Well, another Belmont race has been run and America’s flirtation with horse-racing has been put away for another year. Sure, there are thousands of people who spend their lives breathing and living for horse racing but lots more limit their equine attention-span to the Kentucky Derby and focus on the Belmont only if the winner stands to win the Triple Crown (rare) or beat Secretariat’s Belmont time (Impossible, as far as I’m concerned). Of course when that rare instance occurs, civilians like myself love to debate who the truly great horses were/are and who would win if we could time-transport them all to a single race. My late mom adored Man O’ War just as fervently as my husband still roots for Secretariat and, thanks to Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit again has an army of followers. People I respect in Europe talk about Frankel. All of these were incredible racers but for horses with a story, I have to give my thanks to Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson for introducing me to Phar Lap. He’s the great racing heart of Australia.
Like most heroes, Australia’s “Wonder Horse” had unlikely beginnings. The yearling came from a sire and dam with great blood lines and lousy racing records. He was picked from a catalogue by a struggling trainer for his pedigree instead of his picture. A good thing too because Phar Lap was no beauty. He was huge for a race horse (17 hands), skinny and so long in the back and legs, they said he looked more like a Kangaroo Dog than a horse. The new owner, David Davis, took one look at him and wanted the homely colt sold. Instead, the trainer gave him a name that meant lightning, gelded him and put the young horse into a training regime so rough, sometimes the animal was too tired to stand up afterward. The brutal treatment brought quite a result: Phar Lap finished his first race Dead Last.
But every hero gets a friend and Phar Lap’s was his groom, Tommy Woodcock. Tommy treated the horse with kindness and helped guide the two-year old’s instincts to get to the front of the pack. Phar Lap won his last race as a two year old and then thirteen of his twenty races as a three year old, including all of the major races that year and often two or three races in one week. Phar Lap had falling in love with running and the public had fallen in love with him.
If the public loves a horse that consistently wins, you can bet someone else wants him to lose. Before one major race, someone tried to shoot Phar Lap. They missed and the horse won but racing officials decided Phar Lap needed a handicap. The 110-120 pounds of weight that Phar Lap carried in his second and third years were considered too light and extra weight was added to his racing saddles. He continued to win, though the racing was harder, and the authorities kept increasing the weight. By the time Phar Lap ran his third Melbourne Cup race, he raced with 150 pounds on his back, a good ten percent more than the other runners. The horse couldn’t take that kind of a burden and his owner decided a trip was in order. Phar Lap would run in the North American Agua Caliente, with a reasonable weight. He did and won the great race without trouble.
I wish that was the end of Phar Lap’s story but what comes next is an unsolved mystery. Two weeks after his last victory, while David Davis considered future races and Tommy looked after his friend, Phar Lap suddenly became ill. His death shocked the racing world and theories behind the cause are still debated today. It’s one of the great “who-dun-its” of the racing world, like the kidnapping of the Irish winner Shergar. As for Australia, they never have forgotten the rangy runner who could come from behind and pass the pack on the outside rail. Phar Lap and Tommy Woodcock both became revered members of Australia’s racing history.
Perhaps when we see our next great star or athlete, we’ll remember a bit of Phar Lap’s story and cherish the talent that exists rather than handicap it to compete with the pack. Genius, in whatever form it takes, occurs too rarely for us to limit it with artificial constraints when it does appear.