Discover many of the incredible moments in the life of Australia's greatest racehorse, Phar Lap.
The Red Terror, also called Bobby by his strapper-cum-trainer Tommy Woodcock, was a red chestnut gelding born in New Zealand in 1926 and trained in Sydney by Harry Telford.
His name was inspired by the Thai-Zhuang word for lightning, Farlap - ‘like a flash on the sky’.
Australians gripped by the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s were hungry for good news stories and Phar Lap was already a beloved national icon by the time of his death in 1932.
This is his story.
Strapper-cum-trainer Tommy Woodcock feeds Phar Lap, or Bobby as he calls him, his favourite treat - sugar cubes.
Phar Lap is pictured with Billy Elliot (left), the Australian jockey who rode Phar Lap at the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico, and his track jockey Jack Martin (right). Tommy feeds lines to Billy, encouraging Australians to bet on Phar Lap for the prestigious race.
Jack Martin offers Phar Lap a cigarette and then feeds him sugar. Billy Elliot puts a pipe in Phar Lap's mouth and we see Phar Lap enjoying a roll in the dust.
Little did anyone know that these would be some of the last pictures of Phar Lap seen alive. He died two weeks after his big win at Agua Caliente. This segment is taken from Movietone News Volume 3 No. 15 - Phar Lap Idol of the Australian Turf.
Mr Telford (Martin Vaughan) arrives at the stables with his son Cappy (Steven Bannister). Telford tells Tommy the strapper (Tom Burlinson) to take Phar Lap for his morning workout and work him hard. On the training track, other trainers joke about Phar Lap’s chances. Tommy tells his mate 'Cashy’ Martin (Richard Morgan) to try something different. Cashy is to ride ahead, while Tom holds Phar Lap back. The technique works: the big red horse likes to come from behind. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Tommy Woodcock (Tom Burlinson) runs Phar Lap onto the track at Flemington for the 1930 Melbourne Cup. The horse has been kept in hiding after an attempt on his life; the race has been delayed 15 minutes waiting for the favourite to arrive. The crowd erupts as the horse is run out to meet the waiting jockey, Jimmy Pike (James Steele). Dave Davis (Ron Liebman) watches seriously from the stand with his wife, Bea (Judy Morris). Phar Lap starts well back and has to run the outside lane, but he wins the race in convincing fashion. The crowd is ecstatic, everyone except the top-hatted members of the Victorian Racing Club committee. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
This newsreel, His Last Post, made the year of Phar Lap's death, was probably made to give people a chance to grieve 'Australia's greatest horse'. Unemployment was at an all-time high and the worst of The Great Depression was taking its toll on Australians. The whole nation was bereft at the loss of their lucky Phar Lap of whom they were so proud.
If the music doesn't make you tear up, the sequence where Phar Lap plays chasey with his beloved strapper-cum-trainer Tommy Woodcock might. Many of the shots were taken from Paulette McDonagh's The Mighty Conqueror (1931).
Since Phar Lap's death on 5 April 1932 there have been numerous theories surrounding his death. The notion that he died from an equine virus has since been disproved; in 2006, scientists discovered that it was almost certain Phar Lap was poisoned with arsenic. Whether that arsenic came from a feed additive, a tonic for horses which contained arsenic, a pest spray used at the stables where he was staying, or whether he was poisoned by gangsters feeling threatened by his prowess, we will most probably never know for sure.
At the conclusion of the newsreel the narrator says with great feeling:
'Farewell Phar Lap. You've entered on the last and farthest lap of all. The mightiest horse ever to come out of Australia has gone to the same dust as that of the lowliest hackney of the hansom cab. In a few months he would have topped the prize lists of the world. Now he has gone to a happy hunting ground where the jockey's whip is never raised and where the grass is always green. Soon he will have become just a tradition of the turf and those red devil's legs, those extraordinary engines of power and beauty which carried him to 37 wins, will flash down the straight only in men's memories.
'But Phar Lap, the inspiration and the memory will live forever in the world of horses wherever a flying chestnut stirs the blood of human beings. He took it like a gentleman and he died like a thoroughbred. That is the epitaph his stable has given him. Farewell Phar Lap, you have passed the last winning post of all. The great judge has hoisted up your number and we in the grandstand can only say one thing and - the simplest and proudest thing of all - "he was a good horse".'
