Phar Lap Champion Racehorse
Phar Lap One Of Australia Racing’s All-Time Favourite Racehorse
Considering all the elements that contributed to the story of Phar Lap, it is small wonder that he is one of racing’s all-time favourites.
His beginnings were not exactly those that would tend to lead anyone to have great expectations; in fact he very nearly never got a chance to race.
He had fervent believers that risked much to get him on the track but at the same time, there were those who were willing to kill him for their own misguided self-interests.
Then there were the eventual triumphs against the odds followed by the tragic conclusion.
The name Phar Lap has Asiatic origins, specifically Thai that means, depending on the vagaries of translation, either Lightning or Sky Flash.
He was often referred to a Big Red, and this honorific was such a large measure of the esteem in which he was held that it was later applied to no lesser champions than the famous American thoroughbreds, Man O’ War and Secretariat.
Phar Lap Foaled In 1926
Phar Lap was foaled in October of 1926 on the south island of New Zealand. His sire was British born Night Raid, an extremely modest racer who produced an impressive list of stakes winners, including Nightmarch, the horse that denied Phar Lap in the 1929 Melbourne Cup and was actually a most competent competitor in his own right.
Phar Lap’s dam was Entreaty, a racer that broke down on her first try, but proved remarkable as a broodmare in producing Phar Lap and contributing to the turf giant Sunline. Carbine also contributed on both his dam and sire’s side.
Phar Lap Sold For 160 Guineas
Phar Lap fetched only 160 guineas at the 1928 Trentham Yearling Sales. Trainer Harry Telford convinced American David J. Davis to buy him sight unseen, but when Davis did finally lay eyes on Phar Lap, he refused to pay for his training.
Telford was a struggling trainer at the time and the only way he could satisfy Davis was to train far Lap pro bono in exchange for a two thirds share of any earnings the horse produced.
The unfortunate outcome to this episode, at least in the eyes of the key participant, was that Phar Lap was gelded, foregoing any possible future as a stud. With the benefit of hindsight, that decision was rendered moot due to Phar Lap’s untimely demise.
Phar Lap Fails As A 2YO
As a two-year-old, Phar Lap did little other than consume feed and further impoverish his trainer. He finished last in his first outing and failed to place in his next three. He closed that campaign with a win in a six furlong handicap.
His results as a four-year-old were equally dismal, with four races producing nothing other than a healthy appetite.
The story takes a dramatic shift at this point when Phar Lap’s handlers discovered that he thrived on coming from behind, so they began instructing his riders to rein him in at the start.
The immediate result of this strategy was an impressive second place finish in the Tatts Chelmsford Stakes at nine furlongs. That was the light at the end of the tunnel that led to four consecutive wins, including the AJC Derby at 12 furlongs.
Two third place finishes were next, including the aforementioned 1929 Melbourne Cup where Phar Lap was beaten by his older sibling, Nightmarch.
That loss was mitigated somewhat by no less than nine consecutive wins. In the hearts and minds of a public struggling with the effects of the Great Depression, a hero had been forged. The conclusion of his two and three-year-old seasons found him with 14 wins from 25 starts.
Phar Lap Shows Form At Last
That remarkable finish to his three-year-old season was a mere harbinger of the coming season.
That campaign started out with a second place finish in the Warwick Stakes. Next came a mind-boggling 14 consecutive victories.
The streak began with four consecutive where he extracted revenge on his older brother Nightmarch for his defeat in the previous year’s Melbourne Cup. This is the time period when the infamous assassination took place on the morning of the Melbourne Stakes, a race Phar Lap won only hours later before taking the Melbourne Cup three days later. It would seem that a giant of a horse such as Phar Lap would be an easy target, but the assassins of that time may have been lacking in the skills of identification, succeeding not in shooting the horse, but in seriously wounding his stall.
The next season, as a five-year-old, Phar Lap resumed his blistering attack on the record books. He ran 10 times in that 1931-32 season, winning nine times, with his only failure being that year’s Melbourne Cup, where he was relegated to eighth place due to being compelled to carry over 68 kg. Race stewards, it is known, spent quite a bit of time scrupulously avoiding a racing public that would have treated them rudely over that incident.
His final race that season featured a sojourn in the Northern Hemisphere, where the largest purse ever offered in North America to that time lured Phar Lap and his connections to the Agua Caliente handicap in Tijuana, Mexico. He won despite bleeding profusely from a split hoof. It was to prove to be his final race. He had made 51 starts, winning 37 times, finishing second on three occasions and adding two thirds running unplaced only nine times.
The final chapter of Phar Lap’s life was something he most definitely did not deserve. He was found in intense pain by his strapper,
Phar Lap Dies
Tommy Woodcock said he bled to death in a matter of hours. It was learned that he had somehow ingested a fatal dose of arsenic, a powerful poison that was on hand at many stables at the time as a tonic routinely given to horses. The mystery over whether that arsenic consumption was an accident or a deliberate event remains a mystery, but given that an earlier attempt to derail Phar Lap’s racing career had been unsuccessful, speculation abounds.
An autopsy revealed that Phar Lap’s massive heart was literal as well as figurative. It tipped the scale at 6.2 kg., essentially double the weight of typical specimens of the species.
Phar Lap very deservedly entered the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, along with the Hall of his Native New Zealand, with the inaugural inductees. He was the subject of a movie bearing his name in 1983 and the Australian Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honour in 1978.
Gelded as a colt, Phar Lap never got the opportunity to pass on his genetics, even though his untimely death essentially renders that concept irrelevant, but it is still a pleasurable idea to consider what Phar Lap’s DNA combing with modern racing technology might have produced.