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