One of the most impressive Thoroughbred racers of the 20th Century was Gallant Fox, whose racing career lasted from 1929-1930. Gallant Fox was the second horse ever to win the American Triple Crown, and the term “Triple Crown” for the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont was popularized during his 1930 campaign.

“The Fox” was owned by William Woodward Sr.’s Belair Stud in Maryland but was foaled in Kentucky. Following the horse’s retirement from racing, William Woodward wrote a custom-printed memoir to commemorate Gallant Fox’s achievements. The National Sporting Library & Museum is privileged to hold a copy of this book, one of the scarcest volumes in the NSLM collection. It has great value for its memories of the entire racing career of Gallant Fox.

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Gallant Fox with his dam, Marguerite. From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum, gift of Mrs. Jacqueline B. Mars, Dr. Timothy J. Greenan, Mrs. Helen K. Groves, and Dr. Manuel H. Johnson, 2015.

One of Woodward’s memories of “The Fox” was his intelligence and curiosity, even from his earliest days as a colt.

The colt was broken and showed no special signs of anything one way or another, except that he was curious-minded and wanted to know all that was going on, giving every evidence of a high mentality, which however, would be slow to develop.He was a good fast colt as a yearling, with nice action, which was also the case in the beginning of his two-year-old year.

From Gallant Fox: A Memoir, by William Woodward, Sr.,
1930, National Sporting Library & Museum.

The Fox’s curiosity would last throughout his career, and it was the horse’s custom to eye the grandstands before each race. Still, Gallant Fox’s penchant for distraction led to a bad start to his racing career:

We started him in a five furlong race, with Peto as a companion. There was a good horse in the race called Desert Light. It was a small field. Gallant Fox was looking around the country when the tape was sprung and he was left about seven or eight lengths.

From Gallant Fox: A Memoir, by William Woodward, Sr.,
1930, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Despite the bad start, The Fox recovered to finish third, kicking off an auspicious career with an impressive list of prominent wins: the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes, the Arlington Classic, the Dwyer Stakes, the Saratoga Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

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Gallant Fox’s Trainer, James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum.

The jockey for most of Gallant Fox’s wins was Earl Sande, a South Dakota native who got his start as a “bronco buster” before turning to Thoroughbred horse racing. Sande was most famous for his time on Gallant Fox, and went on to be a successful trainer and racehorse owner. Two days before the 1930 Belmont Stakes, Sande was in an automobile accident, putting his start in jeopardy.

On Thursday night before the Belmont, Sande was riding in an automobile driven by one of his friends, when they had a crash. The car turned over, and as he had been under it and was rather badly cut up, I sat with him on Friday afternoon in the Belmont paddock for quite a while to see whether he was in proper shape to ride such an important race. He was altogether himself and was fortunately unhurt except for scratches and patches. He said that his first thought, when he found himself under the car, was, “How terrible! I won’t be able to ride the horse on Saturday.”

From Gallant Fox: A Memoir, by William Woodward, Sr.,
1930, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Sande, his face bandaged from the episode, rode to victory, making Gallant Fox the second American Triple Crown winner in history.

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William Woodward Leading Gallant Fox after winning the Lawrence Realization Stakes, Sande up. From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Later in the year, on a very heavy track, Gallant Fox lost the Travers Stakes in a major upset. Weighed down in the mud, Gallant Fox and rival Whichone dueled throughout the race, before both were overtaken by Jim Dandy, who won handily. Popular sentiment pegged Gallant Fox as weak on a heavy track. Woodward, however, saw the way the race unfolded on position as the primary reason why Gallant Fox was defeated.

To my way of thinking there were two reasons for The Fox’s defeat. First, the star was an unfortunate one for Gallant Fox. Second, he was taken wide the entire way against our will, and intentionally so, as evidenced by Workman’s ride on Questionnaire in the Realization. The Fox was horse enough to race outside of Whichone and beat him but neither he nor Whichone could give away the distance given to Jim Dandy and win.

From Gallant Fox: A Memoir, by William Woodward, Sr.,
1930, National Sporting Library & Museum.

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Gallant Fox and Whichone famously lost the Travers Stakes, depicted in a series of photographic plates. From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Following the 1930 season, Gallant Fox was retired to stud with 11 wins in 17 races and over $300,000 in earnings.

