Phar Lap started life on a stud farm near Timaru in 1926. His breeder sent him to the Trentham yearling sales in early 1928. Harry Telford, a New Zealand horse trainer in Sydney, spotted Phar Lap in the sale catalogue, and liked the look of his pedigree. He didn’t have any money to buy the horse, so he got David J Davis, an American living in Sydney, to put up the purchase price – 160 guineas.
His name means ‘lightning’ in Thai, but Phar Lap was a large, ungainly looking chestnut colt, and he had warts all over his head. Even worse, he was looking thin after a rough sea voyage from Wellington to Sydney. So when his new owner saw him for the first time at Harry Telford’s stables, Davis was not at all impressed with Harry’s buy. In fact, he refused to spend a single penny more to have Phar Lap trained.
Harry Telford had faith that Phar Lap’s pedigree would make him amount to something. But he couldn’t afford to buy Phar Lap from Davis, so he got Davis to lease the horse to him instead, with Davis to get one-third of any race winnings. The prospects for those didn’t look good for the first few months that Harry was training Phar Lap. Harry backed off the training for a while, gave Phar Lap a spell to get on with his growing (his full adult height was seventeen hands), had him gelded, then renewed the training.
Phar Lap had five starts as a two-year-old in the autumn of 1929. He got nowhere in the first four races, then won the fifth. In the middle of 1929, as a three-year-old, he had another four starts and was unplaced. In his next race, a longer one, Phar Lap finished strongly to come second – Harry Davis’s hopes for the horse’s ability as a stayer were raised.
Phar Lap had several wins, one in record time, then finished third in his first Melbourne Cup. He was rested most of that summer, then in the autumn of 1930 started his legendary string of successes – he won thirty-three of the remaining thirty-five races in his career.
The punters loved Phar Lap, and he invariably started as odds-on favourite. Others were not so keen – someone, possibly a bookmaker, tried to shoot him as he returned from track work one morning in November 1930. He went on to win the Melbourne Stakes that day and the Melbourne Cup, easily, three days later.
At the end of Phar Lap’s three-year lease, Harry Telford became a joint owner in partnership with David J Davis. Davis sent Phar Lap off to race in the United States. Telford was not happy about it, and stayed home. Tom Woodcock, Telford’s stable assistant, and Phar Lap’s carer since his two-year-old days, accompanied the horse there.
Phar Lap won in record time the prestigious Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico in March 1932. Invitations to race in the eastern United States flooded in. But on 5 April Phar Lap suddenly died, in agonising pain, possibly from eating poisoned grass – the real cause was never established.
So ended a legendary champion – and the distribution of his remains reflects the claims on him by both Australia and New Zealand. His heart and his hide went to Australia. The heart, at 6.3 kilograms extraordinarily large by horse standards, is in a bottle in Canberra. The hide is mounted on a model of Phar Lap in the Museum of Victoria. His bones came back to New Zealand, and are with us here at Te Papa.
Phar Lap’s vital statistics
Sire Night Raid
Born near Timaru, 4 October 1926
Died Menlo Park, California, 5 April 1932
Sex male (gelding)
Height 17 hands
Bought for £170 NZ
Earnings from racing £66,738 AUS
Learn more in a video about Phar Lap on racinghalloffame.co.nz
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998)