Phar Lap : History of Horses

John Reismiller
Patricia Crane logo The famous Race Horse Phar Lap, written by John Reismiller
Phar Lap

The Greatest Racehorse Ever
By John Reismiller

Phar Lap, one of the most famous horses in the world was a champion among champions. Born in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1926, he was sold for the bargain price of 160 guineas ($336.00). When he arrived in Australia his new owner, American-born David J. Davis, was not very impressed with him. He was skinny and clumsy, with warts all over his head. Davis was angry with the trainer, Harry Telford, who had persuaded him to put up the money to buy the horse. He did not want to waste any more money to pay for its training, so he leased the horse to Telford for the next three years. Telford would pay to train and feed the horse and keep any prize money he won. The trainer, who knew a great deal about racehorse pedigrees, was certain that, with Phar Lap's breeding, he would become a champion.

Although he was named Phar Lap, a Thai phrase meaning 'wink of the skies' or 'lightning', around the stables the horse was known as Bobby. Tom Woodcock, a young stable boy, became Phar Lap's main attendant. Phar Lap was docile and lazy and liked to play tricks on Woodcock. Soon he became so fond of the stable boy that he would not eat unless Woodcock was in his stall with him.

Phar Lap was unplaced in his first four races in 1929. His first win was on 27 April at Rosehill near Sydney. After another four races in which he was unplaced, he came second in the Sydney Tattersalls Chelmsford Stakes on 14 September. From then on he was unplaced only once more - in the Melbourne Cup of 1931. Phar Lap won some of the most prestigious races in Australia, including four in one week during the Spring Racing Carnival of 1930. From September 1929 he started as a favorite in all but one of his races.

Phar Lap was a large horse, 17 hands high, with powerful leg muscles and a strong heart, which after his death was discovered to be one of the largest ever found in a racehorse. Although he was known as a stayer, a horse that performs well in races over a long distance, he was equally as successful at sprint races.

The champion's success did not make him popular with everyone. Because so many people put their money on Phar Lap, whenever he won the bookmakers had to pay a fortune. Someone tried to shoot the horse early on Derby Day, November 1 1930 - possibly a bookmaker. As Tom Woodcock led him from Caulfield Racecourse back to his stables after track work, a car pulled alongside them. Woodcock pushed Phar Lap against a fence, using himself and his pony as a shield as shots were fired from the car. Although the pony threw Woodcock, he managed to hold onto Phar Lap as the car sped away. Phar Lap was unhurt and went on to win the Melbourne Stakes at Flemington that day. The identity of the gunman was never discovered.

Three days later Phar Lap easily won the Melbourne Cup, even though his handicap of 62.5 kg meant he was carrying over 4 kg more than any other four-year-old horse had ever carried in a Cup. In the 1931 Melbourne Cup he carried 68 kg. This proved too much for him, and he finished eighth in his last Australian race.

His next race was the Agua Caliente Handicap at the Agua Caliente Jockey Club near Tijuana in Mexico. With Tom Woodcock as trainer, Phar Lap traveled to America by ship, with his own exercise enclosure and sand-box. Despite his long sea journey and a badly injured hoof, Phar Lap won the race, in record time for the track.

Phar Lap was resting at a private ranch near Menlo Park in California while his owner, Davis, negotiated further race appearances and even a series of films about Phar Lap. Early on 5 April 1932, Woodcock found the horse looking ill. His temperature was above normal and he was in great pain. At midday Phar Lap hemorrhaged and died. Woodcock threw himself on the horse and cried. Australians and Americans were stunned by the horse's death. The Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons called it a 'great tragedy'. An autopsy found that Phar Lap's stomach and intestines were inflamed, suggesting possible poisoning. Soon rumors were circulating that the champion had been deliberately poisoned.

Investigation of the ranch showed that some trees had recently been sprayed with a lead - arsenate insecticide. It was possible that some of the deadly spray had drifted onto grass that Phar Lap had eaten. A second autopsy suggested that Phar Lap had died of a 'colicky condition' (bad stomach pains), possibly from eating damp feed. Many people, however, continued to believe that Phar Lap had been poisoned.

In 1989 some racing people claimed that Tom Woodcock had accidentally killed the horse by giving him a double dose of Fowler's Solution, a tonic containing arsenic given to horses to stimulate their appetites. Forensic scientists offered to test Phar Lap's hide and hair for arsenic, but as arsenic was probably used to help preserve the hide, the tests might not have brought us any closer to discovering the real cause of his death.

However a recent book suggests that Phar Lap was not mysteriously poisoned. Authors Peter Thompson and Geoff Armstrong asked University of Melbourne equine experts to examine the two autopsy reports. They concluded that Phar Lap probably died of a bacterial infection often found in horses who have traveled long distances. This type of infection was not identified until recent decades, so would not have been diagnosed at the time.

After Phar Lap's death his heart was donated to the now National Museum in Canberra ( his heart was twice the size of an ordinary horse) and his skeleton to the New Zealand National Museum in Wellington.

Jonas Brothers, a New York taxidermy firm, mounted Phar Lap's hide over a shell of timber covered with roofing paper, burlap and sawdust. Pieces of cord were used to suggest Phar Lap's veins. Phar Lap' mounted hide arrived at the Museum of Victoria (formerly the National Museum) in 1933. He has left the Museum only once since then, during Melbourne Cup week 1980, when he returned to Flemington Racecourse fifty years after his own Cup win. Phar Lap has drawn millions of visitors to the Museum, including Tom Woodcock, who donated several of his own mementoes of the horse to the Museum in 1979.

Phar Lap was on display for 67 years in the former Museum on Swanston Street. He was given a well-earned spell in July 1997 when the Museum was closed in the lead up to planning for the Melbourne Museum at Carlton Gardens.

While away from the public eye, Phar Lap has been installed in a new show-case in preparation for his exhibition at Melbourne Museum. Painstakingly crafted by Museum Victoria's cabinet makers, the case features elements from the Art Deco period of the 1930s, a time when the his legend spread across the world. Sponsored by Racing Victoria, the $15,000 case has been fashioned from 100-year-old planks of Queensland maple and pieces of 5000-year-old fossilized Murray River red gum.

Museum Victoria's expert conservators and preparators have conducted a careful study of Phar Lap's internal and external condition, and despite the age of the mounted specimen, he is in excellent condition. The information provided by this thorough assessment, will assist in his ongoing care, as well as in planning for his relocation to Melbourne Museum.

Phar Lap is on display in the Australia Gallery at Melbourne Museum.

Notes of Interest:

All copyrights to "The Greatest Racehorse Ever", written by Jack Reismiller, remain with the author.

Photo courtesy of Ronald Moody

Information courtesy of The Australian Society

"Tales of the Horse" is hosted by

Banner image above is from Trumpeter, plate from Carrousels, course de tetes et de bagues, Paris, 1727/43

© All Photos and Sculpture Copyright 2000 - 2018, Patricia Crane.