Phar Lap is Dead!  The terrible headline traveled around the globe and plunged Australia into mourning.  Why was this headline news?  Who was Phar Lap and why were Australians heartbroken by his death?  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred race horse with an incredible story.  It is the story of an inauspicious beginning, a triumphant rise to fame, and a tragic and mysterious death.

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Phar Lap.  From The Age

The horse that would be named Phar Lap was born in New Zealand, by Night Raid, out of Entreaty.  At the yearling auction at Trentham the chestnut colt was lot 41, the last one of the day.  He was large and clumsy, but based on his pedigree alone, Australian trainer Harry Telford wanted him.  Telford had convinced American David J. Davis to buy the colt sight unseen.  Telford’s brother placed the winning bid, 160 guineas.  A better bargain has never been had on a race horse but that fact would not be revealed for some time yet.

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Harry Telford.  From Museum Victoria

Phar Lap was shipped to Australia to embark on his training and eventual racing career.  When he arrived he was skinny, had developed boils on his face, and was so gangly and clumsy that Davis flat out refused to pay to train him.  Telford couldn’t afford to buy the horse from Davis, however they came to a lease arrangement where Telford would feed and train the horse for three years in exchange for two thirds of its winnings.  Initial training efforts were not very successful and Telford decided to have Phar Lap gelded and turned out for a while to mature.

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David J. Davis.  From Museum Victoria

As a two year old, his training got underway in earnest.  The regimen included grueling workouts where Phar Lap carried heavy weights up and down the coastal dunes.  It was in Telford’s stables that Phar Lap would meet and bond with the young strapper Tom Woodcock.  Tom fed and cared for the horse, and spent more time with him than any other human being.  The two developed a deep friendship and Tom was rarely more than a dozen yards away from Phar Lap for the rest of the horse’s life.

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Tom Woodcock and Phar Lap.  From Phar Lap, the story of the Big Horse, by I. R. Carter (1965).  NSLM. The gift of Alexander Mackay-Smith.

Phar Lap’s racing record is 51 starts for 37 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds, including a streak of 14 consecutive wins between September 1930 and March 1931.  The highlight of this series was an impressive three length win at the Melbourne Cup while carrying the high weight of 138 pounds.  

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Phar Lap wins the 1930 Melbourne Cup by three full lengths, finishing with a time of 3 minutes and 27 seconds.  IMAGE CREDIT: National Library of Australia / Wikimedia Commons

He frequently won by several lengths and preferred to give ground early in a race and then run down the horses ahead of him.  He also frequently carried heavy weight handicaps, although that didn’t seem to bother him except for the 1931 Melbourne Cup race in which he failed to place while carrying 150 pounds, 52 more than the winner of the race.  He had incredible stamina and often raced a grueling schedule.  In one week in 1930 Phar Lap not only won four races in seven days, including the Melbourne Cup, but also survived an assassination attempt.  Someone shot at him from a car on Saturday morning, he raced and won the same day, won the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, and two other races on Thursday and Saturday.

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Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike riding at Flemington race track c 1930
Charles Daniel Pratt, 1893-1968 – Held in the collection of the State Library of Victoria

The public fell in love with Phar Lap.  The 1930s were difficult depression years in Australia and the people latched onto the horse’s rise from obscurity to complete domination of the racing world.  He was an underdog who succeeded through hard work and heart, overcoming obstacles such as heavy weight handicaps and even an assassination attempt, in his unstoppable rise to the pinnacle of Australian racing.  They saw in him traits that they valued as a nation, and they thrilled to see him win.

Having met every challenge available in Australia, Telford and Davis set their sights on conquering American racing.  It was decided that Phar Lap would make the long voyage across the Pacific and arrive in time to participate in the Agua Caliente Handicap on Sunday, March 20, 1932.

