Phar Lap

Phar Lap is Australia’s most famous racehorse. He attained legendary status before his tragic death, and this status has been maintained ever since.

Photo of Phar Lap at Melbourne Museum

Phar Lap as he now appears at the Melbourne Museum.
Photographer: John Broomfield / Source: Museum Victoria

A champion’s rise

As a yearling, Phar Lap was regarded as too big and gangly. Sydney trainer Harry Telford bought him cheaply for 160 pounds.

As a two-year-old he raced five times for one small win. There was talk he’d make a better jumper.

Slowly, Phar Lap improved, and during the spring of 1929 he recorded a series of dazzling wins, including the Victoria Derby and AJC Derby. Victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup made him a household name.

Racing was the first sport covered live by radio in Australia, from about 1927. Previously, racing had a name as being for the ‘filthy rich and the untidy poor’. However, with radio, Phar Lap’s rise could be followed without going to the track. In lounge rooms, clubs and pubs throughout Australia, people felt close to ‘the action’.

Betting gave people a further sense of participation. Every pub and factory had an illegal ‘SP bookie’ — a bookmaker who paid at the ‘starting price’ odds offered by legal on-course bookmakers. Although Phar Lap’s odds were often very short, he won so often it is no wonder he became the people’s friend.

Depression hero

Phar Lap came good just when the economy went bad. The October 1929 stock market collapse led to widespread unemployment and untold misery.

While the Depression broke lives, Phar Lap broke records. Throughout Australia, people listened with anticipation every time Phar Lap raced. Each win heightened the national sense of awe. He’d done it again!

Between September 1929 and March 1932, Phar Lap ran 41 races over a variety of distances. He won an astonishing 36 of them.

To racing officials he was just too good. They changed the weight-for-age scale in a bid to make it easier for other horses to win. It didn’t work. The last two times Phar Lap failed to win, he was sick. On both occasions trainer Harry Telford had ignored the pleas of strapper Tommy Woodcock not to run him.

Photo of Phar Lap departing for the United States

Phar Lap departing for the United States, late 1931
Source: Museum Victoria

Having won almost every major Australian race, many of them twice, Phar Lap’s owners turned their eyes to the world’s richest race ¾ North America’s Agua Caliente Handicap.

Star of track and screen

Phar Lap was an accessible hero. His achievements gained wide media exposure.

Audiences followed his major wins on the new ‘talkie’ newsreels at their local cinemas. In daily newspapers he frequently moved out of the sports section and onto the front page as editors discovered he was good for sales.

Phar Lap became a ‘bankable’ sports personality, just as the potential commercial links between sport, media and marketing were beginning to be understood and exploited.

With such intense media focus, people felt they actually knew Phar Lap. When he beat the best American horses to easily win the Agua Caliente Handicap by two lengths, Australia was euphoric.

As newsreel footage of his win made its way by ship from America, Australians picked up their newspapers to learn that Phar Lap had died in mysterious circumstances. Theories of poisoning spread wildly, but the probable cause was either colic or a bacterial infection. The sense of loss to the Australian public was overwhelming.

Like all champion racehorses before and since, Phar Lap followed what is known as the thoroughbred industry ‘money trail’ — 10 racetracks, 3 Australian states, 4 countries, 51 starts.

Throughout his hectic career, the one constant in Phar Lap’s life was strapper Tommy Woodcock. As long as he was around, Phar Lap was happy. When Phar Lap suddenly took ill on 5 April 1932, Tommy Woodcock was there. The champion died in his arms.

Life after death

When Phar Lap died there was a scramble among several institutions in Australia for his mortal remains. Phar Lap’s huge heart went to the National Institute of Anatomy in Canberra; the skeleton went to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand; and the hide – the most prized part – went to the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne.

Phar Lap was taxidermied by Jonas Brothers of New York. Altogether, the work took four and a half months. The hide was mounted on a hollow shell of moulded materials such as burlap, building paper and plaster, over a steel framework so strong it can support the weight of an adult.

Phar Lap was installed in the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne in 1933. He stayed there for almost 70 years.

In 2000 Phar Lap was removed from the old museum building and moved up the hill to the new Melbourne Museum. He will stand here, majestically as always, for generations to come.

