Big, orange, lanky and unsightly, that was what Phar Lap’s American Owner, David Davis, first cried when he saw the now infamous racehorse. He could not believe what he saw – an ugly racehorse with little to offer Australian racing. Phar Lap’s trainer, Harry Telford, could not convince Davis that he would be a great racehorse. Davis was ready to call it quits on the short term lease he offered to Telford, leaving both horse and trainer with an uncertain future. Telford immediately rushed inside to his dilapidated house to find Phar Lap’s pedigree. Davis rolled his eyes whilst he was left to hold his unfortunate purchase. Telford came running out, holding Phar Lap’s pedigree and pointed to the gelding’s father, Night Raid, who sired 1920 Melbourne Cup winner Night March. Davis took little notice of this and continued his rant about spending his money on an ugly racehorse.
Given Telford was not a particularly successful horse trainer, this only added to Davis’ concerns about buying a purchase which may not live up to his pedigree. Arguing back and forwards about the fees associated with Phar Lap, Telford eventually gave in to Davis’ demands to train his horse for nothing, in return for a third of the race winnings. It was not a great deal, but at least Telford could have a chance to train his beloved horse and bring in some income. In a decision which Telford would later regret, he gelded Phar Lap so the horse would concentrate on racing and not get distracted by other pursuits.
A few months into Phar Lap’s training, things were not going so well. At his first race meeting he showed no signs of brilliance and lagged behind the other horses. Davis laughed uncontrollably in the member’s area whilst trying to hide any connection to the gelding. Telford assured Davis that Phar Lap was simply young and needed more experience, but this did little to calm Davis’ bad mood. Five races later he still lagged behind and time was running out for Telford to show Davis that he was worth every penny. Finally, payday came for Davis when Telford decided to increase Phar Lap’s racing distance. He crushed his opponents in the race meeting of Saturday 1, 1930 at Rosehill Gardens; indeed Telford was having the last laugh that afternoon. Phar Lap rested for several months at an equine retreat until he raced again at Rosehill Gardens. There he finished second in the Chelmsford Stakes and with his growing success he attracted crowds who followed his every move. As Phar Lap kept winning, he gained unwanted attention from criminals, who would stop at nothing to have the gelding dead. As Phar Lap finished his regular track work activities, a group of thugs came driving around the corner and pointed the barrel at the unbeknown horse, missing him and just grazing his stable hand’s ear. As Telford and Davis realised, the threat to Phar Lap’s safety was ever present and called for immediate action: 24 hour security with two guards.
Running late to Flemington, Harry Telford ran in the pouring rain to get Phar Lap, who was being guarded at the stable closest to Telford’s house. He left his arrival to the last minute as his security concerns for Phar Lap outweighed the benefits of warm up before the big race. He made the quickest homemade bridle in history, threw it on Phar Lap and walked him quickly over to a waiting float, which his strapper had waiting for him. With his strapper by his side, Phar Lap munched on his hay, unaware that the he would win Australia’s most famous race in as little as two hours.
“Calling all horses for the final warm up!” The steward cried, as he walked past the horses running in the 1930 Melbourne Cup. He looked on his checklist and shook his head; where was the big chestnut? He looked in stall 15 without success.He asked around but neither the trainers nor jockeys could answer the million dollar question. It seemed that he would not be racing today, unless he arrived in 15 minutes and that didn’t look likely. Ten minutes later, the float with two security guards and an entourage pulled up in front of the big Flemington gates and the float came to a grinding halt. Telford jumped straight out of the front seat, knocking his head on the side mirror and ran to the backside of the float to unload the gelding. He trotted out, lifted one hoof as if to salute his upcoming rivals and walked with pride to his allocated stall. A quick brush and saddle up later, the big chestnut walked towards the mounting yard and his jockey, Jim Pike mounted the horse as they paraded around the ring. Both man, woman and child were there to see Phar Lap race and there wasn’t enough room for a mouse, let alone late racegoers!
Phar Lap had a fantastic start and had his preferred position in the middle of the pack. Pike made sure the gelding was at a slow to medium pace as to conserve his energy for the final furlong. Phar Lap was getting excited and Pike felt him edging forward to the front. He tugged the reins back, to steady him. It was still two thousand meters to go and Telford was watching with Davis in the member’s area. Rival owners kept looking over their glasses to see the various array of expressions on Telford’s face. Occasionally Telford looked in their direction, but the others did little to intimidate his focus on the race. Approaching the 1500 mark, Pike glanced to the pole and smiled to himself; he knew he had Phar Lap in the prime position. Phar Lap was becoming more and more excited as he galloped around the infamous home bend on the Flemington track, his ears pinned back, Pike gave Phar Lap a bit more rein, then a bit more, then a bit more. He approached the third horse. Pike gave Phar Lap the opportunity to get faster as he let him approach the second horse. Close to the rear of the second horse, Phar Lap’s left eye focused slightly on his rival and then went back to the front, his legs became faster, his tail was up.He was being watched either on the track or back at home on the radio.
At the 500 metre pole, Pike could feel his heart in his throat; he had this. Telford and David looked as pale as ghosts; they had so much riding on this that it wasn’t funny anymore. Now with all of Australia watching, it was time to show them why he was the most famous racehorse in Australia. Pike gave the signal with the shake of whip and Phar Lap used his almighty behind to propel himself, and within a heartbeat, they won the most famous race in Australia.
After a moment of silence, Pike stood up on his mount and looked to the heavens. He gave two big slaps on Phar Lap’s shoulder and leaned forward to hug him. Telford and Davis stood up in sync and shook hands. They could not speak, instead Telford put his hand on his chest looking like he had just experienced a massive heart attack. Davis was a mess, the American, who normally showed little emotion, looked to Telford and cried. He could not believe that three years ago he had purchased a lanky, ugly and wart ridden horse who had looked like a pile of crap.
Little then two years later, the big red was dead in mysterious circumstances. Some say it was caused by the mafia, whilst others say it was rivals within the Telford team. Indeed the death of Phar Lap has caused many speculations through the years and it will never stop being discussed. Whatever killed Phar Lap, killed his strapper Tommy Woodcock as well. He was never the same after his best friend’s death, despite having numerous successes as a horse trainer. Telford trained a few winners since, whilst Davis never owned another horse again. It was Phar Lap who brought them together and he will always be remembered as Australia’s unlikely hero.
Words by Imogen Bateman