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    The Legacy of Phar Lap: A Tale of Triumph and Mystery
The Legacy of Phar Lap: A Tale of Triumph and Mystery
Phar Lap before his trip to the USA, in 1931. Source : https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23120509

The Legacy of Phar Lap: A Tale of Triumph and Mystery

The worldwide renown and enigmatic demise of Phar Lap, the legendary Australian horse, stand as a testament to the allure of equine greatness.

Among the illustrious lineage of champions are names like Doncaster, a thoroughbred stallion who triumphed in the 1873 Epsom Derby and the 1875 Royal Ascot. Saint-Simon, victor of both the Epsom and Ascot races in 1884 and St. Fruskin, hailed as the premier British stallion of 1885 with a remarkable 9 wins out of 11 races, further enriching this prestigious ancestry. Not to be overlooked are British titans Isonomia, Pilgrimage, Bend Or, and William the Third, alongside the beloved New Zealand stallion Carbine, who captured the hearts of the Australian public as the 1890 Melbourne Cup victor.

These luminaries share a common thread—they all trace their lineage to Phar Lap, the unparalleled Australian racing sensation of the 20th century, whose saga is as glorious as it is shrouded in mystery.

Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike, 1930. Source: https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE1062019&mode=browse
Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike, 1930. Source: https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE1062019&mode=browse

The Journey Begins

In 1928, Harry Telford, a Sydney trainer, was captivated by the lineage of an unassuming yearling colt. Listed as lot 41 in the annual New Zealand Thoroughbred Sales catalogue, the colt failed to impress Sydney horse owner D. Davis. Dubbed too unsightly, riddled with warts, towering, and ungainly, Davis dismissed the purchase as resembling "a cross between a shepherd and a kangaroo." Refusing to invest in its training, Davis relinquished ownership. Yet, undeterred by the colt's appearance, Telford recognised the potential within its bloodline. With an unwavering belief in the colt's winning heritage, Telford leased it for three years, bearing the expenses himself. Thus, Phar Lap underwent neutering and commenced training, setting the stage for his extraordinary journey.

A Stellar Career Unfolds

The coach's intuition proved invaluable as Phar Lap's journey to success unfolded, albeit not without its initial setbacks. Finishing last in his debut race and encountering further disappointments in subsequent outings, Phar Lap's ascent was gradual. However, at the age of three, he began to showcase his potential, securing victories in classic races across Sydney and Melbourne, culminating in triumphs at the Australian Jockey Club Prize and the Victoria Derby, while also clinching third place in the two-mile handicap in Melbourne. With each triumph, Phar Lap's reputation soared.

Throughout his illustrious four-year career, Phar Lap contested 51 races, emerging victorious in 37 of them. His path to glory was not without peril, as evidenced by a harrowing incident before the 1930 Melbourne Cup, when an attempt on his life, allegedly orchestrated by bookmakers, was narrowly thwarted. Undeterred, Phar Lap triumphed in the Melbourne Stakes on the same day, before clinching an effortless victory in the Melbourne Cup, despite carrying a weight of 62.5kg and giving his rivals a 6.33kg handicap. This remarkable display of strength and endurance solidified his status as an Australian icon.

Phar Lap with Tommy Woodcock, right. Source: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/1628
Phar Lap with Tommy Woodcock, right. Source: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/1628

A National Hero Emerges

Phar Lap's life embodies the quintessential underdog narrative, resonating deeply with a nation grappling with adversity. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, his triumphs offered a beacon of hope amid widespread poverty and unemployment. Phar Lap's victories became a source of solace and inspiration for a beleaguered populace, instilling pride in both his achievements and the resilience of the Australian spirit. As racing gained popularity on the radio, each of Phar Lap's races was eagerly anticipated, with his victories celebrated as national triumphs. He became not only the favoured contender on the track but also the embodiment of Australian pride and resilience.

Tommy Woodcock: The Heart and Soul Behind Phar Lap

In 1929, Harry Telford sought out a groom for Phar Lap, and fate brought him Tommy Woodcock. A former jockey whose stature and weight hindered his racing career, Tommy found his calling working with horses alongside Telford.

The bond between Tommy and Phar Lap was extraordinary. In Tommy's absence, the horse displayed signs of unease, demonstrating a special trust and obedience only to his handler. When another groom was introduced, Phar Lap's behaviour soured, refusing to cooperate until Tommy was reinstated. From then on, Tommy served as both groom and eventual trainer for Phar Lap until the tragic end.

Their relationship was inseparable; Tommy accompanied Phar Lap on every journey, even sleeping in the stable beside him before competitions. It seemed that the horse reciprocated the love, care, and support he received, channelling his gratitude into unparalleled strength, endurance, and speed.

Beyond their work, they shared moments of relaxation and even amusement. Phar Lap, affectionately dubbed "Bobby" by Tommy, performed tricks on command, such as sticking out his tongue, taking sugar from Tommy's mouth, and remarkably, even "smoking" a pipe.

Following Phar Lap's untimely demise, Tommy expressed the depth of his grief, stating, "My friends know how much I loved the horse and what his death meant to me. He was almost human and almost spoke to me." Through Tommy's eyes, Phar Lap was more than just a horse; he was a cherished friend and companion whose presence left an indelible mark on his life.