Comments (62)

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Eryn 2 November, 2009 13:25
Is there anywhere I can get a plush toy Phar Lap? I love him, and would really love a plush horse of him.
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Discovery Centre 2 November, 2009 16:12

Hi there Eryn. You certainly can get a plush toy of Phar Lap and they available from the Melbourne Museum Shop. We have two sizes: 9 inch $18.95 and 18 inch $39.95. You can order one by sending an email to mmshop@museum.vic.gov.au

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PharLapFAN001boi 10 November, 2009 15:40
He was an inspiration. When he died, a light went out in most Australian's hearts. The momentous event simply made it harder for them to survive everyday life.
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sabrina 18 January, 2010 20:36
today I saw Phar Lap's heart in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. i felt it was too good to be true. It's huge, weighing 6.2kg. THAT HORSE WAS A LEGEND, AND WILL BE REMEMBERRED 4EVER
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monica barber 8 March, 2010 01:50
I love horses and when i saw phr lap the movie i can't stop crying esbachsalley when phar lap deid in the end of the movie it upsets me white horses raceing does to horese it makes me feel sick bore phar lap talod he was a frick not fare i wash they horese raceing for good phr lap i am so sorry you had a misrble life your my hero and the should do a charitey to save athere race horese i will call that charitey phar lap mamrery so we can stop the crytey to horsers in the world and have a nice longer life
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Tayla 17 March, 2010 20:40
He was a beautifil horse. I wish I could of seen him race...
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Lynda 5 April, 2010 17:01
Never in a million years, will there ever be another brilliant,beautiful, proud horse like Phar Lap...He was & is one of a kind...
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brea 14 August, 2012 11:56
yes there is black caviar
chelsea 21 May, 2013 14:57
there is also black caviar
Paul 24 October, 2013 09:57
Yeah how about Black Caviar.
Peter 30 October, 2013 11:51
Yeah whats that horse that has won 25 undefeated races with the tital WTRR. The same horse that was trained by Peter Moody. Whats its name again?
Susie 5 April, 2010 20:51
I remember being moved to tears when I stood in the museum looking at him a few years ago. Such a beautiful heart that brought so much joy into people's lives at a time when there wasn't much joy or hope around. I can only imagine how emotional it would have been to be around when he was alive to see him race. He did Australia proud. RIP Pharlap xxx
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Anna 22 April, 2010 12:37
Phar Lap is a lovely horse and I wish he was mine......
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zoe 23 April, 2010 08:22
Pharlap is gorgeous, I would pay a million dollars for him.
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skye 6 December, 2013 11:56
oh so gorgeus i want him all this tales make me upset
Tracy 11 May, 2010 11:17
I,m curious to know if you have any information on Jim Pyke as i believe he was involved with Phar Lap and he is a great uncle of mine
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Discovery Centre 11 May, 2010 16:42

Hi Tracey. Jim Pike was Phar Lap’s jockey. There is a great deal of information on him available online, including: on our Phar Lap website and Australia Dictionary of Biography online. Doinf a quick internet search for the words "Phar Lap" and "Jim Pike" will result in many interesting pages through which you can continue your research.  

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Mr X 31 August, 2010 10:32
Phar Lap is slower than James May!
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Jen 6 September, 2010 09:56
Phar Lap is a legend and Simon Wincer's 1983 movie about him is a fitting tribute to possibly the fastest and greatest racehorse that ever lived. Phar Lap continues to be an inspiration today.
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Santo Serrano 14 October, 2010 09:19
Phar Lap is such an amazing insporation i remember when my horse told me that his idol was Phar Lap.
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Rio 18 October, 2010 09:00
Phar Lap is Australian and proud of it!! Is there another meaning for the words Phar Lap????
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Discovery Centre 20 October, 2010 12:51

Dear Rio - Phar lap is Thai for ‘lightning’ or ‘wink of the sky’

http://www.artbycrane.com/thegreatesthorseraceever.html

The name Phar Lap comes from a Zhuang (southern Chinese) and Thai word meaning ‘lightning’: http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/module/149/

