Biography of Race Horse Phar Lap Part 2

About the footnote race horse Phar Lap, biography and history of the Red Terror from Down Under.


The Tragedy of Phar Lap

Phar Lap began his career as a 5-year-old with eight straight wins. By now Australian racing authorities were searching for ways to handicap his superior abilities to preserve at least an illusion of competition. Before his attempt at a second Melbourne Cup victory, the track handicapper assigned him 150 lb.--a tribute to his ability, but an impossible burden to carry against other well-conditioned racehorses. His regular jockey, Jimmy Pike, with whom the horse had by now established a great rapport, realized the futility, even the danger, of attempting to win against such insurmountable odds, so he did not push his horse. The winner that day carried 56 lb. less than Phar Lap, who finished eighth. It had become clear, however, that Phar Lap should be given a chance against new and tougher competition. With this in mind, Davis, over Telford's objections, accepted an invitation to the $50,000 Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico.

Before a crowd of 15,000 spectators, Phar Lap broke poorly, fell 50 yd. behind the rest of the pack, ran extremely wide, and seemed to be out of the running when the race was barely under way. But with a mile still to go, he suddenly settled into stride. Living up to his reputation for power and speed, he bolted by one horse after another and won the race by an eased-up two lengths. The 10 other horses, to whom he had given up 9 to 13 lb., finished in a strung-out line behind him.

Offers began to flow in from the major tracks across the U.S. Phar Lap's owner had only to choose the best races and the biggest purses. Then the tragedy struck. Just 16 days after his stunning victory in Mexico, Phar Lap was found lying ill in his stall in Menlo Park, Calif. A few hours later he was dead.

Poisoning was immediately suspected. The autopsy showed slight traces of arsenic in his system, but this was attributed to his grazing near a grove of recently sprayed fruit trees. Other horses had grazed in the same area with no ill effects, so poison was ruled out as a cause of death. Instead, doctors found that the big gelding had been suffering from ulcers for some time, which, along with the arsenic and the possibility that he had raced too soon after his 10,000-mi. ocean journey, had resulted in his sudden death. Racing fans were left to speculate about what Phar Lap might have done against the American competition, but most felt that his triumph would have been assured. The stuffed and mounted figure of Phar Lap can be seen in the National Museum in Melbourne; even 40 years after his death, it still attracts more visitors than any of the other exhibits. His heart has been preserved at the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, Australia.

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