Australia's "Red Terror" raced but once in North America, but with that sensational performance he established himself as one of the best racehorses to ever run on this continent.
Foaled in New Zealand on October 28, 1926, Phar Lap raced in the name of Harry Telford and David J. Davis. He was a big horse, measuring 17.1 hands at the withers and boasting a seventy-nine inch heartgirth. His great stride measured twenty-three feet, seven inches, a span bettered by only a handful of horses.
The chestnut gelding was trained by Harry Telford and his assistant, Tommy Woodock. Like many big horses, he wasn't immediately a sensation. He needed five tries to break his maiden, but finally accomplished the feat on April 27, 1929. It was the final start of his juvenile campaign.
He began his three-year-old season a few months later, and despite a slow start he ended the campaign with more than a dozen wins.
It was at the age of four that Phar Lap began to shine. Most notably, he carried 138 pounds to victory in the two mile long Melbourne Cup. That historic race was his only loss as a five year old, when he failed under the stunning impost of 150 pounds.
The horse traveled with security guards to protect his safety. Gunshots were allegedly fired at the champion after one morning gallop.
Phar Lap came to North America at the age of six, spending three weeks on board an ocean going vessel. He was assigned the high weight of 129 pounds for the Aqua Caliente Handicap, and broke the track record for a mile and a quarter, winning by two lengths in 2:02 4/5.
A tendon injury then suspended the horse's American campaign, and he was sent to the Edward Perry Ranch outside San Francisco to heal. On April 5, 1932, the world was stunned when the horse suddenly died, apparently a victim of colic.
Arsenic was discovered in his system, and while the source was believed to be insecticide spread accidently by wind, rumors that the horse was assassinated by mobsters spread far and wide. Phar Lap's body was returned to Australia, and he was stuffed and placed on display in Melbourne.
In addition to the arsenic, the autopsy also showed an oversized heart. Observation of this fact led to Australian research into the phenomenon long before the rest of the world ever heard the term x-factor.
Charlie Whittingham, who trained such outstanding horses as Ack Ack, Ferdinand, Sunday Silence, and Exceller, saw many great horses in his lifetime. He had been present for the 1932 Aqua Caliente Handicap, and later wrote:
"I never got to see Man o' War. But he'd have to be a helluva horse to be better than Phar Lap."
Having never racing in the United States, Phar Lap was not eligible for Hall of Fame membership in this country, although he was certainly the king of racing down under. When they published their end of the century poll, Blood-Horse included Phar Lap despite the fact that he only raced one in North America, ranking him twenty-second.
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