Phar Lap



Ellen Parker

“Geldings go out to work whenever and wherever there’s money to be made…..doomed by limitations both natural and man-made to toil and to leave no heirs”…..Brown Leach.

 He was a big, strong thundercloud of a horse. Tall and red and molded in the form of a Goliath. Named, in fact, for lightning, he raced only a few brief years yet captured the imagination of the world. Time does not dim his legend, nor does the telling of the tale grow wearisome. Phar Lap was something special, and no one who has ever read of him or seen photos of him could think otherwise.

To this day there are experienced racing men who call him the best horse ever to race, yet he neither won nor placed in seven of his first eight starts. Precocity was not his forte.

Upon finding himself, however, he put together win skeins of nine, 14 and eight races at ages three, four and five. In fact from March 1, 1930, until March 20, 1932, when he won his final race at Agua Caliente in Mexico he either won or ran second in 34 of 35 starts. His lone off-the-board finish came in the 1931 Melbourne Cup when, under 150 pounds, he struggled home eighth.

The huge impost in that race was, of course, what led Phar Lap’s connections to cast their eyes abroad to other worlds for their wonder horse to conquer. And in 1930 The Thoroughbred Record received the following cablegram: “Phar Lap’s owner issues challenge to world, race any horse, any distance, any amount in Australia. Will you bring under notice American owners and advise me, cable collect, any possibility of American acceptance.”

Phar Lap had come a long way. Bred in New Zealand by A. F. Roberts of decidedly non-patrician parentage – his sire, Night Raid, was a plater and his dam, Entreaty, a broodmare of no great merit – he was put up for sale as a yearling. His lack of pedigree was so glaring, he brought a bid of only $800 at the second annual Trentham New Zealand yearling sale. The buyer was Hugh Telford who was acting on behalf of his brother, trainer Henry Telford. The trainer had been attracted to the colt on the strength of his inbreeding to Musket, sire of the immortal Australian runner Carbine.

Henry Telford did not buy the horse for himself but rather for an American businessman named David Davis of San Francisco who was then living in Australia. But when Davis saw the huge yearling he insisted that Telford take the horse himself on a three-year lease.

Phar Lap grew to a full height of 16 hands 3 inches and weighed in at 1450 pounds – a very large individual who towered over his opponents. He did not, however, appear to be much more than a set of long legs with a perfectly horrible pedigree attached for much of his early career. Though assigned weights as low as 91 pounds, it took Phar Lap five tries to break his maiden, which he finally managed to do in the last of his two year old efforts.

He was no more effective early in his three year old season, finishing off the board in his first four starts. Then, Phar Lap’s maturity began to catch up with his enormous frame and he seemed suddenly able to draw upon elements deep in his pedigree, elements like the four crosses of the mighty mare Pocahontas, generally acknowledged as the original source of the large heart gene. Phar Lap had inherited such a heart, too, though it would not be known until his autopsy years later.

At the pinnacle of Phar Lap’s reign as Australia’s wonder horse, he set many track records – 2:03 for a mile and a quarter; 2:16 1/4 for a mile and 3/8; 2:29 1/2 for a mile and a half and 3:49 1/2 for two and one quarter miles. All told, Phar Lap won 37 of 51 starts. He won the Melbourne Cup under 138 pounds, and the Caulfield Futurity under 143, unbelievable burdens by today’s standards. Along the way, he had earned very little in comparison to modern horses, yet when he embarked on his voyage to America his bankroll stood at $282,200. His victory in the Agua Caliente Handicap would make him the world’s second leading earner, behind only Sun Beau.

Although Phar Lap came to North America well in advance of the big race (he actually landed in San Francisco before journeying south), most knowledgeable horsemen scoffed at the way he was prepared for the event. None of the usual training methods were used for the Australian superstar. Instead, he was ridden by Tom Woodcock, who was training him for the Handicap, and at that seldom on the racetrack itself but rather over the local terrain including uphill over sandy knolls. Woodcock even refused to school Phar Lap in the starting gate, a device with which he was totally unfamiliar.

And as if all this were not enough, he was ridden under tack, carrying his full assigned weight of 129 pounds, for more than an hour before the race. The Caliente Handicap was scheduled to be run as the 13th race on the card, perhaps an omen of things to come.

Ten horses paraded to post in addition to Phar Lap that hot spring day, including New Orleans Handicap winner Spanish Play, American Derby winner Reveille Boy and Kent Stakes winner Scimitar. Phar Lap, despite his peculiar training regimen, his high impost and his unfamiliarity with the racing surface was sent off at 50 cents on the dollar.

