Nicholas Godfrey on Phar Lap

On the eve of the Melbourne Cup, international expert Nicholas Godfrey reflects on the career of the race’s greatest winner, the mighty Phar Lap.

  • Sunday 03 November
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IN America it has to be Man o’War or Secretariat. In Britain it’s Frankel or Brigadier Gerard, while Ireland has Arkle, France has Sea-Bird and Italy has Ribot. We are talking about the absolute greats, the equine nonpareils who have transcended the sport for an exalted place in the pantheon.

In Australia, that’s the spot belonging to Phar Lap. Words like ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ can be rendered impotent through overuse. Make no mistake, when you’re talking about the most storied horse in Australian history, such descriptions feel barely adequate.

Watch the 2019 Melbourne Cup at Flemington live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) at 4am on Tuesday 5th November.

From unpromising beginnings, Phar Lap was to become an Antipodean folk hero in the late 1920s and early 30s, like his contemporary Don Bradman a beacon of hope to a benighted nation left reeling by the twin assaults of the First World War and the Great Depression. Imagine Seabiscuit, only a lot better as a racehorse.

When modern-era experts were clutching for context with the superlative likes of Black Caviar or Winx, they had only one place to go, and that was the imposing 17hh chestnut with the huge stride known as ‘Australia’s Wonder Horse’. Brooking no dissent on the matter, Phar Lap is Australia’s GOAT, a phenomenal racehorse whose feats beggar reason even 90 years later.

As well as the 1930 Melbourne Cup, he numbered two Cox Plates and an AJC Derby among a plethora of major victories in Australia, where he broke records from ten to 18 furlongs before earning fame in North America winning the world’s richest race in Tijuana. There, he broke yet another track record again in what was to be his final race before a mysterious and tragic death.

His was an incredible story, an extraordinary triumph over adversity laced with bribery, corruption and a shooting plot. It was the stuff of motion pictures – and a biopic duly appeared in 1983. Guess what? Even that was pretty good: not for nothing is it often described as the best racing movie ever made.

Seldom can any racehorse have captured the imagination of the public in the same way; the phrase ‘a heart as big as Phar Lap’s’ a common epithet denoting courage Down Under. Not only was the gelding known as the ‘Red Terror’ a byword for courage and resilience, he actually did have a big heart – about 15lb, compared to a normal 8-10lb, and now preserved in the Australian National Museum in Canberra.

Part of Phar Lap’s enduring appeal lies in his humble beginnings. His trainer was Harry Telford, a not-wildly-successful Sydney-based handler who persuaded American businessman David J Davis to part with the princely sum of 160gns to buy the horse unseen at the yearling sales in New Zealand.

The owner considered it money badly spent when Phar Lap (Siamese for ‘lightning’) arrived off the boat after an arduous journey. The horse destined to become the invincible icon of Australian racing was gangly, awkward and wart-ridden - and it certainly took a while before he got his act together.

In four years of racing, Phar Lap was beaten 14 times in 51 races; nine of those defeats came in his first ten starts, including unplaced efforts on his first four runs as a two-year-old.

A major factor in what was to be a dramatic turnaround was his devoted ‘strapper’ Tommy Woodcock, who remained with him until the very end. The 18-year-old work rider became synonymous with Phar Lap, whom he knew as ‘Bobby Boy’.

With Woodcock his daily companion, Phar Lap soon became a force to be reckoned with. By the time he approached his first Melbourne Cup in November 1929, Phar Lap had already won several prestigious contests, including both the AJC and Victoria Derbies in record time under regular partner Jim Pike, who won on him 25 times altogether.

As a three-year-old Phar Lap was allotted only 7st 6lb in the Cup but the light weight may have been his undoing because it meant Pike could not take the reins. Ridden by lightweight Bob Lewis, he could finish only third, four lengths adrift.

There were suggestions of skulduggery amid allegations that an associate of the jockey had won a bundle on the winner Nightmarch, a horse Phar Lap had easily handled on previous meetings.

Though we’ll never really know, the truth may have been more prosaic, as Lewis struggled to hold his giant partner, who pulled his way to the front and had nothing left at the end. According to Sydney Morning Herald columnist Max Presnall, writing in 2014: “The pocket Hercules just was not strong enough to control the Red Terror, who responded best to Jim Pike, a real heavyweight.”

It was to be a different story in 1930, when Phar Lap became the first horse in history to be sent off at odds on for the Melbourne Cup, returned an 8-11 chance after an all-conquering start to his four-year-old campaign.

Not only was the weight of public money riding on him, there were also big doubles running on after the victory of well-fancied Amounis in the Caulfield Cup; Phar Lap’s connections were said to be among those set to cash their tickets.

As such, not everyone wanted Phar Lap to win at Flemington, however. Threats issued from the betting underworld were designed to intimidate his team into scratching from the Melbourne Cup.

Things became more sinister three days before the race on the morning of Phar Lap’s final prep race in the Melbourne Stakes (now Mackinnon), when he survived a shotgun attack as he returned to his stable after a workout at Caulfield. With Woodcock taking evasive action, pellets fired from a car at the horse’s legs missed their target.

Such criminal intent could not stop Phar Lap. He won the Melbourne Stakes before Telford took him to a secret hideout at a stud near Geelong, and he went to the racetrack at the last minute on the first Tuesday in November under police escort with an armed guard.

When he went on to record an effortless three-length victory under 9st 12lb, Phar Lap became a household name.

He wasn’t done there, either. Amazingly, Phar Lap was to win on all four days of the Melbourne Spring Carnival that year during a 14-race winning streak. Indeed, he was beaten only three times in his last 35 career starts, finishing second in two of those defeats, beaten a neck and a short head. He was favourite every time.

His third defeat came in the 1931 Melbourne Cup, when he finished eighth under the ludicrous burden of 10st 10lb. While Phar Lap had won all eight starts that season, his connections were badgered into running under such a crushing weight by officials, who warned that his absence would have a seriously detrimental effect on racecourse attendance during financially parlous times.

It was little short of emotional blackmail and the horse wasn’t himself either after a punishing training regimen, but at least Pike looked after him.

The final chapters of the Phar Lap story took place on another continent after owner Davis shipped him to California against Telford’s wishes to run in the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap, established as the world’s richest race at Tijuana across the Mexican border. In a staggering performance, the five-year-old circled the field, going from last to first to lead three furlongs out to score in yet another course record time.

It was yet another stunning display, and it was to be Phar Lap’s last, as he died two weeks later in Woodcock’s arms, bleeding from the nostrils after an apparent poisoning at his Californian stable at Mento Park. Though colic had initially been diagnosed, salacious (and unfounded) rumours of Mafia involvement have persisted down the years after a post mortem revealed traces of arsenic in his stomach.

For his part, Woodcock always believed the horse had indeed been poisoned, though vets also suggested Phar Lap may have died after accidentally ingesting a toxic spray used on nearby vegetation. Or maybe it was indeed a bad colic. More than 85 years after his death, it remains a mystery. 

Either way, it was a tragic demise – but he had certainly left his mark on the US racing community as well as the Australian. Just listen to the great US trainer Charlie Whittingham, who was present in Mexico to witness a startling display. “I never got to see Man o’War,” said the ‘Bald Eagle’, quoted in Jay Hovdey’s biography, “but he’d have to be a helluva horse to be better than Phar Lap!”

Watch the 2019 Melbourne Cup at Flemington live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) at 4am on Tuesday 5th November.

Nicholas Godfrey on Phar Lap
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