Guest Post: Phar Lap

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You have my permission to do him grievous bodily harm. Just make sure the last words he hears before those of his Maker are “Phar Lap was a bloody Kiwi, you nong!”

Nong is of course an Australian expression. It can be used in such endearing phrases as “Ya gotcha trackie daks on back ter frint, yah silly nong!”

If Phar Lap is claimed by a thick Aussie ask him two questions:

Q1 “Where wereya born?” He will, of course, reply : “Orstralya, ya nong”

Q2: Does that make YOU Australian?” “Of course it duz, drongo, whatareya?”

Then quietly mention that Phar Lap was born in Timaru. That will almost certainly mean your new mate will suddenly find his bladder is full to the top and he can’t possibly come back till next week and it is a shame about you and your missus leaving for Timbuktu in two hours.

Phar Lap’s record reads: Starts 50, Wins 36, 2nds 3, 3rds 2. I look upon him as the best racehorse ever. Looks good but stats are cold things. The story of Phar Lap must be one of the most extraordinary yarns about an animal and the humans who knew him that ever has been told.

Other punters will name his superior and the fun part is that you can never be wrong. You can’t compare a horse that races in the 1930s, with one of today, the courses are different and knowledge of the horse’s frame has changed with technology. In the 1930s, when Phar Lap ran, trainers worked with intuition, not science.

Two Melbourne men nearly went to jail over a fight as to which horse was better – Phar Lap or an NZer called Carbine. Charged with offensive behavior, the men were lucky the magistrate had a sense of humour. He freed them so long as they continued the argument in a “quiet and gentlemanly manner”.

Only one man originally saw how great Phar Lap could be. He was a struggling trainer, Harry Telford, a man with a brutal temper. He didn’t have a bean, but he knew his racehorses. He chose Phar Lap even before he had seen him.

He was leafing through a sales catalogue for Trentham when a horse’s pedigree caught his eye. He found the horse, though seemingly poorly bred (his Mum, Entreaty broke down after her first race) had royal blood if you went back far enough. Ironically the blue blood in his background belonged to a horse named……..yes, it was Carbine!

Night after night for a month, he went back over the pedigree again and again. Not only did each sleepless night make him more convinced this one could be a champion, but could be the best horse of time.

But Telford had no money, it was the depression and all the wealthy had all the spoils.

So Telford managed to persuade a rich American, Dave Davis, to buy the horse without seeing it. Phar Lap was bought for 160 guineas, almost nothing even in those days.

When Davis saw his purchase he said: “Sell him, he looks like a camel” True, he had boils all over his face and was very skinny. But he didn’t have two humps, he had a man who believed in him and blue blood in his veins.

So Telford leased PL from Davis for three years for nothing. If the horse won any money Davis would get a share.

Both men were happy. Davis was mega rich and had nothing to lose, Telford whose record to that time was very ordinary, had three years to pursue his dream.

When PL first appeared on a course, people laughed at him. Some joker said to call him Lightning because he was so slow.

That much seems to be true. What happened in the next few moments is subject to debate. We do know that Telford, having no sense of humour, rejected the Lightning name, but only after serious consideration. He refused, he said, because the name had too many letters .

It has to have seven letters he declared.

Why seven?

“The three last three Melbourne Cup winners all had seven letters, It has got to be seven.”

Then the stories differ.

The generally accepted view is that an Oriental gent nearby suggested “Phar Lap” because that was a Sinhalese for lightning. The story sometimes says that word was farlap and Telford only accepted it when it was pointed out to him that he could change the “f” to a “ph”. Nice yarn but definitely not so.

But did the Oriental ever exist? The authoritative written work on Phar Lap, while pointing out the words are Thai, doesn’t even mention the gent from Asia. But a researcher met the man’s sister who insisted her medical student brother, Aubrey Moor Ping, HAD named Phar Lap.

Other true stories about this, the greatest of all horses include.

• He ran a poor last in his first race. He took five starts to land a win, and was unplaced in his next four. Then he ran a second.

• After that, he was third twice, then won 31 races, a sequence broken only by two thirds and two seconds.. He followed that up with eight more wins, before finishing well back in the 1931 Melbourne Cup under a record weight.

• He ended his career winning his only international run, donkey licking smart field at Aguq Caliente in New Mexico

• He nearly didn’t make it to his Melbourne Cup victory. After an attempt on his life (see below) he was smuggled out to a safer property. When it was time for him to leave for Flemington the horse float wouldn’t start. When he finally got there, just minutes before the race the crowd roared: “He’s Arrived!”

And by the time he died he was, and will inevitably remain, the most popular athlete in Australia, human or non human.

So what happened? How did this seeming carthorse became the greatest equine in the world?

Two things:

1. The size of his heart, Literally. After he died, Phar Lap’s heart was weighed in at 6.2 kgs, nearly twice the normal size.

2. A man who seemingly didn’t have a heart at all. Telford decided early that his new horse had ability he was just lazy. So he put the gelding through a training schedule that would have killed a lesser horse. But Phar Lap thrived on it.

Even in death, Phar Lap caused controversy. He died just after his New Mexico race and fans to this day still believe he was killed by bookmakers who knew how much he was going to cost if he lived.

After all, bookies had tried before. Just days before his effortless Cup win there was an attempt to shoot the horse from a moving car. Phar Lap reared and his regular attendant, Tommy Woodcock put his body between the car and the horse to save him.

Almost certainly the death came from natural causes – colic due to munching wet grass.

Some of the people who also lived the Phar Lap legend met sticky ends. His first jockey, Cashy Martin, did in a race fall while still in his teens. Like Telford, he knew Phar Lap was going to be great and lived long enough to see him win his Melbourne Cup.

Tommy Woodcock and the horse were inseparable. Woodcock lived to a ripe old age and nearly trained a Melbourne Cup winner himself when his horse, Reckless, finished a close second.

After Phar Lap, Telford never had a decent horse again. He over reached himself financially and died in 1960.

His regular jockey, Jim Pike, won a fortune and then lost it on gambling and booze. He died in a home for destitutes.

Dunno what happened to Davis, the rich Yank and no one cares. He was a liar and a rogue and publicly insisted that the first time he clapped eyes on the horse he knew he had a champion.

Phar Lap was one of only two sports figures who were so good the authorities tried to change the rules in order to make them lose.

And, of course, the Aussie battlers loved him. It was in the depression and Bobby, as he was known affectionately, and his battler trainer were sticking it up the toffee noses.

There have been many good horses and will be many more. But there was only one Phar Lap. His body, stuffed and mounted is in Melbourne Museum. It looks so lifelike you can almost hear him thinking: “Let’s give those toffee noses just one more hiding, Jim”

An interesting history of Phar Lap.

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