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Gallant Fox returning to the scales after winning the 1930 Kentucky Derby. From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Beyond racing, Gallant Fox’s enjoyed considerable success at stud. In 1932, Gallant Fox sired Omaha, who would go on to be the third winner of the American Triple Crown in 1935. In 1933, Gallant Fox sired Flares, the second American horse to win the Ascot Gold Cup, a race narrowly lost by Omaha in 1936.

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From Gallant Fox: A Memoir. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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 

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Last year, the NSLM received a generous bequest from the late Elizabeth Dunn Clark of Middleburg, which included a beautiful example of work by the great British sporting painter, John Frederick Herring, Sr. (English, 1795-1865).

John Frederick Herring, Sr., The Start of the Derby, 1845, oil on canvas, 28 x 48 inches, NSLM, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017

Herring was well-known for his racing scenes and portraits of all the top English thoroughbreds of the day. The Start of the Derby, 1845, is a large composition showing the chaotic lineup at the start of the race in the foreground, and great billowing skyscape above.

F. Cooke, Portrait of John Frederick Herring, c. 1860, albumen carte-de-visite, 3 1/2 in. x 2 1/4 in. (88 mm x 57 mm) image size, National Portrait Gallery, London, Given by Algernon Graves, 1916. NPG Ax14887
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Epsom Derby, often just called “The Derby,” was first run in 1780 and takes its name from one of the event’s founders, the 12th Earl of Derby. The 1 ½ mile flat turf race is for 3 year old colts or fillies. Held every June, it is one of the most prestigious and popular races in England. The region of Epsom (the source of the famous “Epsom Salts,” which were discovered there in the 17th century) has been known for horse racing for over 400 years.

The winner of the 1845 Derby was The Merry Monarch, ridden by Foster Bell, and owned by Mr. William Gratwicke, and is shown at the center foreground of the NSLM painting.

The horse was described  in George Tattersall’s 1850 Pictorial Gallery of English Race Horses, as a “bright bay horse, sixteen hands high, and altogether a remarkably fine looking horse.”  Unfortunately, despite this attractive description, he was just a one-hit-wonder. The 1845 race was The Merry Monarch’s only career win. He became known as a fluke, and was later described (in the June 1869 issue of The Sportsman magazine) as a “a very bad horse. . . who could not possibly have finished where he did had the others only stood up.” (Ouch!)

Portraits of The Merry Monarch were painted by Herring and other contemporary equine artists. John Frederick Herring, Sr., G.W. Gratwicke’s bay colt The Merry Monarch, in a loose box, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.5 cm.) (Image: Christies)

The start of the race featured more excitement than the owners and jockeys would have liked. As they were lining up for the start, one of the best ranked horses of the year, Alarm, kicked another favorite, named The Libel. The two fought, Alarm threw his jockey, and then injured himself before the race could even start. Another top favorite, Pam, fell during the race. Herring’s depiction of the scene shows the crowded chaos.

A hand-drawn key to the painting, by the artist’s son, John “Fred” Frederick Herring, Jr., labels the horse and jockey portraits shown in the foreground. 18 of the 31 entries are identified – though we hardly need the key to tell us which one is the winner, and which are the two who fought at the start!

John Frederick Herring, Jr. (English, 1815-1907), The Start of the Derby (key), c. 1845, pencil on paper, 8 1/2 x 15 1/4 inches, NSLM, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017

1845 wasn’t the first time – and certainly wouldn’t be the last – that The Derby was marked by drama. The previous year, 1844, the winning horse named Running Rein, actually turned out to be a 4-year-old imposter named Maccabeus and was disqualified. One of the most famous and tragic runnings of the Derby was in 1913, when a suffragette named Emily Davison, who was protesting the lack of women’s voting rights, ran onto the track, was struck by a horse, and later died of her injuries.

Even though The Merry Monarch turned out to be a disappointment in future races, the summer race day shown in our new painting was his time to shine.

