A - Z of New Zealand greats - Phar Lap

Caitlin O'Sullivan
20 May 2020

There are few horses more iconic than Phar Lap. While it's still debated which side of the Tasman he belongs to, we'll always claim 'Big Red' as our own.

Phar Lap was foaled on 4 October 1926 in the small town of Seadown in the South Island of New Zealand. He was purchased from the 1928 Trentham yearling sales for a mere 160 guineas by former New Zealander Harry Telford, on behalf of American businessman David Davis.

Phar Lap was exported to Australia, where Davis laid eyes on him for the first time. First impressions were not good - Phar Lap was gangly, covered in warts and was not a good mover. Davis was hugely unimpressed and refused to pay training fees to Telford. Telford agreed to take the horse on lease for the first three years of his career - quite possibly the deal of the decade!

As a three-year-old, Phar Lap was victorious in the Rosehill Guineas, AJC Derby, Craven Plate and VRC Derby in secession. That same season Phar Lap lined up in the Melbourne Cup but was beaten by fellow Kiwi's Nightmarch and Paquito.

In 1930, Phar Lap retuned and claimed the prestigious staying test. The win made Phar Lap the shortest priced favourite to win the Melbourne Cup, at 8/11 odds. It was the highlight of an extraordinary carnival for the gelding, who won four races over four racedays. The only other horse to have achieved such a feat was fellow Kiwi, Carbine, in 1890.

Foreign shores beckoned and Phar Lap headed for America to contest in the Agua Calienta, the richest race in America (although run in Mexico). Phar Lap confirmed his world class ability, winning the race in record time. Tragically, this was Phar Lap's final race. His handler Tommy Woodcook found the gelding unwell with colic 16 days later, which ultimately took his life. People have long speculated something more sinister claimed Phar Lap, although no one was ever prosecuted over his death.

Phar Lap's career bought joy to those struggling with the dark times of the Great Depression and 'Big Red' will always be regarded as the people's champion.

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