Phar Lap | Horse Profile

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Phar Lap

Phar Lap was foaled in New Zealand in 1926, and he was trained and raced mostly in Australia. Referred to as ‘Big Red’, Phar Lap gave people hope and reason to cheer when they needed it most – in the depths of the Great Depression.

By Night Raid, Phar Lap’s 10 races produced just one victory and no minor placings, though at his 10th start he was an improving second in the Chelmsford Stakes. Few would have guessed he would have 41 more starts and win 36 of them.

Phar Lap’s career took off with victories in the Rosehill Guineas, AJC Derby, Craven Plate, and VRC Derby, before a surprise third-place finish as favorite behind Nightmarch in the 1929 Melbourne Cup. Returning as a fall 3-year-old in early 1930, he finished third first-up before dominating his opponents in his next nine starts.

The chestnut gelding returned as a 4-year-old and dominated the spring. An attempt to shoot him on day one of the Melbourne Cup carnival was unsuccessful; Phar Lap was undeterred and won four races in eight days at the carnival, including the Cup under 138 pounds.

The next year Phar Lap started 14 times for 12 wins, a second, and an unplaced effort in the Melbourne Cup carrying 150 pounds. His owner David Davis then shipped him to California and on March 20, 1932, he won the richest race in North America, setting a track record in the Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico.

Fifteen days later, Phar Lap’s life came to a shocking end. His strapper for the North American visit found him in severe pain and a high temperature. Phar Lap hemorrhaged to death within hours.

An autopsy revealed that the horse's stomach and intestines were inflamed, leading many to believe the horse had been deliberately poisoned with American gangsters at fault. There have been alternative theories, but in 2000, equine specialists studying the two necropsies concluded that Phar Lap probably died of duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, an acute bacterial gastroenteritis. Later studies revealed Phar Lap's mane tested positive for multiple doses of arsenic, or accidental poisoning; the source of his illness is still uncertain.

Phar Lap is one of five inaugural inductees into both the Australian and New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame. His heart is on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, his skeleton is at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, and his stuffed hide is at the Melbourne Museum; all are popular with visitors.

Phar Lap made such an impact in his one North American start that he was rated #22 in the Blood-Horse ranking of top horses to race in North America in the 20th century.