Phar Lap


Charles P S Boyer, The racehorse Phar Lap at Trentham Racecourse, New Zealand, on his way to the United States, 1931, Black and white original negative, Making New Zealand Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: MNZ-2372-1/2-F

Phar Lap

Racehorse Phar Lap was born in Timaru, New Zealand, on 4 October 1926. He had a good pedigree, and cash-strapped Sydney horse trainer Harry Telford persuaded businessman David J Davis to buy him from the Trentham sales in New Zealand in 1927.

Telford and Davis got Phar Lap at a good price, but when the two year-old arrived in Australia he was anything but impressive: he was big but gangly, and had warts all over his face. Davis was furious and wanted out – Telford agreed to train the horse for free, in return for two-thirds of any potential winnings.

Phar Lap began his four-year racing career in 1929. He went unplaced for his first four races, and looked out of his depth for most of the year, but towards the end of the season he began to make his mark.

For the next two years Phar Lap dominated Australian racing. At one stage he had 14 straight wins. He won the Melbourne Cup in 1930, and during the difficult years of the Great Depression he became an Australian icon. He tended to win his races by several lengths, and "Phar Lap first, day light second" became the commentator's call.

Phar Lap's final race was the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico (North America's richest race) on 20 March 1932. In an extraordinary performance, Phar Lap went from second-to-last to win by three lengths. The race was broadcast over the radio in Australia, and Phar Lap fans went crazy.

After the race Phar Lap went to San Francisco, while his owners decided which opportunities to take up next. But on the morning of 5 April 1932 Phar Lap was found in pain and with a fever – he died of internal bleeding later that day. Despite two autopsies, the precise cause of his death was never found, and suspicion still exists that he may have been deliberately poisoned.

Today Phar Lap remains one of the greatest racehorses ever seen in New Zealand and Australia.

Phar Lap online exhibition – Museum Victoria website

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