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Phar Lap being loaded onto the ship.  Taken from The Age

He arrived safely on January 15 to great fanfare and spent the next two months getting acclimated.  On the day of the race Phar Lap didn’t disappoint.  In front of a racecourse packed with 20,000 spectators, he let the pack lead him and then ran them all down effortlessly, winning by two lengths.  He broke the track record for the distance while he was at it.  Watch Phar Lap winning the Agua Caliente Handicap here.  Phar Lap was in peak condition and poised to take the American racing circuit by storm.  Sixteen days later he was dead.

After the Agua Caliente race, Phar Lap was taken to a breeding farm belonging to Edward D. Perry, near Menlo Park, California.  Here he was resting and training as plans were made for his tour of the United States.  On the morning of Tuesday, April 5th, Tom Woodcock found Phar Lap in obvious distress.  The vet that accompanied the party from Australia was summoned.  Initially they thought he was suffering from a colic attack but as his condition rapidly worsened, they began to suspect poisoning.  Despite their best efforts Phar Lap hemorrhaged and died shortly after noon.  By 3:30 the news was out.  Expressions of shock, disbelief, sadness, and condolence poured in from around the world.  How could this have happened?  As it turns out, this question still has not been definitively answered even 85 years later.

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Suspicions that Phar Lap had been poisoned surfaced quickly in the press.
Source: Museum Victoria

The initial autopsy noted that the stomach and intestines were severely inflamed and the lining of the stomach was badly perforated.  The speed of death was much faster than one would expect from colic and almost immediately rumors of intentional poisoning began to spread.  Multiple agencies and individuals investigated, often reporting contradictory information and results.  The possibilities are wide ranging.  He may have been poisoned, either intentionally or accidentally.  It’s possible that someone wanted to kill Phar Lap, after all he had already been the object of one assassination attempt.  Accidental poisoning may have resulted from eating forage that was tainted with insecticide, or through arsenic contained in a tonic.  He may have developed severe bloat, or intestinal tympany, from eating wet alfalfa.  Others have suggested colic or colitis x.  At a minimum one can say that the case continues to hold the public’s interest.  Every few years a new article is published claiming to have definitively solved the mystery.  The truth may never be known.

Amazingly, his death is not the end of Phar Lap’s story. Almost immediately his heart was preserved and given to The Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, where it was exhibited next to the heart of an army remount horse.  Phar Lap’s 14 pound heart dwarfed that of the remount which weighed only 6 pounds.  It can now be seen at the National Museum of Australia.

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Phar Lap’s heart.  From the National Museum of Australia

His skeleton went to The Dominion Museum in Wellington, New Zealand (now called The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa).  For five years it was stored in boxes in the basement due to lack of funds to articulate and display it.  When a subscription list was opened in the Referee, the money was easily raised in just two weeks.  Phar Lap’s bones were assembled and his skeleton was put on display in 1938.

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From The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

His mounted hide is in The National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne.  It is a masterpiece of taxidermy and was completed by Louis, Leslie and John Jonas of Yonkers, New York.  Although they had never before prepared a horse, their outstanding workmanship on wild animal exhibits was well known in museums.  The exhibit opened in 1933 and remains one of the museum’s most popular.  Through these exhibits Phar Lap’s amazing story survives and continues to inspire those that hear it.

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Equus caballus, taxidermied mount of the racehorse Phar Lap. Registration no. C 10726.  Photographer: Benjamin Healley  Source: Museums Victoria
Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY (Licensed as Attribution 4.0 International)

The Library holds many biographies of famous horses. If you’d like to learn more about the lives, adventures and accomplishments of these fascinating animals, including Phar Lap, stop by the Main Reading room.


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Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

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Gervase Markham by Burnet Reading, published by  Thomas Rodd the Elder, after  Thomas Cross
Gervase Markham, by Burnet Reading, published by Thomas Rodd the Elder, after Thomas Cross, line engraving, early 19th Century. Accessed via Wikipedia.

Whenever I browse the antiquarian titles in the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room, the name “Markham” comes up again and again. It’s not a surprise. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) was, in many ways, the typification of the Renaissance man: soldier, poet, and author of a great number of titles.