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Jenny 21 October, 2010 20:04
Phar lap! He is just soooo adorable. (sigh) I wish he hadn't died. Do you know what web site you can read more about phar lap?
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Discovery Centre 23 October, 2010 11:02
Hi Jenny! He is a handsome lad, isn't he? I think you'll enjoy our Phar Lap site - a whole section of our website devoted to his life and racing career.
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John 2 November, 2010 09:41
Is there any record of the staff employed by Harry Telford at Braeside Stables. I believe my father worked for him as a stable boy and would love some confirmation.
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Hayley 2 November, 2010 10:15
Phar Lap came from good sturdy Kiwi soil! Thats why, afterall, he won the Melbourne Cup!! He did all us Kiwi's proud as well!
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zoe 2 November, 2010 14:26
I think Phar Lap is the best racehorse ever. People can say Makybe Diva is good, but Phar Lap is Australia's true legend. I love Phar Lap. Do you know any websites on Phar Lap? Or maybe Carbine, if possible? I really think Phar Lap is so gorgeous! I am very excited about the 150th Melbourne Cup.
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Discovery Centre 5 November, 2010 10:51
Hi Zoe, have you looked at the Museum's Phar Lap website? Racing Victoria has a page on Carbine you might like aswell. Hope this helps!
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CHLOE PHAR LAP FAN 1# 22 February, 2011 20:20
what was pharlap's race name ? HE IS A TRUE LEGAND
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Discovery Centre 23 February, 2011 16:26
Hi Chloe - Phar Lap only had one race name that we are aware of, and that's the only name we know him by
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Mel Stevens 27 August, 2012 15:53
Just have a question. The old glass enclosure that Phar lap was put in, what happened to that? It's just that it was rumored to be in a house a few doors from me. Sadly today, that house is being demolished to make way for units. I just would like to know if this rumor is true?
CHLOE PHAR LAP FAN 1# 23 February, 2011 16:44
Okay because my friend said that it was big red
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CHLOE PHAR LAP FAN 1# 25 February, 2011 21:20
Legand totall legand !!!!! cant wait to see him .Very sad to know he died at such a youg age . R.I.P Phar lap chesnut gelding died at the age of 5.and when did phar lap die
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Terri 8 May, 2011 20:23
After just watching Phar Lap, the movie for the hundreth time. I still shed a tear at such a tragedy. PHAR LAP was and still is a great horse in my home. I would love to know if PHAR LAP ever sired a foal of his own, although I feel this is most unlikly. PHAR LAP may have been sired in New Zealand, but he found his desires in Australia. PHAR LAP's devotion and admiration to please Harry Telford and Tommy woodcock said it all. I would have loved to have met you (Mr Woodcock)and PHAR LAP. Like you, I am devoted to my animals. I strongly believe that PHAR LAP should have the same respect as anyone, and his bones,hide and his heart should be together in the Melbourne mesuem. Maybe the New zealand and canberra mesuem's could send the bones and heart of Phar Lap to Melbourne, and receive some royalties for their part ownerships of Phar Lap. I truly hope that one day I get the chance to see PHAR LAP all together again, and at peace in Melbourne mesuem. I would love to take my kid's to see all of the Big Red. The thought of him being seperated into pieces over great distances just breaks my heart.
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Ian J. 24 April, 2013 11:12
Hi Terri, As a Kiwi it's nice to see someone acknowledging our stake in Phar Lap's story. Very disappointing however that the museums story of Phar Lap contains no such references.
cassie delaney 10 May, 2011 13:42
ohk, im doing a school progect on phar lap at school, im in the computer reading this and i have to say wow!!! phar lap is amazing, and im sad i wasnt around when he was ( i wasnt born yet ), i havn`t seen the movie but i would love to... phar lap is a true ledgend <3
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Rose Smith 15 May, 2011 11:58
I think Phar Lap is an awesome horse, andit is brilliant that he is Australian, because Australians are the best. I wish he could have lived longer than he did, because he was just such an amazing horse, i wish i could have a horse like that. I was wondering are there any other horses as cool as Phar Lap to the day? I dont think Phar Lap could be over ruled because he is the Best ever. GO PHAR LAP
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Rose Bloom 15 May, 2011 12:00
I love Phar Lap i think he is the most amazing horse eva
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Stanly 15 May, 2011 12:02
Why didnt they breed with Phar Lap?
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Discovery Centre 22 May, 2011 11:39

Interesting question Stanly, perhaps some of Phar Laps fans can answer this one for you...

