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Title Image: The Legend
The Legend

At the news of his death, the Australian press overflowed with tributes to Phar Lap. In the decades since, tributes of many kinds have continued.

 Portrait of Jim Pike on Phar Lap

Many of the accolades over the years relate to Phar Lap as a champion horse, referring to his speed and stamina, and describing some of his glorious moments on the race track. But the themes and rhetoric go further than that.

Days after the death of his horse, trainer Harry Telford said: 'He was an angel. A human being couldn't have had more sense. He was almost human; could do anything but talk. I've never practised idolatry, but by ... I loved that horse.'

Like many Australians, Telford attributed to Phar Lap qualities both human and divine. Among the 'human' characteristics described was his bravery. In an age when memories of Gallipoli were still strong, one of the main themes was that Phar Lap was a noble warrior, who persevered and never gave up.

Jockey Jim Pike, who rode Phar Lap in most of his races, summed up his performance in the 1931 Futurity Stakes at Caulfield, where the odds were stacked against him, with the words, 'I thought his heart would burst.'

In Australia, such attributes are not enough in themselves—it is important that our heroes are also 'good blokes', likeable and approachable.

The press emphasised the horse's peaceable nature, and newspaper images showed Phar Lap carrying Telford's young son, or rolling playfully in the sand, or taking an apple quietly from his strapper, Tommy Woodcock, whose touching relationship with the horse was also often celebrated.

He died over seventy years ago, yet Phar Lap, along with the bushranger Ned Kelly, is among Australia's leading national legends. As much as he defied the odds when alive, Phar Lap has consistently amazed the doubters by converting and seducing each new generation with the story of how he lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse.

condolence letters

Condolences

More than sixty people wrote to Harry Telford, Phar Lap's trainer, expressing their feelings about the horse and his death.

link to full story

© Museum Victoria Australia