Markham spent his early years as a soldier of fortune in the Low Countries and in Ireland. Upon his return to England, he took up writing and benefited from the patronage of the Earl of Essex. Markham’s early works were poetic, but his career focused in many ways on the pragmatic topics touching on country life in England. For Markham, country life was closely tied to national identity.

Markham was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and it’s likely that Shakespeare was acquainted with Markham’s work. In his 1960 book, Sir Robert Gittings argued that Markham is the subject of satire in the form of the character Don Armando in later drafts of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Problem is to find an English Arcadian whom Shaekspeare could have parodied in the same terms as [Antonio] Perez. It can hardly be doubted that the most prolific and persistent author of Arcadian conceits during the years 1594-97, and one moreover particularly associated with the Essex group, was Gervase Markham.
— Robert Gittings, Shakespeare’s Rival, 1960

By the time Shakespeare brought Love’s Labour’s Lost to publication, Markham had established himself as an authority on horsemanship and country life through a discourse on the subject published in 1593. In 1595, he translated and edited The Book of Saint Albans, the landmark title on “Hawking, Hunting, and the Blasting of Arms.” His farriery book Markham’s Masterpiece would go through many editions and reprintings.

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Plan for the design of a fish pond, Gervase Markham, from Cheape and Good Husbandry, Eighth Edition, 1653. National Sporting Library & Museum, gift of Jacqueline B. Mars.

In 1601, Markham’s career hit a significant setback with the downfall of his noble patron, the Earl of Essex. Markham was forced to reinvent himself as an author, focusing less on poetic works and instead expanding his reach into practical guidebooks. He wrote on riding, farriery, animal husbandry, and even a complete manual for housewives. Of note was Markham’s willingness to gear his works toward an audience outside the wealthy classes, often advertising this fact with titles such as Cheap and Goode Husbandry.

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Gervase Markham, Cheape and Good Husbandry, Eighth Edition, 1653. National Sporting Library & Museum, gift of Jacqueline B. Mars.

Markham was masterful at realizing as much revenue as possible from his publications. He often recycled material or issued a book under a new title. Printing in multiple editions allowed for multiple dedications to noble lords, who might be disposed to become patrons for future works.

In fact, Markham was so successful that by 1617 English book printers were imploring him not to write again on animal medicine, as his influence was preventing others from being able to publish on the topic. Although he isn’t widely known today, Markham’s books continue to be a valuable source of information on the daily lives of the people and animals of early 17th Century England.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

Which reformation must be sudden too,
My noble lords; for those that tame wild horses
Pace ’em not in their hands to make ’em gentle,
But stop their mouths with stubborn bits, and spur ’em.
Till they obey the manege.
   — William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 2

In many ways, Europe’s equestrian literary tradition began in 1550 with the publication of Gli Ordini di Cavalcare (The Rules of Riding) by Federico Grisone. Grisone was a famed Neapolitan riding master, and his was the first new book on riding in Europe since Xenophon. Grisone’s work was a huge success, and spread throughout Europe quickly. It was also a product of its age, and is noteworthy for its cruelty in the curbing of horses. Grisone’s treatments were grisly, and included such shocking practices as tying a cat to a horse’s belly to “cure” the horse of refusal to cross a river. Later editions of the work included detailed diagrams of harsh bits designed by Grisone to force the horse to obey instructions.

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An illustration of a bit, from Gli Ordini Di Cavalcare, Federico Grisone, 1561. Grisone reputedly designed these harsh bits, intended to force the horse to submit and obey commands. Grisone was famous for his ability to break recalcitrant horses.

Bits during this period broke down into two main categories: snaffles, which exerted direct pressure on the lips, bars and tongue, and the harsher curb bits, that pinched and cut the horse’s chin. To save the mouth from permanent damage, some trainers turned to cavessans which acted on the nose and muzzle instead.

