True Crime in Horse Racing: Phar Lap

May 15th, 2022

From the kidnapping of Fanfreluche and Shergar to the gangs who terrorized English racecourses in the early 20th century, horse racing has seen its share of crime seep into its history. The effect that such incidents have on the sport often serve to make the figures at their center more memorable, lending them a sort of immortality borne out of the circumstances and, sometimes, the result of these events. Since his sudden death in 1932, Australian champion Phar Lap has remained ingrained in the consciousness of the sport, both in his native land and here in North America.

Nine decades on, revisiting the great gelding’s story is another chance to contemplate this intersection of true crime and the sport of kings and its effect on the sport’s long memory.

The Red Terror

With a pedigree that included more than one classic winner, Night Raid started his career with high expectations for the English colt but could do no better than third in a stakes at two. Sold to an Australian owner, he then won once in 29 starts and deadheated for first in another race. Frustrated with this son of English champion Radium, his owner retired him to stud for a season and then put Night Raid back into training. After an unsuccessful second try at a racing career, the stallion was sold to New Zealander Alick F. Roberts, who stood Night Raid at his farm on the country’s South Island.

Roberts paired the stallion with the mare Entreaty, whose sire, Winkie, had already produced several winners in both Australia and New Zealand. Entreaty herself had raced once and then retired after an injury prevented her from racing again. Her 1926 foal was her second with the stallion, a colt that was destined for the New Zealand Yearling Sales at Trentham Racecourse. The colt sold for 160 Australian guineas, or about $800 to Harry Telford on behalf of American expatriate David J. Davis.

Entreaty’s colt soon had a name, Phar Lap, which translated to "lightning" in Zhuang and Thai. When he arrived at trainer Harry Telford’s yard, the colt was so unattractive and gangly that Davis balked at keeping him. Telford agreed to lease Phar Lap for three years, with Davis retaining a third of his winnings. When it was clear that the chestnut colt was growing almost too rapidly, Telford gelded Phar Lap to slow his growth and aid his development. Despite that, the son of Night Raid still grew to a sizable 17 hands, with a girth of 79 inches, a lanky Thoroughbred with a long stride that favored the longer distances of races like the two-mile Melbourne Cup. He won once at two but became a star at three and beyond.

Phar Lap wins the 1930 Melbourne Cup, Australia (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The next year, Phar Lap won the Australian and Victoria Derbies and then added the Melbourne Cup among his long list of victories that spanned his three seasons in Australia. He tried to win a second Melbourne Cup in 1931, but labored under his weight assignment of 150 pounds, and finished eighth, his only defeat that season.

After his Melbourne Cup try, Davis announced that he would send Phar Lap to North America to race. The gelding’s trainer, Harry Telford, whose lease had recently expired, disagreed with the decision and would not make the trip across the Pacific. Instead, the gelding’s groom, Tommy Woodcock, accompanied Phar Lap on his journey while owner David Davis and his wife traveled to California and then Mexico for the gelding’s first race on his North American trip, the Agua Caliente Handicap at Agua Caliente Race Course in Tijuana, Mexico.

Phar Lap racing at Randwick 1931 with Jim Pike (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

North American Adventure

Phar Lap and Woodcock boarded the Monowai for his journey to San Francisco and then stayed at Suzanne Perry’s ranch near Atherton, California, where she developed a successful stable of trotters and pacers that primarily competed on the state’s fair circuit. There, Woodcock stayed with his charge, access to Phar Lap limited to his connections and a few farm employees, including Perry’s husband Ed and her stable’s trainer, Clarence Hansen. This tight security was a necessity: Phar Lap had been targeted before, shot at while walking to the track for a morning workout. The drive-by shooting had been intended to kill or maim the famed gelding, whose success on the racetrack had compromised more than one bookmaker. In 1932, as Phar Lap prepared for his trip to Agua Caliente, the mood was no different.

The Great Depression had meant an uptick in gambling, with people flocking to the racetrack for both the diversion and the possibility of parlaying a little bit of money into something more substantial. Of course, this also meant that organized crime came with them, as bookmakers connected to gangsters like Al Capone were part of this scene. Davis was well aware of the threat that Phar Lap was under and took steps to minimize the risks to his prized gelding. Security was posted at each entrance to his stable while they were in Mexico. Few people had direct access to the horse. Bedding, feed, and hay were never purchased from the same place twice.

Phar Lap made the trip to Mexico and back to California with no incidents. Carrying 129 pounds and Australian jockey Billy Elliott, he won the 1 1/4-mile Agua Caliente Handicap in 2:02 4/5, a new track record. He brought home $50,050 for his efforts, bringing his career total to $332,750, but even greater than his total winnings was his popularity. The gelding had captured the imaginations of racing fans in three nations, with even the most seasoned veteran horsemen, like Charlie Whittingham, remembering the big red horse and his feats.

Two weeks after his win at Agua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 5, 1932, Woodcock checked on Phar Lap that morning to find the horse feverish and listless with an irregular heartbeat. Bill Nielsen, the veterinary practitioner who had accompanied the horse on this trip to America, was summoned and treated Phar Lap for colic. By the end of the day, the great horse was dead.

Tragic Ends

Death threats had been a constant part of life with Phar Lap. The drive-by shooting was the first manifestation of those threats. With his sudden death, panicked conjecture assumed any number of possibilities. Was he poisoned? Initial veterinary pronouncements adjured such, and Woodcock maintained that assumption to his last breath. The way that the symptoms came on suddenly and the easy accessibility of substances like arsenic made it seem plausible. As arsenic was detected in Phar Lap’s system, that the horse had been poisoned became more plausible.

Death threats had been a constant part of life with Phar Lap. The drive-by shooting was the first manifestation of those threats.

The finger-pointing began then. Nielsen blamed Woodcock for grazing the horse in an area that had been treated with an arsenic-based insect spray, but no other horses on the ranch had fallen ill. Whatever or whoever Woodcock suspected, he did not say. All he knew was that his beloved horse had died suddenly and suspiciously. Had someone with access to the horse been paid by unsavory elements to poison the horse? Or had Nielsen, who had been out until the wee hours the night before, accidentally treated Phar Lap with arsenic instead of another medication for the colic symptoms he was showing?

Later theories had Phar Lap suffering from duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, a bacterial infection of the small intestine that has symptoms similar to those the gelding showed in the hours before his death. However, forensic examinations of hair samples taken from Phar Lap’s preserved hide, which currently resides in the Melbourne Museum in Melbourne, Australia, showed a high concentration of arsenic, presumably given to the horse prior to his death. With Tommy Woodcock as his constant companion, though, how would anyone have gotten close enough to Phar Lap to administer that poison?

Despite decades of tests, interviews, and examinations of the evidence, Phar Lap’s death remains a mystery, one that continues to inspire debate and discussion on more than one continent. He started as an idol for the masses who needed that bright spot during the Great Depression, but his sudden death meant that he would live on in the cultural consciousness of multiple nations, a name as familiar to some racing fans as Man o’ War and Secretariat.

Phar Lap’s Legacy

Ninety years after his death, answers to the who and why of the tragedy of Phar Lap are echoed in the kidnapping and disappearance of another champion, Shergar, whose fate also remains a mystery 40 years later. Both were supremely accomplished on the racetrack, with legions of fans following their careers. Because they represented a threat or presented an opportunity to those who sought to capitalize on their demise, their names live on as two examples of where criminal elements intersect with the sport of horse racing.

In death as in life, Phar Lap is larger than life, his legend preserved in films, books, and the hearts of racing fans on multiple continents over many decades.

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