Phar Lap, Billy Elliot and Tommy Woodcock, Agua Caliente, 1932. Source: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/1628
Phar Lap, Billy Elliot and Tommy Woodcock, Agua Caliente, 1932. Source: https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/1628

The Tragic End of a Racing Legend

In the spring of 1932, Phar Lap embarked on a tour of Mexico, the USA, and potentially, England, under the direction of J. Davis. His journey reached a triumphant peak on March 20, when he clinched victory in the Grand Handicap at the Agua Caliente racetrack in Mexico. Such was the significance of this win that King George V himself sent a congratulatory telegram to the owner.

However, the jubilation was short-lived. On April 22, Phar Lap crossed the Mexico-US border and made a stop at a farm 25 km from San Francisco, California.

The evening of April 4 unfolded like any other, with Tommy Woodcock tending to Phar Lap, offering him his customary treat of sugar. But by morning, a shadow had fallen over the champion. Refusing sugar and exhibiting alarming symptoms, Phar Lap's condition rapidly deteriorated. A veterinarian's diagnosis pointed to poisoning, and as Phar Lap's agony intensified, it became evident that his life hung in the balance. Despite efforts to save him, Phar Lap's strength waned, and he succumbed to his afflictions.

The news of Phar Lap's untimely demise reverberated across Australia, plunging the nation into mourning. Flags flew at half-mast, and television and radio broadcasts were punctuated by mournful melodies. Messages and telegrams flooded in, reflecting a nation grappling with disbelief and grief. Amidst the collective anguish, one question lingered unanswered: What had transpired to claim the life of Australia's beloved champion?

Unravelling the Mystery: Hypotheses Surrounding Phar Lap's Demise

In the wake of Phar Lap's sudden and tragic death, speculation ran rampant regarding the cause, with several hypotheses emerging to explain the untimely demise of the racing icon.

The initial assessment by veterinarians pointed towards gastric poisoning as the likely culprit. These sparked rumours of deliberate sabotage, with whispers suggesting foul play aimed at derailing Phar Lap's triumphant campaign across North America. Concerned about preserving the state's sporting integrity, the governor of California called for a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the horse's demise.

One prevailing hypothesis posited acute inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, possibly stemming from a bacterial infection.

Another theory points to arsenic poisoning, a not uncommon occurrence in an era when horses were administered tonics containing small doses of arsenic, strychnine, cocaine, and caffeine. The possibility of accidental overdose looms large in this narrative.

Further complicating matters, the area where Phar Lap passed away was sprayed with pesticides, raising speculation that the stallion may have inadvertently ingested toxic substances from nearby foliage.

Additionally, scrutiny fell upon the hay imported from Australia for Phar Lap's consumption, with suggestions that its quality may have been compromised, potentially leading to gastric distress.

Modern forensic analysis of Phar Lap's mane revealed the presence of a substantial lethal dose of arsenic, fuelling speculation of a deliberate poisoning plot. Some even entertained the notion of American gangsters orchestrating Phar Lap's demise to protect their illegal bookmaking interests. However, conclusive evidence to support this theory remains elusive.

Amidst the plethora of conjecture, one thing remains clear: the truth behind Phar Lap's death remains shrouded in uncertainty, leaving his legacy forever tinged with mystery.

Phar Lap's Enduring Legacy

Phar Lap's presence still resonates deeply in the hearts of Australians, with his remarkable legacy immortalised in various forms across museums, films, and cultural symbols.

At the National Museum of Australia, Phar Lap's heart, weighing a staggering 6.22kg, stands as a testament to his unparalleled strength and spirit. This remarkable organ, one and a half times larger than that of an average thoroughbred, has inspired the saying "a big heart like Phar Lap," used to describe individuals of exceptional courage and kindness.

In the Melbourne Museum, visitors can behold a lifelike representation of Phar Lap's skin, while his skeletal remains find a resting place in the New Zealand Museum, a nod to his Kiwi origins.

Phar Lap's enduring popularity led to the release of the biographical drama film "Phar Lap" in 1983, further cementing his status as a national icon. Tony Woodcock, Phar Lap's long-time groom and friend, made a poignant cameo appearance in the film, marking a symbolic reunion before his passing two years later.

Honoured posthumously, Phar Lap has been inducted into both the Australian Horseracing Hall of Fame and the New Zealand Hall of Fame. His image graced an Australian postage stamp in 1978, and details of his life are included in the Australian Citizenship Test requirements.

Monuments to Phar Lap dot the landscape, with statues erected in front of Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, at the Far Lap track in Washdyke, and near his birthplace in New Zealand. Streets in Australia, the USA, and New Zealand bear his name, a lasting tribute to his enduring legacy.

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, 1977 Melbourne Cup favourite. Source: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/man-of-the-moment-20130607-2nugq.html
Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, 1977 Melbourne Cup favourite. Source: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/man-of-the-moment-20130607-2nugq.html

Following the loss of Phar Lap, Tommy Woodcock found solace in continuing his work with horses until his retirement in 1983. His induction into the Australian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2012 served as a poignant reunion with an old friend, reaffirming the enduring bond between horse and handler that transcends time and space.

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