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Frontispiece of The Art of Riding, a 1609 edition of the translation by Thomas Blundeville of Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare. Although Blundeville revered Grisone, he was also among the moderate voices on the use of harsh bits, especially for young horses who were still being trained.

The tenor of these methods is rather unsurprising in the broader cultural context. The middle of the 16th Century was steeped in a philosophical tradition that viewed humans as the only thinking, feeling creatures in nature. The dominance over the horse became an analogue for man’s mastery over nature itself. But as equestrian literary offerings became more robust, varying schools of thought emerged on the practical matter of treatment of horses.

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Image from A General System of Horsemanship, by the Duke of Newcastle. Writing in the 1650s, Newcastle was blunt about using physical punishment to curb recalcitrant horses, but also combined positive reinforcement as a most effective balance.

Through the late 1500s and into the 1600s, more and more voices advocated against the harsh methods. The moderate school included writers like Thomas Blundeville (who translated Grisone’s writings into English), Gervase Markham, and the Duke of Newcastle. All these writers struck a balance that required physical punishment for horses as a necessary part of training, but considered this a last resort, not a first treatment (for example, Markham advocated burning straw around a horse’s head as a treatment for obstinate refusal to carry burdens). In this light, most authors of the age took their cues from Xenophon. Of course, these perspectives were largely explored exclusively among the literate population of Europe. Servants, who were typically tasked with daily care but did not read, often mistreated the horses in their care.

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Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from the frontispiece to her Poems and Fancies, 1653. Lady Newcastle was an early writer advocating better treatment of animals and a rejection of the anthropocentric tradition.

Unsurprisingly, the advocates for gentler treatment often had more experience working directly with horses, and maintained that horses were intelligent and possessed memory, senses and feelings. By the middle of the 1600s, more thinkers began to admit the intelligence of animals, beginning with the horse. The Duchess of Newcastle, in her oft-criticized works, decried the anthropocentric view of her day, asserting that

…Man doth think himselfe so gentle, mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.
   — Margaret Cavendish, Lady Newcastle, Poems

Lady Margaret’s views, which included criticism of meat eating and hunting, were radical in her day. The growing sentiment toward gentle treatment, however, likely had more to do with practical considerations than abstract philosophies. As the quality of horses grew, they became valuable as commodities and as status symbols. Consequently, owners of good horses wanted to keep them in good condition. John Astley, in his book The Art of Riding, claims that harsh bits ruined horses, having “so dulled and deaded the senses and feeling, as he feeleth little of paine, of pleasure nothing at all, and of a sensible creature is made a senseless blocke.”

The shift in perspective was slowly reflected in the wave of equestrian literature from 1550 to 1650. Authors looked to underscore proper care and training of horses, as a worthy way to perfect human riders, but also to protect costly investments in horseflesh. From our current perspective, it’s also possible to trace the first stirring of a notion of animal rights and the deeper ethical considerations that govern the treatment of horses today.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

When I first saw the oil study of Proctor Knott winning the First Futurity stakes held at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island in 1888, I didn’t immediately realize that the painting’s title referred to the name of the horse, not the jockey. Shelby “Pike” Barnes was up, one of several leading African-Americans in the sport at the end of the 19th century and the first to win over 200 races in one season (Read more about Pike Barnes’ record-breaking career on the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame website). Following closely in second place was Salvator ridden by Tony Hamilton, another leading black jockey. The purse collected by the winning race horse’s owner was a whopping $40,900 (over $1,000,000 today), the highest race earnings at the time.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932), Proctor Knott (The First Futurity, 1888, Jerome Park, Sheepshead Bay, a Close Finish), c. 1888, oil on canvas, 12 ½ x 18 ⅛ inches, Gift of The Margaret Kendrick Blodgett Foundation in memory of Peter Winants, Director Emeritus of the National Sporting  Library, 2001

The hunched figures in the oil study by Louis Maurer in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection may be construed by viewers as caricatures, especially in light of the fact that the artist drew conservative political cartoons that are blatantly racist and denigrating by today’s standards. Currier and Ives published them leading up to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election in 1860. One of the most extreme examples is titled An Heir to the Throne, Or the Next Republican Candidate.

