Alex Staines got together with Gerry Morris, trustee of the Phar Lap Charitable Trust, to pay homage to the enduring legend of Phar Lap, New Zealand’s greatest ever racehorse.
There’s a saying in racing that a racehorse is an animal that can take several thousand people for a ride at the same time. In Phar Lap’s case, he is still running his race after 90 years. He has taken millions along for the ride in that time with no sign of the winning post any time soon. Phar Lap, whose name is Sinhalese and means lightning, was the misfit from the backblocks who became champion of the world.
Gangly colt fails to impress
Phar Lap was born in 1926 at Seadown near Timaru, a gangly chestnut colt with great promise. But he failed to impress buyers at his first public appearance at the Trentham sales on 24 January 1928.
However, one man wanted him. The instincts of Australian trainer Harry Telford were aroused after he read the colt’s pedigree four generations back from his parentage: Night Raid out of Entreaty. Telford, who was battling financial ruin during the Depression, persuaded his client David Davis to put up 160 guineas ($336) to buy him.
Fame in Australia with Telford stable
Phar Lap left Trentham and was shipped to Australia. Davis was so unimpressed with his looks that he leased him to Telford for three years. Phar Lap, however, went on to gain fame in the Telford Stables colours, recording 37 wins out of 51 starts. These included the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the world’s richest race of its time, the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico. Other major wins were the Victoria and AJC Derbies and the WS Cox Plate (twice).
Drama and controversy surrounded Phar Lap’s career. Criminals tried to shoot him the Saturday before his 1930 Melbourne Cup win. His strapper Tommy Woodcock, Telford, and regular jockey Jim Pike were each offered substantial bribes to ensure he didn’t win. They all refused.
When Phar Lap returned to Trentham, to the stables of Hugh Telford, in late 1931 for several weeks’ rest before travelling to the United States to prepare for the Agua Caliente Handicap, run on 20 March, 1932.
Big Red shows greatness in Mexico
The greatness of Phar Lap can be shown in the difficulties he overcame to win that race. He spent several weeks on board a ship to San Francisco. He was then taken 900km by road to Tijuana – described as “boiling hot” – arriving on 28 January, a month before the race.
Ten days before the race, he split his hoof and, after treatment, he was fitted with heavy bar shoes for the first time. He was the top-weighted horse, carrying 58.5kg, conceding 4kg and more against some of the best horses in America, and he was racing on dirt for the first time. He had not had a preparatory race.
Yet Phar Lap went on to win the Agua Caliente, coming from behind as was his usual practice to win easily by two lengths in a track record time of 2:2.8, clipping 0.2 seconds from the previous best time.
‘An agonising death’
Less than three weeks later he was struck down in a San Francisco stable by a mystery illness and died an agonising death from a ruptured stomach on 6 April. The claim is that the autopsy was badly bungled and the real story about his death has never been told.
Drama and controversy surrounded Phar Lap’s career. Criminals tried to shoot him the Saturday before his 1930 Melbourne Cup win.
The present day value of Phar Lap’s earnings has been assessed at AU$15.7 million. Three-time Melbourne Cup winner and leading Australasian stakes winner Maykbe Diva earned AU$14.5 million and Sunline AU$11.3 million on a comparative basis.
The untold story
A book published in 2009, Phar Lap: the Untold Story, by Graeme Putt and Pat McCord, provides absorbing material about Phar Lap on numerous fronts.
The champion’s breeder, Alec Roberts, born at Akaroa in 1860, who later married into the famous Moorhouse family of Christchurch, has been a shadowy figure in Phar Lap’s story. The authors bring him into the light for readers for the first time.
His business interests across the South Island brought their own pressures and contributed to a spell for Roberts in the Seacliff Mental Hospital, where author Janet Frame was another famous patient. In 1919, Roberts purchased the 300 acres at Seadown where the champ was born in 1926, as well as a stately home in Park Lane in Timaru.
The champion’s New Zealand heritage played a very important part in his success. His tap root mare Miss Kate is the tap root mare in all three of the initial inductees into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame in 2006, the other two being Kindergarten and Sunline.
The book establishes a fuller and more sympathetic image of the trainer, Harry Telford, describing the period of his extensive training and development in horsemanship spent in New Zealand, establishing him as the pre-eminent figure in producing Phar Lap, the racehorse supreme, rather than strapper Tommy Woodcock or American owner David Davis.
Most importantly, the book answers the lingering question of why Telford never accompanied the horse on the fateful American trip, leaving it to his young strapper Woodcock instead. Telford’s daughter took ill in Australia just prior to the horse’s departure from Sydney to Wellington and she died the day after the champ left Wellington for San Francisco. His family was his bigger need at that time.
Two nations claim the champion
There has always been contention between New Zealand and Australia as to who has the greater claim on the gentle-natured, big-hearted horse who won the affections of two nations.
We New Zealanders will always claim the high moral ground because ours is the country of his birth. The important parts of his dead body, however, are divided between this country and Australia: his skeleton is in Te Papa National Museum, Wellington; his massive heart in a jar in the Australian National Museum, Canberra; and his hide on a model of his body in the Victoria Museum, Melbourne. The rest of him was buried in California, the place of his death.
A life-sized bronze statue of the champ with Jim Pike was unveiled near his birthplace in Timaru in November 2009, and a charitable trust established to recognise this outstanding thoroughbred.
Published by permission of NZME. Educational Media