Phar Lap at Trentham Racecourse, 1913February 22nd, 2012
Phar Lap at Trentham Racecourse. Making New Zealand: Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-2372-1/2-F.
The winningest horse of the Depression years, Phar Lap started out as a gangly, wart-faced non-placer. Born in Timaru, he had a good pedigree, and cash-strapped Sydney horse trainer Harry Telford persuaded businessman David J Davis to buy him from the Trentham sales in 1927.
Telford and Davis got Phar Lap at a good price, but when the two year-old arrived in Australia, they were unimpressed with their purchase. Davis was furious and wanted out – Telford agreed to train the horse for free, in return for two-thirds of any potential winnings.
A rocky start in 1929 – four unplaced races and an unimpressive showing for the rest of the year – turned into a long winning streak and an historic win at the 1930 Melbourne Cup.
In the hard years of the Great Depression, Phar Lap became an Australian icon and a cause for celebration. He tended to win his races by several lengths, and "Phar Lap first, day light second" became the commentator's call.
Phar Lap travelled to the Americas, winning the rich Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico. In an extraordinary performance, Phar Lap went from second-to-last to win by three lengths. The race was broadcast over the radio in Australia, and Phar Lap fans went crazy. However, it was his last race.
The next month in San Francisco, he developed a fever, and died the same day. Despite two autopsies, the cause of death was not determined, leaving the suspicion that he had been deliberately poisoned.
In death, he has been split between his birth and adoptive homelands: Te Papa in Wellington holds his skeleton, Australia’s Museum Victoria has his skin, and the National Museum of Australia in Canberra has his heart. Yes, really.