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Stanly 25 May, 2011 12:59
hello my name is stanly and i am 16 years old, i have been doing a research task at school in history and it is about Phar Lap, this site has been the most useful site out of all of the sites i have vistited, Phar Lap is a magnificent horse, he was a a legend, is there any horses like Phar Lap today, i would also like to say my girlfriend anna is in love with Phar Lap more than me!!! which kinda sucks, Phar Lap is truely an amazing horse! GOOOOOOOOO Phar Lap, Loveing Phar Lap for life thanks alot Love stanly
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Stanly 25 May, 2011 13:04
hello i just realised that the question i asked before , well i now no the answer, They didnt breed Phar Lap because he hadnt finished raceing, usually when a horse has finished its facesing years then it goes into breeding, at least i think that is the answer, if its not i hope some of the other readers could answer it for me thanks
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syd 21 June, 2011 09:38
doing schoool projecut on pharlap i love farlap
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Lisa 1 August, 2011 20:39
What a pure legend!!. Do you think Phar Lap's body parts will ever come together as one to the Museum of Victoria? What happened to his brain? Was any part of him buried and where? I have seen the movie, what a truly inspirational, but sad story. Woodcock and Phar Lap were such a great team, inseparable actually. The LEGENG lives on in everyone, even today some 79yrs ago.
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Brae 5 August, 2011 19:20
Phar Lap was the greatest horse ever... I wish i could have seen him race... I love Bobby, he was the best! I recently read a book on Bobby and it was so sad! Does anyone know why they aren't still looking to see who gave him that massive dose of arsenic that killed him? anyone who even thought about hurting Bobby should be overdosed with poison themselves!
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Stanly 22 August, 2011 13:10
Hey phar lap LOVERS, i LOVE PHAR LAP, if phar lap had a little pony i would name it anna, anna would be cute and adorable, and i would bye anna, from phar laps owner, anna, i be would be kind and everything and i would marry her to a horse not names bolt, maybe ummmm Jack <3 totaly i love phar lap nad i think he is the best GO GO GO GO PAHR GO PHAR GO PHAR LAP, WE LOVE YOU AND ALWAYS WILL
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Perry 3 January, 2012 16:43
A fascinating part of our history & I'm glad Phar Lap is just down the road. I am playing Harry Telford in a play about Phar Lap at the Adelaide Fringe, March 2012. I am going to see the horse as part of my research into Telford's & the horses' character.
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Discovery Centre 18 April, 2012 15:33
Hi Amita, so much has been written about Phar Lap, we have a website dedicated to him!  With a little internet hunting I am sure you will find plenty of answers and opinions to your question.
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Rose 16 May, 2012 13:24
He was an amazing horse and his legend will live on for all eternity
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shestha 3 June, 2012 10:19
PLEASE tell me if there is more info on Phar Lap. I have to write a history report and i would like to write a tribute to him. He is and was and always be Australia's Golden Horse.
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Discovery Centre 3 June, 2012 10:24
Hi Shestha, you will find lots of information on Phar Lap using the links at the top right of this page under related resources. You might also want to look at the information provided on the websites of Te Papa (where Phar Lap's skeleton is located) and the home of his heart, the National Museum of Australia.
Danielle Radford 28 August, 2012 22:01
I cry when I think of Phar Lap. He was the 1st ever horse I knew. And yet kids in my class do not even know who Phar Lap is! Oh my Goodness! Seriously! I have known since I was 5 years old! He is my INSPIRATION! He inspires me to do what I do. EQUESTRIAN. I am going to train the new Phar Lap! But Black Caviar is taking the mare super spot. Just imagine Phar Lap and Black Caviar up in heaven. The perfect couple. Phar Caviar!!! 🐎🐴Dani. Rad.
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Karen Taylor 10 March, 2013 17:55
My family history descibes my 4great grandfather lived on the property were Pah Lap stayed witch made it very exciting when l found out.
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anita 29 April, 2013 18:00
is there any more information on Phar lap because my daughter is doing a project she has already done: how Phar lap died?-
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Discovery Centre 30 April, 2013 08:39

Hi Anita,

Please refer to this webpage on our website, it talks about Phar Lap's death and it's cause. Hope this helps!

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Mel 8 June, 2013 18:32
I thought I read somewhere that Phar Lap stayed in Newcastle NSW for a short period.. Is this true please ? If so , can you lead me to more information. Thank you
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mia 16 July, 2013 11:32
who were phar laps owners???????
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Discovery Centre 16 July, 2013 12:00

Hi Mia,

This information along with a lot more detail on Phar Laps life can be found here.

Jessica 17 August, 2013 19:33
Omg I love phar lap he is so cute. I have been around horses my whole life and I have never seen a horse as pretty as him. An I agree with who ever said they want a plush toy of him I think the museum should sell them they will be a hit I'm thinking $10 I would get one!!!!
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Tina Vitolins 31 October, 2013 13:49
I remember when I lived in victoria and a lot of people had been telling me to go check out the Museum before I left and I'm glad I did because the moment I saw phar lap in that glass casing I immediately broke down and cried the rest of the way through the museum, such an amazing experience and an honour to be in the presence of such an amzing and beautiful horse. Thankyou xx
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Andrejs Valdemars 1 November, 2013 10:13
Could not agree more, Tina. I also was emotionally moved by seeing that amazing horse. My two sons Shaun and Kyle and I went to the museum one day and it was the best experience I have ever witnessed thankyou Phar Lap: Museum Victoria. :) xx
Clara 19 February, 2014 20:50
What was Phar Laps Fastest race time? and which track was it on?
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