Phar Lap – The Sad End Of Australia’s Greatest Race Horse

In the history of Australian horse racing there is no greater champion than Phar Lap. Bred in New Zealand, the great Phar Lap accomplished most of his success on the race tracks of Australia. He was able to win the Melbourne Cup, and he also won the Cox Plate twice. A dignified champion, Phar Lap was shipped to North America where he went on to capture the Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico in 1932.

There may have been bold plans for Phar Lap to conquer America just as he had dominated New Zealand and Australia. Those plans never came to be realized. On April 5, 1932, Phar Lap hemorrhaged to death in his stall. To this day the mystery of Phar Lap’s death has never been solved, and many people believe that the horse was poisoned.


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Phar Lap Comes to North America

After winning every major stakes race that Australia and New Zealand had to offer, there was little left for Phar Lap to accomplish in his homeland. Many did not know that Phar Lap was owned by an American businessman named David J. Davis. Davis had leased the horse to a trainer based in Sydney, Harry Telford. Some in Australia did not take kindly to Phar Lap’s success.

On the morning of November 1, 1930 Telford was preparing Phar Lap for the Melbourne Cup with a morning workout. Criminals were waiting. An unidentified group of assailants tried to shoot the horse. Their effort failed, and later that same day Phar Lap won the Melbourne Stakes. Just three days later the horse won the Melbourne Cup, but the circumstances behind the failed assassination attempt have never been full revealed.

Most speculated that those who tried to kill the great horse were making an attempt to influence the outcome of the Melbourne Cup. The event was mostly forgotten by the time 1932 rolled around, but owner Davis may have remembered it as he decided to take the horse out of Australia. By that time, Telford had acquired a small ownership stake in the horse. His share was not large enough to prevent Davis from having Phar Lap shipped to Mexico. Upset by the decision, Telford refused to go along. A new trainer was secured to manage Phar Lap’s North American campaign.

Phar Lap was a smash at the Agua Caliente race track, winning the track’s namesake handicap in record time. After the victory he was sent to a farm in California where his majority owner began to make plans for a series of appearances at American race tracks.

Phar Lap Falls Ill

Phar Lap’s longtime strapper Tommy Woodcock was tasked with caring for the horse in America. Strapper is the name given to horse racing trainers in Australia. On the morning of April 5, 1932, Woodcock arrived at the barn to find Phar Lap in distress. The horse had a very high fever, and he seemed to be in pain.

A veterinarian was summoned at some point in the morning hours. It was too late. Phar Lap began to hemorrhage. Within a short time the great champion was dead. There was an autopsy performed. This was standard procedure for all race horses of great value. The results showed that Phar Lap had an inflamed stomach and intestines.

Speculation started immediately. Some believed that the horse had accidentally consumed lead. Others believed that an infection was responsible. But there were some that advanced another theory. Had the gangsters who tried to kill Phar Lap in Australia finally succeeded? What could have prompted the assassins to follow the horse to America to finish the job? These are all questions that remain unanswered to this day.

Phar Lap’s Cause of Death Revealed

It was not until 2007 that a definitive forensic examination was conducted on samples of hair retained from Phar Lap’s mane. The test was conducted under the auspices of the University of South Australia. In 2008 the results of the test were released. The cause of Phar Lap’s death could finally be established with authority.

30-40 hours before he died, Phar Lap consumed a massive dose of arsenic. Despite the fact that arsenic is a deadly substance, it was easy to obtain in the 1930s in America. No speculation could made by the investigators as to where the arsenic came from.

The general consensus is that Phar Lap was indeed poisoned. Was the poisoning intentional or was it an accident? There were recipes in a book owned by Harry Telford that listed arsenic as an ingredient for horse tonic. Did Tommy Woodcock perhaps try to give Phar Lap a tonic that he had mixed from memory? Did the strapper perhaps use too much of the deadly compound in the mixture? Or did those who wanted the horse dead finally accomplish their deed? No one will likely ever know the truth.

Many theories have been advanced about the death of Phar Lap. Some believe that either Telford or Davis was heavily in debt to organized criminals. What we know for sure is that Phar Lap deserved much better than his tragic end. One has to wonder what type of impact he would have made in America if given the chance.

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