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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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