Death of Phar Lap

April 04, 2019

On 5 April 1932, legendary Australian race horse Phar Lap (aka “Red Terror”, “Big Red” and “Bobby”) died in the US of arsenic poisoning.

Phar Lap's death ended a phenomenal racing career spanning the depths of the Great Depression – a period when a proud sporting and betting nation like Australia was desperate for some hope, inspiration, heroism and a good rags-to-riches story.

After inauspicious beginnings, Phar Lap bagged 37 wins from his 51 races over four years, including 32 wins from his last 35 starts. This included the 1930 Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates (1930-31), the AJC and Victoria Derbies (both in 1929) and the Agua Caliente Handicap in north-western Mexico (the then richest race on the North American continent). The latter was the first race in his North American campaign and the last race before he died, in the bay area of San Francisco, California.

Controversy surrounds Phar Lap’s death. It was initially thought that he had been the victim of foul play – poisoned by US gangsters wanting to protect their lucrative bet-fixing rings. Some speculated that the champion had succumbed to an illness of the digestive system abroad.

Accounts from Phar Lap’s dedicated strapper, Tommy Woodcock, suggested the horse was accidentally poisoned during his usual preparation for races by being administered too much performance-enhancing “tonic” (aka 'Fowler’s solution') on tour. This 'tonic' was allegedly common in the industry and included arsenic and strychnine – highly toxic over time and easily lethal – which may help explain a grossly-enlarged heart and the saying, “A heart the size of Phar Lap”.

In the mid-late noughties, the most detailed and recent forensic analysis concluded that Phar Lap ingested a lethal dose of arsenic hours before his death. Whether this was deliberate or accidental is still in dispute.

Celebrate the life of this iconic Aussie race horse of the Depression era this week by:

Further details on Phar Lap

Phar Lap was foaled in New Zealand on 4 October 1926. Sydney trainer (and eventual joint-owner) Harry Telford recommended the then colt to American businessman, David Davis, who bought him at a New Zealand auction via a proxy for a bargain.

Whilst Phar Lap came from decent pedigree, the chestnut thoroughbred was initially quite unimpressive – gangly, wart-faced with awkward gait. He was named after the Zhuang (southern Chinese minority) and Thai word for “lightning” (or “sky flash”).

Foregoing potential stud duties, trainer Telford gelded Phar Lap to ensure maximum focus and shore up his questionable chances of racing success.

Phar Lap’s early racing career was equally unimpressive – finishing last in his first race with no placings in his next three. But in 1929, his performances improved as did the attention and respect he commanded. Criminals even tried to shoot him in the week leading up to the Melbourne Cup he won.

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