It was one of the peculiarities of the Caliente racecourse that all manner of chutes for various distances dotted the oval, including the 1/14 mile chute from which the horses would break for the Handicap. The start was delayed somewhat when Reveille Boy, Scimitar and Cabezo acted up, but Phar Lap stood quiet as a statue.

In one of the more humorous accounts of Phar Lap’s Caliente Handicap, William Robertson wrote, “Phar Lap broke well as his trainer predicted. However, he went immediately to the outside for an inspection tour of the 1 1/8 mi. chute which slanted into the track a furlong farther on, and passing the grandstand the first time around he was fully 50 yards behind the pack. Having satisfied his (or his jockey’s) curiosity, Phar Lap then bounded into the lead.”

“Bounded” was undoubtedly the proper terminology. Remembers Johnny Longden, who eventually finished tenth aboard Bahamas, “I was on a fast horse, and I was in front. I looked back at the three quarter pole and Phar Lap was about at the seven-eighth pole. And when I hit the half-mile pole, he went right on by me like a freight train passin’ a tramp.”

Longden’s recollection is almost correct – after a quarter mile, the big gelding took the lead and simply never looked back, winning with contemptuous ease by two lengths from Reveille Boy with Scrimitar another two lengths back in third.

Despite never truly extending himself, Phar Lap set a new track record of 2:02 4/5.

From Caliente, Phar Lap and his entourage adjourned to Ed Perry’s ranch in Menlo Park near San Francisco where the great horse would be turned out and rested until a decision concerning his next start was made. Already in the works were plans to take him to Chicago later in the year. Belmont was also mentioned as a possibility.

In the early morning hours of April 4, trainer Woodcock and exercise boy Jack Martin heard the sounds of Phar Lap fretting in his stall. Immediately recognizing the great horse’s distress, they summoned his personal veterinarian, Dr. William Neilson.

Neilson medicated the horse and ordered him exercised to throw off the illness. Nothing worked despite constant care for over 24 hours. Finally in desperation Dr. C. Masuero, the official veterinarian for nearby Tanforan racetrack was called, but when he arrived, Phar Lap was beyond his ministrations. He had died with his head in Woodcock’s arms.

An autopsy was performed and the official cause of death was listed as colic. But down through the years, the rumors have flown, especially in Australia, where for a time whenever an American went racing there he was asked, “Tell me, Yank, why did you kill Phar Lap?”

There were rumors in America as well. Was it bad feed? Arsenic? Was the horse ‘gotten to’ by disgruntled bookies? After all, one attempt was made on his life when he was still in his native land.

Phar Lap probably did die of colic, for all that. But a more revealing fact came to light as a result of the autopsy. His heart weighed 14 pounds. The average for an equine heart is about nine pounds. When the heart was subsequently sent to Australia for examination, it was found that the thickness of the wall of the left ventricle was 4.2 centimeters, twice as thick as the wall of any ordinary horse’s heart, which gave him great “tractile” power according to Dr. Stewart McKay.

It is unfortunate that more Americans did not see Phar Lap race, but in a particularly grisly way, more did in fact see him. His carcass was on exhibition at Belmont Park on Futurity day, an altogether gruesome practice which is thankfully not followed today. Afterward, the horse’s body was flown home to Australia.

After Phar Lap’s demise, he was quite naturally compared to other great horses of the times, including St. Simon, to whom he was inbred 5 x 4. St. Simon, often called “the prototype of the modern horse” was an unbeaten wonder horse of the late 1800’s. It was written of him, rather poetically, that “having no faults, he handed none on.”

But Phar Lap did have faults. He was big and ungainly and took many races to come to hand. Perhaps it was his very vulnerability and his humble origins despite which he rose to greatness that appeal to lovers of the breed.

In April of 1982, fifty years after his death, The Thoroughbred Record announced that a movie was being made about the life of the great Australian gelding. A 17 hands gelding named Towering Inferno had been found to play the title role. Producer John Sexton said of his hopes for the film, “It’s a tremendous challenge to try and capture the legend. Essentially the story line is simple – a true champion can only be stopped by death.”

Yet thanks to our ability to read his story, to relive his life on film, even death has not stopped him. Phar lap lives on.

And one cannot help but wonder if Kelso or John Henry, doomed like Phar Lap to toil and leave no heirs, ever heard footsteps pursuing them as they raced to their mighty feats of courage and stamina.

In a larger sense, Phar Lap also lives on in the hearts and minds of racing men who know that no matter how good their geldings might become, no matter the honors they earn, there is a standard they will never achieve. For a ghost pursues them as well, one who will not be stopped, who will not be slowed.

A tall, red thundercloud of a ghost named Phar Lap. A timeless classic enlarged by memory to the epic proportions of legend.

Ellen Parker’s Phar Lap story originally appeared in PEDLINES #62, February 2001