How a horse captured Australia's heart

BY BETH TAYLOR

More than 85 years after Phar Lap's untimely death his story remains as powerful as ever.

The Red Terror, known as Bobby to his mates, was a red chestnut gelding born in New Zealand in 1926 and trained in Sydney by Harry Telford. 

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.

Australians gripped by the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s were hungry for heroes and good news in a time of record unemployment. Phar Lap gave them hope in spades with an incredible race record of 37 wins for 51 starts, including the Melbourne Cup and two Cox Plates.

We celebrate the horse behind the legend in our Phar Lap curated collection. Watch behind-the-scenes footage of Phar Lap with his jockeys and strapper Tommy Woodcock. See the astonishing 1930 Melbourne Cup win that made him an Aussie icon, and his last race in the Agua Caliente Handicap. There are also clips from the 1983 biopic Phar Lap (Simon Wincer, Australia), and touching tributes given after his death. 

Why was Phar Lap so beloved?

A hand-coloured lobby card depicting Phar Lap with the words 'Phar Lap the 'red terror'' written below.

A lobby card from Phar Lap's Last Race: At Agua Caliente USA (1938).

Australians love an underdog and Phar Lap had plenty of losses at the start of his career. By the time he'd hit his stride his winning formula was to hang back at first and then come from the outside to win by several lengths.

He won 14 races in 1931 alone, and won the 1930 Melbourne Cup while carrying an astonishing 62.6 kilogram handicap.

His strength and endurance was so impressive people would talk about having 'a heart as big as Phar Lap'.

After his death it was discovered that his heart was in fact 1.5 times bigger than that of an average thoroughbred racehorse. Today Phar Lap's heart is on display at the National Museum of Australia where it is consistently the object visitors most request to see.

Phar Lap's best mate 

Tommy Woodcock, who started as a stableboy at Telford's stables before becoming Phar Lap's trainer, had a special bond with the horse. 

Woodcock travelled everywhere with Bobby, as he called Phar Lap, feeding him sugar cubes and sleeping in the stall next to him before a big race.

After Phar Lap's death, Woodcock said, 'My friends in Australia know how I loved the horse. He was almost human and he could almost speak. At home they will realise what this death means to me.'

Phar Lap wasn't just a winner, he was cheeky and intelligent. His tricks included poking out his tongue at Woodcock's command, eating sugar lumps out of Woodcock's mouth and smoking a pipe.

This newsreel shows his close relationship with Woodcock and his pipe-smoking trick.

Putting Australia on the map

Phar Lap's win at the Agua Caliente Handicap shortly before his death was a source of great national pride. King George V even sent a congratulatory telegram. Australian racing journalist Bert Wolf wrote at the time:

'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.'

In the days leading up to Phar Lap's death his owner Dave Davis had been offered $100,000 by MGM for Phar Lap to star in a series of short films, but it was not to be.

A tragic end

Phar Lap's death in California on 5 April 1932 was front page news and rocked fans in Australia and across the world.

Since then there have been several theories surrounding his death.

An earlier theory that Phar Lap died from an equine virus was disproved when scientists discovered that he 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.

Never forgotten

Phar Lap has an enduring legacy. Many of the things that we celebrate about Phar Lap - his strength, endurance and the mateship at the heart of his story - are qualities celebrated as part of the Australian identity, particularly the Australian sporting identity. Still drawing a crowd, his mounted hide is displayed at the Melbourne Museum, his skeleton is at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and his heart at the National Museum of Australia.

There will never be another horse like Phar Lap.

Visit the curated collection for more Phar Lap memories.

The image at the top of the page is from The Mighty Conqueror (Paulette McDonagh, 1931).