PHAR LAP - Story
Phar Lap comes from the Thai word pharlap "emitting light from the
According to the sales catalogue Phar Lap was foaled on 26 October 1926. The New Zealand
Stud Book claims that he was actually foaled on 4 October 1926. On his registration
certificate Phar Lap's distinguishing marks read: "chestnut gelding; near hind leg
and fetlock white off hind coronet white, white star on forehead, four black spots on off
quarter, white spot over black spot near quarter".
Phar Lap is sold at the Trentham Thoroughbred Yearling
Sales in New Zealand on 24 January 1928 for the modest sum of 160 guineas or US$336.00 at
only one year, three months and three weeks after birth. Despite the fact that he is
an ugly, leggy gelding trainer Harry Telford is impressed by his blood lines. The money
comes from David Davis who leases Phar Lap to Harry Telford as he can not cover the sale
price or the transport costs of the horse from New Zealand to Australia. However, Phar
Lap's early training period and his first few races do not look very promising, he appears
to be a sure loser. Harry Telford convinces David Davis that the horse is only lazy.
As it is vital for his finances and reputation as a trainer Harry Telford starts Phar Lap
on a vigorous, almost cruel training program to overcome the horse's "laziness".
He is desperate to produce a racing champion since he has lost most of his clients. His
training method does not bring any results and it is only when strapper Tommy Woodcock
finds a new track training technique that Phar Lap begins his phenomenal string of
victories. Tommy awakens Phar Lap's spirit to win and his instinct to lead, by running him
alongside another horses, holding him back, then letting him go. Tommy Woodcock is a
natural with horses and develops such a strong bond of trust with Phar Lap that he will
not eat until Tommy is there. He affectionately calls him "Bobby".
Phar Lap was a large horse, 17 hands high, with powerful leg muscles. Although he was
known as a stayer, a horse that performs well in races over a long distance, he was
equally successful at sprint races. It is jockey Jim Pike who rides Phar Lap to 27 wins
and 2 seconds. Despite tremendous odds, Phar Lap keeps winning and winning. His
owners, in their greed for more money, give him little rest, racing him at nearly every
opportunity. Tommy Woodcock persistently argues that the horse is worked too hard. The
Australian Racing Association keeps burdening him with crushing weights that would have
broken the health of any other horse. But Phar Lap keeps winning and becomes the favourite
of the Australian public. By the spring of 1931 Phar Lap is even being used to sell a
range of products. He is not such a favourite with the bookmakers as he is threatening the
profitability of the betting establishment. In 1930 when Phar Lap wins under previously
illegal weights they are even trying to kill him. However, the identity of the gunman was
never discovered. Thanks to Tommy Woodcock Phar Lap is unhurt and wins the Melbourne
Stakes at Flemington that very day and three days later the Melbourne Cup.
Towards the end of 1931 David Davis decides to race Phar in America, arguing that the
horse defeated everything in Australia (see Phar Lap - racing records). Tommy Woodcock is
assigned as his trainer to come along while Harry Telford stays in Melbourne. Phar Lap
leaves on board of the vessel "Ulimaroa" for New Zealand for a few weeks rest
and continues his journey to America on board the "Monowai" where three special
enclosures for Phar Lap's comfort are brought in. As the horse is very restless during the
voyage Tommy Woodcock forsakes his comfortable cabin to sleep in the horse's box.
Phar Lap arrives in San Francisco on 15 January 1932. Reaching Agua Caliente on 27 January
Phar Lap seems unaffected by the 965 kilometres drive down the Californian coast. There is
enough time to adjust to the different climate and surroundings and Tommy Woodcock does
his best to protect his horse from the press and a too eager public.
On 20 March 1932 the biggest and richest horse race in Mexico the Tijuna Cup takes place
with a price money of $US 50,000 which is equivalent to $US 644,330 in 2001. Phar Lap
starts from barrier No. 9 in a field of 11 horses. Jockey Billy Elliot rides him to
victory despite an injured hoof. At first Phar Lap is at the back of the field but gallops
to the lead down the back straight in record time for the track. After the race he seems
to look tired. David Davis does not allow Phar Lap to rest and sends him by motor float to
Menlo Park near San Francisco the very next day. There he has a minor operation on
his injured hoof from which he recovers well, while his owner negotiates further race
appearances and even a series of films about Phar Lap.
On the fateful morning of 5 April 1932 Tommy Woodcock awakes to find Phar Lap unwell. The
Australian vet, Bill Nielsen, notices an elevated temperature and an irregular pulse, his
diagnosis is colic and the horse is treated with a drench. Tommy Woodcock walks Phar Lap
in the yard to allow the medication to work. However the champion's condition deteriorates
quickly, he is retching and groaning with pain and his stomach is bloated. Eventually it
becomes too much; back in his stall Phar Lap falls to the ground, spurts bloody fluid from
his nostrils and dies. It is just after 2 pm on 5 April 1932 or about 8.30 am Australian
eastern standard time on 6 April 1932.
There has been a lot of speculation about the cause of Phar Lap's death from poisoning to
acute enteritis, which is a severe inflammation of the intestine. These days it is
believed that the most possible cause of death was Duodenitis-Proximal jejuitis,
enterotoxic shock. A condition that was not know in Phar Lap's days and that still kills
nearly 70% of affected horses today despite of advanced diagnostic techniques and
To preserve his legacy as the greatest race horse ever Phar Lap was stuffed, and is now
part of the most popular exhibit in the Victoria Museum. His skeleton is in the National
Museum of New Zealand. Phar Lap had a strong, unusually large heart, which after his death
was discovered to be one of the largest ever found in a race horse weighing 6.2 kilograms,
the average for a horse is 4.0 kilograms.