Phar Lap's incredible win at the Melbourne Cup in 1930 made him an Australian icon. One cable from successful punters East of Perth summed up the national feeling well: 'If you could only stand on your hind legs and talk, we’d make you PM of Australia.'
The Great Depression was causing hardship, unemployment was rife and people were desperate for a good news story. Phar Lap's winning streak and fighting spirit gave people hope and a sense of pride in Australia.
This silent newsreel footage shows Phar Lap's technique of hanging back in the pack and then coming from the outside. When the time is right he easily overtakes his rivals and wins by three full lengths. He looks like he's got an extra engine inside of him, and after his death it was discovered that his heart weighed 6.35 kg - one-and-a-half times bigger than that of an average thoroughbred.
Ridden by jockey Jimmy Pike, Phar Lap carried a 62 kg handicap for the race - almost seven kilograms more than his weight-for-age rating. Over 72,000 people watched the race at Flemington Racecourse.
In the week leading up to the Cup it was reported there was an attempted drive-by shooting targeting Phar Lap. To this day it's never been proved whether this was a real attempt or a hoax by journalists keen to poke fun at the Phar Lap hysteria that gripped the nation. Either way it added a lot of drama to the big race, adding to the myth of him being a great Aussie underdog that came out on top despite the odds stacked against him.
Australian's hearts swelled with pride when Phar Lap won what would sadly be his last race at the Agua Caliente resort in Mexico. This was his first race in North America and were it not for his untimely death, he would have taken the US by storm.
The US commentator in the voice-over calls him 'one of the handsomest horses ever seen on an American track' and 'a real champion and a new racetrack idol'.
When talking about Phar Lap and his legacy no superlatives are spared. Peter FitzSimons writes in his book Great Australian Sports Champions, ‘In one of the most impressive bursts of sprinting the racing world has seen, Phar Lap simply wiped out the opposition and won the race, breaking the course record in the process’.
Australian racing journalist Bert Wolf, who'd made the trip to Mexico to cover the story for the Melbourne Herald, wrote ‘Phar Lap made all dreams come true yesterday to the shouts of 50,000 racing fans when he won the Agua Caliente Handicap. He did more to advertise Australia and New Zealand in the United States and Mexico than a million dollars. Today he is big news.’
To give an idea of how far Phar Lap's fame had spread, his team received a telegram which read ‘Heartiest Congratulations on great victory of Phar Lap - King George V'.
Phar Lap's jockey for the race was Billy Elliot, who knew him well and believed in his intelligence and stamina. Jim Pike, who rode Phar Lap to victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, said before the race ‘The only way they’re going to beat him is if they breed a horse with wings, and get Kingsford Smith to ride him’.
In this excerpt of the newsreel Phar Lap appears skittish after his win. The newsreel then cuts to a floral garland, meant to the be placed around the horse's neck but being held by his jockey. A Hollywood starlet and others from the Phar Lap team surround the horse. The Agua Caliente Handicap was the richest race in the world at the time with US$332,000 in the prize pot.
Part-owner and trainer HR Telford stoically mourns the loss of the great Phar Lap saying he had a 'heart as big as a lion' in this newsreel entitled Phar Lap: Idol of the Australian Turf.
His young son Gerald 'Cappy' Telford is shown atop Millie, a white pony who 'travelled with him almost everywhere he went'. Telford says that Cappy was Phar Lap's 'greatest admirer who could handle him or do anything with him in anyway, which only speaks to his ... even disposition'.
Telford and his family had suffered another terrible blow four months earlier with the death of Telford's baby daughter Louise in December 1931.
Since Phar Lap's death on 5 April 1932 there have been numerous theories surrounding his death. A theory that he died from an equine virus has been disproved; in 2006 scientists discovered that it was almost certain Phar Lap was poisoned with arsenic. Whether that arsenic came from a feed additive, a tonic for horses which contained arsenic, a pest spray used at the stables where he was staying, or whether he was poisoned by gangsters feeling threatened by his prowess, we will most probably never know for sure.
