|Winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup|
Even today, he is the benchmark for champions past, present and future.
NZ-born and bred, Phar Lap raced primarily in Australia. Of his 51 races, he won 37 and was placed second or third in five others. At the height of his career he was as close to a 'sure bet' as was possible in the unpredictable world of horse racing. From 1930 he won 33 of his last 35 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup. In the gloom of the great Depression, Phar Lap’s exploits thrilled the people of two countries.
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, trainer Harry Telford, and regular jockey Jim Pike were offered substantial bribes to ensure he didn't win: they all refused.
Phar Lap had arrived in Oz as a two-year-old. A bright red chestnut, he grew to a huge 17.1 hands (1.74m) high with an enormous 27ft.stride, earning nicknames such as Big Red and The Red Terror. His name meant lightning in the Thai language, and he lived up to that with his ability to finish races with a surge of speed. While he was no looker, this mattered little to the punters.
Having conquered Australasia, Phar Lap was about to do the same in America. On 24th.March 1932 he won the rich Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico in record time (though nursing a hoof injury and still recovering from his long sea voyage). Invitations to race in major meetings in the eastern US flooded in, but...
Phar Lap died mysteriously today in history, 5th.April 1932, amid suspicions he'd been fed poisoned grass. The real cause was established in 2006 - researchers proved the horse had ingested a massive dose of arsenic. Many, including Tommy Woodcock, Phar Lap's devoted strapper, had always maintained the champ had been murdered by US racing and crime interests who feared an unbeatable outsider.
In death, both NZ and Oz wanted their share of the champion's remains. His incredible 6.3kg heart went to Canberra, while the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne obtained his hide. This is proudly on display in what's been called a masterpiece of taxidermy. >
His bones were returned to NZ and the complete skeleton is on display at Wellington's Museum of NZ. Over the past year, its posture has been improved in a major reconstruction project, after criticism that it was unrealistic and not at all that of a champion. It's been rebuilt by modifying the position of the legs, head, pelvis, spinal column and making more room between the vertebrae (and the skeleton mirrors the stance of Phar Lap's hide). This reconstruction means Phar Lap's now 12cm longer and 18cm taller than he was displayed before: visitors see a much prouder horse.
Phar Lap was born in Seadown near Timaru, and he's honoured there in magnificent style. A life-size bronze statue (by Joanne Gessler) of Phar Lap at full gallop with Jim Pike astride, stands at the entrance to the local racecourse. The statue is surrounded by a series of fountains, some high and some low, different tones in the water cleverly re-creating the sound of the gallop (though I haven't seen the finished article, I was privileged to have been shown it in its various construction stages by Joanne).
Whether he's claimed as Australia's or New Zealand's, there is no doubt that Phar Lap was one of the greatest racehorses of all time.