Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Featurette: Phar Lap, the Red Terror

I'm a big fan of Kristina Lucas-Francis' Muddy Hoofprints blog, and with BreyerFest looming, Kristina has been doing a series of shorter weekly posts on Mondays since she, like many of us, are short on time leading up to the big weekend in Kentucky. I too am finding my blogging time limited this summer with commissions and Breyerfest planning, so I've decided that Kristina's idea is brilliant, and I'm totally going to borrow it. My first Friday Featurette comes at the request of a reader. The post about Adios was so popular that I've been asked to do a similar one on the legendary racehorse Phar Lap.

Phar Lap (1926-1932)
Though Australia considers him a native son, the great chestnut gelding Phar Lap was actually bred and foaled in New Zealand at Timaru on the South Island. He was sired by Night Raid, a well-bred horse from England who failed to perform there and was eventually exported to Australia. Night Raid fared no better racing down under, retiring with an overall record of 2 wins and a 3rd from 35 starts. He stood at stud there only a year before being shipped on to New Zealand where he finally found his niche. Though siring Phar Lap alone would have made him a success, Night Raid actually produced a number of good runners, 13 of them stakes winners. He led the sire list in Australia from 1929-1931.

Night Raid

Phar Lap's dam Entreaty was a New Zealand-bred. Her sire Winkie was a full-brother to the 1910 1000 Guineas winner Winkipop though he never displayed the same talent, hence his exportation to New Zealand. Entreaty's other foals were no match for Phar Lap in terms of ability, but her daughters proved to be important producers. Interestingly, Entreaty can be found in the tail-female line of the modern Australian superstar mare Sunline through Phar Lap's full-sister Fortune's Wheel.

Entreaty with Te Uira, a full-siter to Phar Lap

Phar Lap, Entreaty's second foal, was born on October 4, 1926. In January of 1928, he was sold at the New Zealand Yearling Sales at Trentham racecourse for 160 guineas to Hugh Telford, brother of Harry Telford who would become Phar Lap's trainer. The colt was purchased for David Davis, Telford's racing partner, and was shipped to Australia to begin his career. 

At first, Phar lap did little to impress his connections. He was thin, gangly, and wart-covered as a youngster, and it took him some time to grow into his huge 17 hand frame. Because he took so long to develop, he was gelded, and he eventually matured into a lean, handsome, and surprisingly kind horse. He was given the name Phar Lap from the Thai word "farlap" meaning lightning, a reference to his peculiarly shaped star. 

His career started slowly with four off the board finishes as a two year-old, but in his last start of the season over six furlongs, he finally scored a win in the Rosehill Maiden Juvenile Handicap. It was not quite a portent of things to come as his three year-old season likewise began poorly with four more dismal up-the-track finishes. Given a little extra ground in his next start, the nine furlong Chelmsford Stakes, Phar Lap produced an excellent second place finish, and from that point on, he began a streak of dominanting wins that earned him the nickname the Red Terror.

Phar Lap made 15 further starts at three, winning an astonishing 13 of them, including the prestigious Rosehill Guineas and the AJC Derby at Randwick, the Craven Plate at Randwick, and the VRC Derby at Flemington. Sent against older horses for the first time in the 2-mile Melbourne Cup, Phar Lap finished third behind Nightmarch, another son of Night Raid, having made the pace through most of the race. He ran third again in the St. George Stakes at Caulfield, and then he easily annexed a string of important stakes races including the VRC St. Leger at Flemington, the Governor's Plate and King's Plate at Flemington, and AJC Plate at Randwick, among others. In the 2 1/4 mile AJC Plate, Phar Lap revenged himself on Nightmarch, humbling him by 10 lengths. 

Given a break over the winter, Phar Lap was kept in shape with long gallops over the sand dunes on Australia's coast. (Fans of the 1983 movie about the horse will remember that spectacular montage.) When he returned at four, he was virtually unstoppable. He won 14 of 16 starts that season, most important of which were his victories in the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup. He defeated his former nemesis Nightmarch no less than four times with ease. As a five year-old, Phar Lap won 8 races in a row before finishing a shocking 8th in the Melbourne Cup. An overzealous training regimen and a staggering impost cost him that race.

In late 1931, Phar Lap boarded a ship destined for San Francisco in order to compete in what was then the world's richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap held in Tijuana, Mexico. He arrived in good order and had two months to acclimate and resume training. Phar Lap went to post on March 20, 1932, as the heavy favorite, and he won as a heavy favorite should, with ease and in track record time. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, footage of this historic race can be seen here:

Remarkable video footage of Phar Lap's Agua Caliente win:

After the race, Phar Lap was shipped back to California while his next career start was considered. Tragically, less than three weeks later, the great horse became suddenly ill and died. The cause of his death has not yet been conclusively proven, but the two most likely causes were either arsenic poisoning or duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, an acute form of gastroenteritis brought on by stress. Speculation was rampant for many years that Phar Lap had been deliberately poisoned (by rivals, American gangsters, etc), and recent tests done on Phar lap's hair did confirm the presence of arsenic in his system. Arsenic, however, was a common component in tonics for racehorses at that time, and trainer Harry Telford's own recipe book included such a tonic which he considered "good...for all horses."

After his death, Phar Lap's hide was stuffed and put on display at the Melbourne Museum, and his skeleton was likewise mounted and put on exhibit at the New Zealand National Museum in Wellington.

(Photo by Benjamin Healley)
In my experience, taxidermists rarely do well with equine subjects, but happily for racing fans, Phar Lap's hide was beautifully mounted and has been well cared for. The grand gelding looks like he could step out of the case and walk around the display at any moment.  He's so lifelike that one could argue he's the ultimate model horse.

Terrible joke aside, Phar Lap has been more traditionally immortalized in model form by Breyer on two occassions. In 1985, Breyer released a lovely galloping portrait of Phar Lap in a rich red chestnut color befitting his "Red Terror" nickname. Most Phar Lap models have two hind socks like the real horse, but occassionally, models with only a single sock turn up. The Phar Lap model was discontinued in 1988.

(Photo by Museum Victoria)

In 2007, Breyer produced a special run Phar Lap model on the Lonesome Glory mold exclusive to Target stores in Australia. Not surprisingly, this newer Phar Lap model is rather hard to acquire and is therefore quite desirable.
(Photo by eventingpony24)

In the mid-2000s, the English company Caughley Porcelain produced a number of sculptures of famous racehorses, both as limited editions and as trophies for prestigous races. Not surprisingly, they included a portrait of Phar Lap in their line up. The edition was limited to 250 pieces. Sadly, as of 2011, Caughley is no longer producing equine sculptures, and what few pieces they did are rarely seen for sale. (Hopefully, I will have a blog devoted to Caughley horses coming soon.)

(Photo by Caughley Porcelain)

I am not aware of any other Phar Lap models made either as toys or fine art, though I hope others do exist. Even after 80 years, Phar Lap is still the benchmark against which great Australian horses are measured, and because he is remembered with such affection, I hope more Phar Lap models will be produced in the future.

EDIT: Another video with more fascinating footage of Phar Lap: