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Phar Lap

"Old Man Emu"
John Williamson

Regarded by many as greatest ever racehorse, in his four years on the race track Phar Lap won 37 of the 51 races in which he started - including fourteen in a row in 1930-31. He is the only horse ever to have been favourite for the Melbourne Cup three years in a row.

Phar Lap (a Thai phrase meaning 'wink of the skies' or 'lightning') was foaled in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1926. Sired by Night Raid and out of Entreaty, by Winkie, he was bought "sight unseen" for 160 guineas ($336.00AUD) as a 2 year old. After arriving in Australia, Phar Lap was leased to trainer Harry Telford for three years - Telford would pay to train and feed the horse and keep any prize money he won. A large red chestnut, he was known by many nicknames - among them "Big Red", "The Red Terror", "The Wonder Horse" and "The Big Fellow" - but around the stables Phar Lap was known as "Bobby". He liked to play tricks on Tom Woodcock, the young stable boy who became Phar Lap's main attendant. Although he was docile and lazy, Phar Lap became so fond of Tom that soon he would not eat unless the young strapper was in his stall. Phar Lap was a large horse, standing at 17.1 hands high, he had powerful leg muscles and a strong heart which, after his death, was discovered to be one of the largest ever found in a racehorse.

Phar Lap was unplaced in his first four races in 1929. His first win was on 27 April at Rosehill in Sydney. After another four races in which he was also unplaced, Phar Lap ran second in the Sydney Tattersalls Chelmsford Stakes on 14 September. Following this race 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 favourite in all but one of his races. Known as a stayer - a horse that performs well in races over a long distance -he was equally as successful at sprint races.

However, the champion's success did not make him popular with everyone. So many people put their money on Phar Lap that whenever he won the bookmakers had to pay a fortune. On November 1 1930, as Tom Woodcock led Phar Lap from Caulfield Racecourse back to his stables after track work, a car pulled alongside them and fired gunshots at the horse. Using himself and his pony as a shield, Woodcock pushed Phar Lap against a fence and, despite being thrown by the pony, managed to hold onto Phar Lap as the car sped away. Unhurt in the incident, Phar Lap went on to win the Melbourne Stakes at Flemington later that day. The identity of the gunman was never discovered - however it was believed that either an irate bookmaker or crooked betting interests were involved.

Three days after the shooting incident, handicaped at 62.5 kg and carrying over 4 kg more than any other 4 year old had ever carried in the race, Phar Lap easily won the Melbourne Cup. In the 1931 Melbourne Cup he carried 68 kg. This proved too much for him, and he finished eighth in what was to be his last Australian race.

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

While his owner negotiated further race appearances and a series of films on the horse, Phar Lap was taken to rest at a private ranch near Menlo Park in California. Early on 5 April 1932, Tom Woodcock found the horse looking ill - his temperature above normal and being in great pain. At midday Phar Lap haemorrhaged and died. Woodcock, inconsolible, threw himself on the horse and cried. Both Australians and Americans were stunned by the horse's death, with Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons calling it a 'great tragedy'. An autopsy found that Phar Lap's stomach and intestines were inflamed, which suggested that the horse had possibly been poisoned. Soon rumours 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 thought possible that some of the 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.

Phar Lap's body was mounted and transported back to Australia, where he is currently on display at the Melbourne Museum.

In 1989 it was claimed, by some racing people, 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.

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 it would not have been diagnosed at the time of Phar Lap's death.

Phar Lap ran at a time when the whole world was in the grip of a depression. He was an inexpensive horse and his trainer was not famous or well known - so this horse who came from nowhere, to win at the top levels, became a hero to many race track fans. People loved him because he was seen to be a plain old nobody who became a champion by his own efforts - everybody's dream at the time. And Australian's DO love a "battler".


Phar Lap - on display at the Melbourne Museum