The auction had gotten a little out of hand, and most of the blame could be laid at the feet of George Lambton. Lambton (1860-1945) was a former officer in the British infantry, and a former amateur steeplechase jockey (a role in which he won the prestigious Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris in 1888). After a serious fall, he had turned to training racehorses, and was generally considered one of the finest trainers of his day. Today, however, Lambton was waging a bidding war on William Tatem, Baron Glanely. Lord Glanely was a hugely successful racehorse breeder between the World Wars. By the time the Yearling Sales were held at Doncaster in September of 1921, Lord Glanely had already won the Epsom Derby and was eager for new turf conquests.

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Left: “Lord Glanely, 1921.” Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Right: The Hon. George Lambton, from the painting by Lynwood Palmer.” Frontispiece to Men and Horses I Have Known, J. A. Allen & Co., 1963, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Both men sought to purchase a beautiful chestnut filly of sound pedigree and attractive conformation named Teresina. Bidding had started at the hefty sum of 1,000 guineas and had risen quickly into staggering totals. 5,000 guineas. 6,000 guineas. 7,000 guineas! Lord Glaneley topped Lambton with a bid of 7,600 guineas, to be outbid immediately by Lambton at 7,700. It was at this price that the auctioneer, the esteemed Somerville Tattersall, would ultimately award the filly to Lambton.

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“Teresina,” by Lionel Edwards. From The Aga Khan’s Horses, by R. C. Lyle, 1938. National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of Edmund S. Twining, 1993.

Lambton wasn’t bidding for himself. Earlier in 1921, he had received a request to meet in London with Sultan Muhammed Shah, the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan (1877-1957) had been urged by his friend, Baron Wavertree, to enter the Thoroughbred horse breeding world back in 1904. The Aga Khan was of the opinion that if a horse breeding enterprise was to be founded, it should be done properly. He had waited, opting to focus on his political and religious responsibilities instead. But by 1921, he was ready to build his stable. He met with Lambton in London, attempting to woo him away from the Earl of Derby as a trainer. Unable to persuade Lambton to train his horses, the Aga Khan had engaged him as his agent to purchase the horses to begin his new racing stable.

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“Painting Teresina — The Foal Who Would Be In” by Lionel Edwards. From The Aga Khan’s Horses, by R. C. Lyle, 1938. National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of Edmund S. Twining, 1993.

The Aga Khan’s instructions were simple enough: focus on mares and fillies, only purchase colts when they showed significant promise. When the Yearling Sales arrived, Lambton was determined to find the very best bloodstock for the Aga Khan. A brown filly named Cos was purchased by Lambton for 5,000 guineas, and by the time Lambton left the sales he had purchased eight horses for a total of 24,520 guineas. The tally would make up about 14 percent of the total for the entire sale.

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Signature page from The Aga Khan’s Horses, by R. C. Lyle, 1938. National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of Edmund S. Twining, 1993. R. C. Lyle, Lionel Edwards, and the Aga Khan all signed the 140 copies in this book’s first edition.

It was a promising beginning for the Aga Khan’s stable. Teresina established herself as a horse with exemplary stamina, and after three years of racing and a victory at the Jockey Club Stakes, was retired from racing. In 1922, Lambton purchased Mumtaz Mahal, a dashing gray filly with blinding speed. She would go on to be one of the most successful two-year-olds in the history of flat racing. By 1924, the Aga Khan was the leading owner, with 11 winners and over 44,000 pounds won that year. The Aga Khan would go on to become one of the most decorated racehorse owners and breeders of the early 20th Century. He’s still the only owner to have won the Derby five times and would be named a British Champion Owner thirteen times.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

Thousands of spectators thronged the race meet at Knavesmire in York on August 25, 1804. The crowd was much larger than usual and curious onlookers strained for a view of the upcoming race. The reason for all the commotion was simple: a woman was challenging a man in a horse race. It was a staggering event, both derided as a pure novelty by some and lauded as step toward equality by others. For many of the day’s spectators, it meant drama and entertainment, and they turned out in droves to see it.

The race was a family affair. Mrs. Alicia Thornton (1782-18??) of Thornville Royal had challenged her neighbor and brother-in-law, Captain Flint to a race. Her husband, Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823) was the original sporting gentleman of the 18th Century. He was an expert rider, went shooting, hawking and fishing, could leap his own height, and had a voracious appetite for gambling. Col. Thornton had placed a bet of 1,000 guineas on his wife in this contest, and both he and Flint were intent on victory.