The Library of Congress’s description for the image: “The Republicans’ purported support of Negro rights is taken to an extreme here. Editor Horace Greeley (left) and candidate Abraham Lincoln (resting his elbow on a rail at right) stand on either side of a short black man holding a spear. The latter is the deformed African man recently featured at P.T. Barnum’s Museum on Broadway as the “What-is-it.” (A poster for this attraction appears on the wall behind.) Greeley says, “Gentlemen allow me to introduce to you, this illustrious individual in whom you will find combined, all the graces, and virtues of Black Republicanism, and whom we propose to run as our next Candidate for the Presidency.” Lincoln muses, “How fortunate! that this intellectual and noble creature should have been discovered just at this time, to prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo Saxon race, he will be a worthy successor to carry out the policy which I shall inaugurate.” The black man wonders, “What, can dey be?” Source and image: https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a05736/

Although this is difficult imagery to associate with Currier & Ives and Louis Maurer, the successful lithography firm’s company policy was business before politics. They produced satire expressing sentiments held across the political spectrum. For example, Maurer drew a pro-Lincoln cartoon, The Political Oyster House, also published by the firm in the same year.

Currier & Ives was much more widely known for creating a market for its broad variety of affordable art prints than for its caricatures. Among the last images Maurer contributed to the firm was the completed painting of the 1888 First Futurity race upon which the NSLM’s oil study was based. It was reproduced as a large chromolithograph titled The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay to appeal to middle-class collectors who could afford the image that commemorated an important moment in racing history.

inscribed: To the Coney Island Jockey Club this print of The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay. Sept 3, 1888. Value $50,000 Won by Proctor Knott is dedicated by the publishers. Painted by L. Maurer. Copyright 1889 By Currier & Ives, New York. Printed in oil colors and published by Currier & Ives, 115 Nassau St. N.Y.  Proctor Knott (Barnes) Salvator (Hamilton) Galen (Turner), Image and source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.00720/

The large original oil on canvas is in the collection of the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. The painting and print reveal a stylistic consistency between the depiction of the African-American and Caucasian jockeys portrayed in the composition with the crowd in the distance focused on the action of the race.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Sheepshead Bay was in the racing capitol of the United States. From 1879 and 1910, three venues were established in Brooklyn within miles of one another which were accessible by new rail lines. The Brighton Beach track opened in 1879; then the picturesque dirt and turf tracks at Sheepshead Bay were begun in 1880 and 1886 respectively (where the First Futurity took place). The Gravesend Track operated by the Brooklyn Jockey Club was started in 1886. These tracks attracted sportsmen and race-goers from across all walks of life to Coney Island.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932) First Futurity (detail), 1888, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame’s Permanent Collection, Gift of George D. Widener. Image Source: https://www.racingmuseum.org/sites/default/files/styles/front_page_rotator/public/1955.15-1140×500.jpg?itok=Lfxvfux4

At the height of their popularity, the races drew as many as 40,000 spectators to the region during the season of May through October. The booming flat racing industry was fueled by sportsmen and supported by jockeys, trainers, grooms, and stable hands who traveled there seasonally. A community of hospitality workers also arose.

Many of these working-class men and women were African-Americans facing the rising tide of racism that would soon culminate in the spread of segregation laws across the United States by the early twentieth century. While race relations were  complex, Louis Maurer’s painting, oil study, and print of the 1888 First Futurity as well as works by other artists of the era capture a slice of history to be embraced and honored for what they represent, a time when African Americans dominated the sport of racing as acclaimed  top athletes and were depicted in this historically significant role.

To read more about this topic, please see They Rode to WinClarice & Robert H. Smith Educator Anne Marie Barnes’s blog and the upcoming public program on June 13, 2017, Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia by Dr. John Ott, a part of the Heroes & Underdogs lecture series.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org