Over the top of images of Phar Lap in Mexico, the narrator says 'Well Phar Lap, happy hunting old man. Give him a hand everyone', followed by the sound of applause. There wouldn't have been a dry eye in the house when this newsreel played to Australians mourning the loss of Phar Lap.
How did a New Zealand-born horse become one of Australia’s most loved and enduring icons? Political cartoonist and columnist Warren Brown visits Melbourne Museum where the legendary Phar Lap – or at least his preserved hide – stands in a glass case.
Curator Elizabeth Willis explains why this big red horse won our hearts and the circumstances around his mysterious death.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
This ten-minute film is the only documentary made about racehorse Phar Lap during his lifetime. It was produced by Neville Macken and directed by pioneer female filmmaker Paulette McDonagh.
The film features superb close-ups of Phar Lap with handler Tommy Woodcock, who feeds him sugar cubes, and rare footage of him doing track work. The narrator informs us that he cost only £168 and has won £56,420 in winnings to date.
A photograph of part-owner and trainer Harry Telford’s son Gerald, whose nickname was Cappy, atop the horse 'like a pimple on a pumpkin' is followed by a still of Phar Lap after the AJC Derby victory.
In a press interview Telford talks about Phar Lap’s racing success, total earnings and the origins of his name. His name came from the Thai-Zhuang word for lightning - ‘like a flash on the sky’ - Farlap. Telford liked the name, suggested by physician Dr Aubrey Ping, but changed the F to Ph so he could create a seven letter word and then split it in two in keeping with the dominant naming pattern of Melbourne Cup winners.
Phar Lap is shown winning several races including the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the 1931 Randwick Plate – the only known footage of this race and the last time he would run at a Sydney race meet. Jockey Jimmy Pike, who rode Phar Lap to his victory at the Melbourne Cup in 1930 is interviewed after the victory commenting, 'I don’t think we’ll ever see his equal again’, and talking about the horse's intelligence and power.
The film finishes with Phar Lap being loaded onto the Ulimaroa at Sydney docks in November 1931, ultimately bound for the USA where he died tragically on 5 April 1932. The narrator says poignantly, 'Well old fella, this was your last race at Randwick. We're going to lose you and we're going to miss you, but we're with you to a man, Phar Lap. The rest is up to you.'
This NFSA compilation shows a tri-screen view of the final moments of the 1930 Melbourne Cup filmed by three different camera crews on the day.
Read more about the footage included in Phar Lap's Greatest Victory.
Harry Telford (Martin Vaughan) watches his new horse arrive on the docks from New Zealand. His wife, Vi (Celia de Burgh), wonders why the horse looks so skinny. The buyer, Dave Davis (Ron Liebman), thinks the horse is a joke. He tells Harry to sell him. Harry offers to lease him for three years, in return for two-thirds of his winnings. Harry believes in the horse’s bloodlines. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Russell Morris's blues song 'Big Red' comes from his 2012 album Sharkmouth. A homage to Phar Lap, the lyrics include 'Big Red, more than a racehorse. Big Red, you carried all our dreams'.
The video features footage from The Mighty Conqueror (Paulette McDonagh, Australia, 1932).
Written the year that Phar Lap died, this tribute song is by Jack Lumsdaine. Lumsdaine sings: 'He made fame for Australia's name. But he'll never come back home. Just a wonder horse, known on every course from Australia to USA. We're sad old chap, that your long lost lap has come and you've gone away. For there may be other champions but your memory will always be new.'
Catalogue Number: 21334-G.
Cover still comes from The Mighty Conqueror (Paulette McDonagh, Australia, 1931).
This lobby card from Phar Lap's Last Race: At Agua Caliente USA (1938) features a hand-coloured image of Phar Lap alongside one of his nicknames - the 'red terror'.
Phar Lap pictured with his good mate and strapper-cum-trainer Tommy Woodcock. This lobby card from Phar Lap's Last Race: At Agua Caliente USA (1938) refers to the horse as 'Phar Lap the Great'.
Phar Lap at the height of his powers winning the Agua Caliente Handicap on 20 March 1932 ridden by jockey Billy Elliot. Phar Lap died on 5 April 1932. This is a lobby card from Phar Lap's Last Race: At Agua Caliente USA (1938).