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“Celebrated Race Between Mrs. Thornton and Mr. Flint at the York August Meeting, 1804.” Published October 1804 by J. Wheble, Warwick Square. The Sporting Magazine for September 1804, National Sporting Library & Museum.

Alicia rode on her husband’s horse Old Vingarillo. Flint rode his prized horse Thornville. Mrs. Thornton’s riding prowess was well-known as she regularly rode to hounds with her husband. In fact, it appears that her equestrian skills might have pressured Flint into some less-than-gallant behavior. He insisted on barring Alicia from being accompanied to the start of the race by an attendant. When she arrived at the start, Flint claimed the side of the course that helped him most. Since Alicia rode sidesaddle, she was prevented from using her usual whip hand without fear of interfering with her opponent.

To the racegoers, Alicia was the popular wager: betting began at 5 and 6 to 4 “on the petticoat,” and over the first three miles, betting ran to 7 to 4 then 2 to 1 on a Alicia’s victory. By all accounts, she was by far the superior rider during the race before disaster struck. In the final mile of the race, Old Vingarillo’s saddle-girths loosened and Alicia’s saddle slid sideways on the horse. She pulled up immediately to avoid a dangerous fall. Flint would later receive criticism for ignoring Alicia’s plight and riding hard the whole way to the finish to win by the maximum distance.

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Alicia Thornton by Mackenzie, after unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1805. NPG D8248 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was the Thornton side’s turn for less-than-gallant behavior. Col. Thornton refused to pay his wager for the loss, claiming that the bet had been nothing more than a friendly joke. Following her loss, Mrs. Thornton wrote a scathing complaint against Flint in the newspaper and issued a challenge to repeat the race again the following year. Flint refused to race again, likely prompted in part by Col. Thornton’s failure to pay.

Alicia would go on to race again in the next two years, becoming the first woman to win a match race in 1805 against Frank Buckle (1766-1832). At that race, Flint confronted Col. Thornton in the grandstands for payment of the prior year’s bet. Upon Col. Thornton’s continued refusal, Flint beat Thornton with a horse whip and had to be restrained by the other racegoers. The incident led to arrests, lawsuits, and a deep bitterness between the Flints and the Thorntons, who before the race had been on very friendly terms.

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“The Gallant and Spirited Race at Knavesmire, in Yorkshire for 500gs. and 1000gs. bye — 4 miles — between The Late Col. Thornton’s Lady and Mr. Flint.” Pierce Egan’s Book Of Sports, No. IX. National Sporting Library & Museum.

As for Alicia, her relationship with Col. Thornton began to sour in 1806 as Thornton’s fortune dried up. In the end, he was obliged to sell his massive Thornville royal estate. By the end of 1806, she and her husband parted ways and she eventually remarried a naval officer before disappearing from the pages of history. She would be remembered as the first female jockey in England, and was the only woman victor listed by the Jockey Club until 1943.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

One of the valuable research resources at NSLM is The Thoroughbred Record, a major periodical of record for the horse racing world. NSLM holds issues of The Thoroughbred Record dating back to 1895, and each issue tells some story from the history of racing.

In January of 1896, the American champion money winning racehorse retired. Domino, “The Black Whirlwind,” was being put out to stud by his owner, Foxhall Keene (1867-1941). Domino had been bred by Keene’s father, James R. Keene (1838-1913). Foxhall bought the yearling Domino from his father for $3,000 and the stallion went on a three-year tear through United States racing.

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Portrait of James Robert Keene, 1901, from The World’s Work. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Domino was a sprinter, benefiting from the development away from timed heats in American racing. With less emphasis on stamina and more on outright speed, Domino won (among others) the Belmont Futurity, the Belmont Stakes, and the Great American Stakes.

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Foxhall P. Keene, 1909. Keene was a successful racehorse owner and breeder, and a World and Olympic Gold Medallist in polo. He purchased Domino from his father, James Keene, in 1892 for $3,000. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

During Domino’s two-year-old campaign in 1893, he split his hoof and never completely recovered, often racing in bandages. Consistent injuries to his feet interrupted his training following his 1895 campaign, and in early 1896, he was retired to Castleton Stud with career earnings of over $190,000.

