Photograph courtesy of istock
Death came quietly for a 29-year-old mare named Let’s Elope in September. The horse that won both the Caulfield and Melbourne cups in 1991 slipped away in her sleep under a tree in her favourite paddock in Euroa, north-eastern Victoria. Reaction to this end to a long life (for a horse) was respectful but muted. Racing fans and a former jockey paid tributes, but Let’s Elope received far less publicity than a contrived anniversary a few weeks later, in October: the 90th “birthday” of Phar Lap, the most famous Antipodean racehorse of them all.
At the Melbourne Museum, Phar Lap’s stuffed carcass, impeccably preserved in a glass case, was presented with a giant cake while, outside, hundreds of people assembled to create a living montage of “Big Red”. It was all harmless fun, not to mention gloriously silly, but no sillier than having a public holiday for a horserace (as happens in Victoria for the Melbourne Cup, which Phar Lap won in 1930).
There is no sensible reason to mark the 90th birthday of a horse that died in April 1932, when only five-and-a-half years old. But especially at this time of the year, when people who usually show little interest in racing start paying attention to form guides, any reference to Phar Lap will generate interest. Phar Lap remains the reference point for all racehorses that have followed him, just as all star batsmen are inevitably compared to Don Bradman. When, for example, Makybe Diva claimed an unprecedented hat-trick of Melbourne Cup victories in 2005, her trainer Lee Freedman exclaimed: “I don’t want to run Phar Lap down, but I never saw Phar Lap win three cups.”
The Diva’s triumph, on a sunny afternoon at Flemington, was also described as the most popular Cup victory since Phar Lap’s, 75 years earlier. As the Great Depression bit, Phar Lap was cast as the people’s champion. Film footage of the 1930 Cup shows people running towards the rails for a better view as Phar Lap storms ahead in the straight, his tail streaming behind him. The wireless also came of age at this time: people interstate or up the bush could tune in to races being run, and helped make Phar Lap a star.
After the 2005 Cup, Freedman inadvertently touched on another reason for Phar Lap’s mythic status. The big horse was fallible. (So was Bradman; bowled for a duck in his last Test innings in 1948.) Phar Lap’s only Melbourne Cup success was sandwiched between third in the 1929 Cup and then eighth in 1931, when he was handicapped out of contention with a massive 68kg – 10kg more than the Diva carried in her last race. He also started slowly.
These days, Cup favourites are often owned by sheikhs or lords or syndicates. But Phar Lap had a very humble beginning, bought for businessman David Davis at yearling sales in New Zealand in 1928 for 160 guineas, far less than was paid for many other horses that day. Neither of the colt’s parents had stunning records. But NSW trainer Harry Telford noted that the bloodline, on the sire’s side, included the mighty Carbine, winner of both the Sydney and Melbourne cups in 1890.
The colt was awkward and ugly. Even his devoted carer Tommy Woodcock described him as “skinny and scraggy, with warts all over his face”. When Davis baulked at spending more money on the colt, Telford arranged to lease him for three years, for two-thirds of any prizemoney. It was the best deal he ever made. After winning just one of his first five starts as a two-year-old, Phar Lap hit his stride after his third birthday: between September 1929 and May 1930 he won 13 of 16 races. Film footage from 1930 shows Telford, wearing a suit and hat and as stony-faced as Buster Keaton, reciting statistics about the horse: 35 firsts; three seconds; one third; total stake winnings exceeding 56,000 pounds. Regular jockey Jim Pike has also been preserved on film saying: “He’s a very easy horse to ride; I think a baby could ride him... I don’t think we’ll ever see his like again.”
The 1931 Cup was Phar Lap’s last Australian run. Four months later came his greatest triumph: victory in his first race overseas – the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico. This was the equine equivalent of Australia’s Easybeats and Seekers heading north to the UK chasing success three decades later.
Taking no chances, Phar Lap’s connections took the horse’s favourite food with him, just as cricketer Shane Warne would later travel with tins of baked beans when touring the subcontinent.
Australian racing writer Bert Wolfe travelled to the northern hemisphere with Phar Lap and composed the most stirring description of the horse: “He could gallop like the wind, and he could stay much too well for any horse that was ever opposed to him... He was a mountain of a horse. He weighed something like 1200 pounds, his height was a fraction more than 17 hands, and his heart was almost double the size of an ordinary horse’s.”
Wolfe covered the win at Agua Caliente by what US reporters dubbed “the Big Train from the Antipodes”. But just two weeks later, from San Francisco, Wolfe also had to report on Phar Lap’s sudden death. He wrote: “Opinion is growing that the horse did not die of acute indigestion, but as the result of some poison which was received in some manner at present a mystery.” To this day it remains a mystery. The poison was long ago identified as arsenic, but whether it came from a tonic or was administered by, perhaps, gangsters will never be known for sure – just as there are unanswered questions about an incident on the eve of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, when Phar Lap was allegedly shot at.
An element of mystery never hurt a story. Nor did a tragic ending. Imagine if Phar Lap had raced for another few years and then been retired, like Makybe Diva. Or was allowed to enjoy a sedate life on a rural property, like Let’s Elope. The story just wouldn’t be the same. Jim Pike was right, all those years ago. There’s never been another like him.
» Alan Attwood is a former editor of The Big Issue.
The article first appeared in Ed#523 of The Big Issue.