Sports betting PR legend GRAHAM SHARPE writes…
ON THE WAY to the airport in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, recently, being driven by our son to be dispatched from whence we’d come a couple of weeks before Christmas, we drove through a small town called Seatown, the name of which caused my wife to exclaim ‘Isn’t this where Phar Lap was born?’
Sheila wasn’t far out about the early twentieth century racing phenomenon, who is routinely, oddly, and inaccurately, claimed as one of their own by Aussie racing fans.
In fact, the winner of 37 of his 51 races was foaled on October 4, 1926, in another, similarly named New Zealand place – Seadown, and in 2009 a bronze statue commemorating the colt was installed nearby, marking his foaling at the Timaru stud, via local mare Entreaty and English sire, Night Raid – the latter winning just two of his 25 starts.
Although his pedigree did include 1890 Melbourne Cup winner, Carbine, as a young chestnut colt, Phar Lap showed little signs of significant ability as a yearling – being regarded as too big and ungainly, and referred to as a ‘giraffe’ and ‘ugly duckling’.
But Phar Lap quickly defied his critics after Sydney trainer Harry Telford felt there was something about the colt who was listed as ‘Lot 41’ in the January, 1928 Annual New Zealand Thoroughbred Yearling Sales .
Telford didn’t have the funds to acquire the horse outright, but persuaded Sydney businessman David J Davis to shell out 160 guineas – £168- to buy him ‘sight unseen.’
Once he did see the colt, unimpressed Davis refused to have anything further to do with him, so Telford reluctantly took the animal on a three year lease – paying outgoing expenses in return for a two thirds share of any prize money won.
Little was expected of the horse, whose name was suggested by a medical student at Sydney University,, Aubrey Ping, who regularly watched horses working at local course Randwick and had got to know trainers and jockeys.
The name reportedly means ‘lightning’ in Siamese or Thai.
Racing five times as a two year old, and winning twice, plans were hatched to campaign him over fences. But these were put on hold as his flat form suddenly blossomed dramatically and he began to hit the winning streak which soon saw him become a household name amongst racing and sporting folk.
The horse became a hero as a Depression hit the country’s economy. A 1929 stock market collapse resulted in widespread unemployment, and coincided with Phar Lap’s record-setting winning streak and his popularity was celebrated by the media.
The Aussies began to regard him as their own, as a result of his racing record. Between September 1929 and March 1932 he raced 41 times from 7f to 2m, winning three dozen of the contests.
He never actually raced in his native country, but amongst his triumphs in his adopted land were the 1930 Melbourne Cup, (he’d finished second the year before), as the hottest favourite ever, at 8/11; the AJC Derby, the Victoria Derby, the AJC St Leger, the VRC St Leger, and the Cox Plate – twice. All major contests.
Now front page news whatever he did, it was decided to target North America’s Agua Caliente Handicap – then claiming to be the world’s richest race. He won by two lengths – but then news broke on April 6, 1932, that the horse had died in the US, aged just five.
An official autopsy concluded that the cause of death was either colic or bacterial infection. Others blamed soiled food or insecticide-tainted tree foliage.
However, the horse’s primary carer, Tommy Woodcock – who called the horse ‘Bobby’ – declared the animal had been deliberately poisoned.
Declares website, American Classic Pedigrees:
‘His untimely death from what was probably a combination of bacterial infection and arsenic poisoning while recuperating from a tendon injury spawned persistent conspiracy theories implicating organized crime, a reasonable suspicion considering that the horse had been a target for similar elements while still in Australia. Laboratory findings released in 2008 indicated that the horse had ingested a massive dose of arsenic 30 to 40 hours prior to his death.’
Phar Lap’s oversized heart, weighing around 14lbs, was acquired by the National Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, while his skeleton went to the Dominion Museum in his native New Zealand – and his hide to the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne in January 1933 – where it stayed for some 70 years, until being moved to the new Melbourne Museum.
The horse was ‘taxidermied’ by New York firm, Jonas Brothers.
In September 2010, marking the 80th anniversary of his Melbourne Cup triumph, the horse’s hide was reunited with his skeleton, on loan from Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, which your correspondent has visited on several occasions.
A life-sized statue of Phar Lap adorns the grounds of Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne.
In 1983 a movie, ‘Phar Lap’ celebrated the horse’s life and career, featuring ‘lookalike’ Towering Inferno in the title role.
Perhaps Phar Lap’s most unusual talent was smoking a pipe – a skill taught him by handler Tommy Woodcock, who became so close to the horse that he would sleep outside his box.
Views of authors do not necessarily represent views of Star Sports Bookmakers.