It has also not been decided whether Domino will ever return to the turf; he probably will not, though “Billy” Lakeland, his trainer, during his visit here this week, stated that he was absolutely sound — that is, as sound as he has ever been since he split his hoof during his two-year-old campaign. This foot has always been under suspicion since, and to it more than to any other cause is attributed the comparative failure of his subsequent form compared with his wonderful two-year-old record.
–The Thoroughbred Record, January 25, 1896.

The following month, Domino arrived in Lexington to overwhelming acclaim. Huge crowds of onlookers, upon hearing about Domino’s arrival, swarmed the stable where he was being kept. So great was the demand to see “the great black” horse that Domino’s handlers spent an entire day parading him for onlookers. The Thoroughbred Record of February 8, 1896, describes the horse’s appearance for its national readership.

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Domino’s general appearance seems to have been a bit of a letdown. Apparently, eastern newspapers played up Domino as a dashing figure, a myth dispelled upon his arrival in Kentucky. Nevertheless, The Thoroughbred Record admits his many other anatomical advantages as a racer, and he is named “beautifully balanced” and “perfectly sound,” except for his nagging feet injuries.

Domino produced 20 foals before succumbing to spinal meningitis in July 1897. Of those 20 foals, eight became stakes winners and his most famous descendants include War Admiral, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Native Dancer and American Pharoah.

Domino was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

Here in Virginia, we’re excited at the approach of a total solar eclipse which will occur in North America on August 21. While everybody is preparing to view this event, we were also reminded of another solar eclipse that left a major mark on the equestrian world.

On April 1, 1764, a solar eclipse occurred in Europe, with the maximum effect best seen in southeastern England and northern France. Viewing conditions were not ideal in London, leading observers to travel to Edinburgh to avoid cloud cover and get the best view. The eclipse began at 9:09 a.m., and continued until 11:53 a.m. Maximum obscuration was reported at 10:24 a.m. During the eclipse, the most valuable and influential horse in history was foaled.

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Daniel Quigley (Irish, 18th Century) The Godolphin Arabian, late 18th Century, oil on canvas, 38 x 48 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. This piece was view at NSLM as part of The Chronicle of the Horse in Art.

The horse, who was named Eclipse for his foaling day, was bred by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) and son of George II. Eclipse’s dam, Spilletta, was a granddaughter of the Godolphin Arabian, a foundational sire of the Thoroughbred breed.

Eclipse was headstrong and temperamental, and the chestnut stallion was renowned for his temper. We was worked constantly to tire him out, and the exercise made him easier to handle. Eclipse was large (sometimes criticized for having a big, unattractive head), and had great endurance for an era where horse racing was done in heats of two and four miles.

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Eclipse At New Market With Groom, by George Stubbs (1724-1806). Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The racing career of Eclipse is remarkable, as the horse went undefeated in 18 races over two years. His jockey, Jack Oakley, habitually let Eclipse run as he pleased, and made few attempts to hold him back. After Eclipse’s second victory, he was purchased by Dennis O’Kelly (1725-1787), an adroit horse breeder and bettor who was renowned for winning a bet that placed “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere,” meaning no other horse would finish within 240 yards of Eclipse.

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Illustration of geometric measurements of Eclipse by Charles Vial de Sanibel. From Essai sur les proportions Geometrales de l’Eclipse, 1791, National Sporting Library & Museum.

After two unbeaten campaigns, Eclipse was retired in large part because of a lack of challengers. It was impossible to find better odds against him than 20 to 1, and his value now resided at stud. His stud fee began at 50 guineas, and he went on to become the most successful sire in history, siring 344 winners of more than 158,000 pounds. It’s far easier to list Thoroughbreds that don’t count Eclipse in their background than those that do. It’s estimated that over 95% of Thoroughbreds can trace their pedigrees to Eclipse in the male line.

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Skeleton of Eclipse. Photo number L0000443, Wellcome Library. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Eclipse died on February 27, 1789 of a violent colic. Dennis O’Kelly’s nephew Andrew contracted famous veterinary surgeon Charles Vial de Sanibel (1753-1793) to dissect the body. Sanibel wrote a book on Eclipse from his anatomical findings, measuring the horse in geometric relation to the size of his head in order to establish ideal proportions for representation in artwork and selection of animals for breeding. His skeleton is now housed at the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

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