refused to pay training fees on him. Telford agreed to train the horse for free in exchange for two thirds of Phar Lap’s winnings for the next three years.
As a two year old, Phar Lap was unplaced in his first four races before winning for the first time. Phar Lap began his three year old campaign with four races in August 1929 and in all of them was unplaced. In September, he finished 2nd in The Tattersall’s Chelmsford Stakes. By the end of his three year old year, in May of 1930, he raced an additional 15 times, winning 13 of them and placing 3rd in the other two. One of his third place finishes came in the Melbourne Cup.
EZ Horse Betting Fun Fact
Phar Lap’s name is actually a Thai word for lightning, farlap. The letters “ph” were substituted for the “f” because trainer Harry Telford wanted the name to have seven letters…
At four, Phar Lap raced in 16 events, winning 14 times and finishing second in the other two. One his wins was the coveted Melbourne Cup, in which he carried 138 pounds. In November 1930, Phar Lap accomplished an unimaginable feat at Flemington. He raced four times in eight days, winning all of them. What makes this feat even more amazing is that all four races were stakes events.
On November 1, 1930, the morning of the Melbourne Stakes, a gang of criminals tried to shoot Phar Lap while he was being led back to his stable after a workout. They missed and he won his race later that day.
When the mighty chestnut turned five he won eight races in a row. In his third attempt at the Melbourne Cup, he was assigned an impossible weight of 10 stone 10, equivalent to 150 pounds for the 2 mile race. The high weight was too much and Phar Lap finished eighth.
Phar Lap was then sent to Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap. His strapper (the name for a groom in Australia), Tommy Woodcock, went with him to North America as his trainer when Harry Telford refused to go. At that time, this race would have been the equivalent of the Breeder’s Cup Classic of modern racing. The Australian champion won in track record time.
Two weeks later, on April 5, 1932 while resting at Menlo Park, a private ranch in California, Phar Lap became very ill. He was running a high fever and was in severe pain. He succumbed to internal hemorrhaging later that day. Arsenic poisoning was suspected in the death of Phar Lap. Several studies have been done to try to determine what actually killed Phar Lap. One study done in 2000 by equine specialists claimed it was an acute bacterial gastroenteritis. However, in 2008, hair samples from Phar Lap’s mane were tested at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. The samples showed that he had received a massive dose of arsenic hours before his death.
The mighty horse’s heart was donated to the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, his skeleton to New Zealand’s National Museum in Wellington and his hide, stuffed by a New York City taxidermist, is in the Australia Gallery at Melbourne Museum.
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