Archive for November, 2013

Phar Lap was another of the bright stars in my grandfather’s pantheon of “thoroughbred immortals.” Even in the small town in rural Quebec, Canada, where my grandparents lived, horsemen knew about the mighty Phar Lap whose exploits they watched on newsreels in the town’s movie house. “He must have been just a gorgeous beast,” Grandpa would say in a hushed, reverent tone. “But the Depression was no time to be a horse, ” he added, “Nope. It was a dirty time and they did brilliant to keep Phar Lap out of harm’s way for as long as they did.”  Grandpa’s pantheon was tiny. But here was an exceptional individual who led the life of a working-class hero. The big red gelding who generally cantered home, winning 37 of his 51 starts over a span of three years, was also as gentle as the toddlers who rode, bridleless, on his broad back. 

And of all the narratives that punctuated an incredible life, the story of getting Phar Lap to the 1930 Melbourne Cup has to be the most dramatic. 

Phar Lap with the man who was closest to him and his best friend, Tommy Woodcock.

PHAR LAP with the man who was closest to him —  his best friend, Tommy Woodcock.

Phar Lap might well have died before he ever captured the 1930 Melbourne Cup, had it not been for the quick-wittednessa of a team that included trainer Harry Telford and the big red horse’s strapper, or groom, Tom Woodcock.

The Great Depression hit Australia in 1929, a year before the stock market crashed in the USA. Its effects on Australian society were devastating: in 1929, unemployment was already at 10% and at its peak, in 1932, it was at almost 32%. What jobs there were for the working and middle classes were of short duration, especially in cities like Melbourne. And as is often the case when whole nations are ravaged, the suffering was cloaked by an ominous silence. As one survivor recounted:

People were forced into all sorts of tricks and expediencies to survive, all sorts of shabby and humiliating compromises. In thousands and thousands of homes fathers deserted the family and went on the track (to become itinerant workers), or perhaps took to drink. Grown sons sat in the kitchen day after day, playing cards, studying the horses [betting on horse racing] and trying to scrounge enough for a threepenny bet, or engaged in petty crime, mothers cohabited with male boarders who were in work and who might support the family, daughters attempted some amateur prostitution and children were in trouble with the police.

(Lowenstein, Wendy. Weevils in the Flour: an oral record of the 1930s depression in Australia , 20th anniversary edition, Scribe, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia, p.2, 1998.)

This was Phar Lap’s world, where shadows of uncertainty and the desperation of the disenfranchised were the soundtrack of daily life. One escape from despair was horse racing, where men with little chance of finding a job would drop whatever they could find into betting, making that part of the industry a ripe landscape for the unscrupulous. And a horse who seemed to always win was going to evoke both public elation and private rage.

A big, red horse who brought hope to so many, PHAR LAP stirred up more dangerous emotions too. Shown here at the finish of a race in 1930. Photo and copyright: John Fairfax (for The Sydney Herald).

A big, red horse who brought hope to so many, PHAR LAP stirred up more dangerous emotions as well. Shown here at the finish of a race in 1930. Photo and copyright: John Fairfax (for The Sydney Herald).

An ugly, scrawny yearling from New Zealand who arrived at the Telford Stable with seemingly little promise had blossomed into a handsome and powerful “Champion of the People” by 1930. Phar Lap’s sire, Night Raid (1918) carried the blood of the great British stallions Bend Or (1877) and Spearmint (1903); his dam, Entreaty (1920) was a New Zealand-bred who descended from the mighty St. Simon (1881) and Isonomy (1875). Night Raid was bred in the UK and sold off first to J. McGuigan for 120 BPS, then to Australian P. Keith, followed by Sydney horseman A. P. Wade, before ending up in the stable of A. P. Roberts, a New Zealand owner-breeder. Lacklustre as he was asa a racehorse, Night Raid proved a very successful sire.



ENTREATY with a full sibling to PHAR LAP at her side.

ENTREATY with a full sibling to PHAR LAP at her side.

The handsome NIGHTMARCH was another excellent son of NIGHT RAID, defeating PHAR LAP in the 1929 Melbourne Cup.

Another excellent son of NIGHT RAID was the handsome NIGHTMARCH, who defeated PHAR LAP in the 1929 Melbourne Cup.

Poor Harry Telford! His despair at seeing the Night Raid colt was without end, for he was the one who had persuaded the millionaire, David J. Davis, to buy him. When Davis saw the colt, he blew up; when he had calmed down enough to think clearly, Davis decided to lease Phar Lap to Telford for three years. Telford would pay for the colt’s maintenance as well as entry fees and Davis would get one third of any earnings the Night Raid colt might amass. Before he turned two, Phar Lap was gelded, the thinking at the time being that as a huge, backward juvenile, the procedure would enhance his development. He was given the name PHAR LAP, derived from a Thai dialect (far lap), meaning “lightening” or “bolt of lightening” or “light from the sky.” Telford dropped the “f” in favour of the “ph” to meet registration requirements.



Harry Telford was a caring trainer but a tough one and he believed that horses benefitted from long, hard works. He set about preparing the lanky Phar Lap using this method, one that prevailed throughout the gelding’s career. Into the youngster’s life came Tommy Woodcock, who cared for “Bobby,” as Phar Lap was called, as well as several other thoroughbreds in the Telford stable. However, Phar Lap became so enamoured of his young strapper that Tommy was soon assigned to the colt full-time.

Phar Lap was Tommy’s horse in every sense of the word. Central as Tommy was to his world, Bobby developed the habit of chewing up Woodcock’s shirts and jackets. To get around this, his young groom taught him a number of games that always ended with a lump of sugar. And Phar Lap’s sweet tooth turned out to be as enormous as his size and as constant as his performance on the turf. Without Tommy’s love, loyalty and friendship it is impossible to say that Phar Lap would have developed into the champion he became, since horses who aren’t happy within themselves seldom realize their potential.

PHAR LAP with Tommy, ears pricked, undoubtedly thinking about the lumps of sugar his friend always carried in his pockets.

PHAR LAP with Tommy, ears pricked, undoubtedly thinking about the lumps of sugar his friend always carried in his pockets.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these measurements of the 3 year-old champion. Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

Phar Lap’s two year-old season was unremarkable, except for the laughter that accompanied the big, gawky gelding when he appeared on a race track. Like most babies, Bobby at first had no idea what he was supposed to do. Add to that the very real difficulty of co-ordinating those long, long legs and one can almost imagine him running awkwardly along well behind the pack. He did, however, conclude his first season by breaking his maiden with a win in the 6f Rosehill Maiden Juvenile Handicap in April 1929.

Finally figuring it out: PHAR LAP breaks his maiden at the end of his very first racing season in 1929.

Finally figuring it out: PHAR LAP wins the AJC Craven Plate under jockey W. Duncan on October 9, 1929. Photo and copyright, John Fairfax (Fairfax Photos), Australia.

But the youngster would actually race fifteen times in 1929, his first year on the track, because thoroughbreds in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate their birthdays on August 1, and not in January. So a fairer analysis of Bobby’s 1929 performances would show that from September 14, 1929, the now three year-old went on an absolute tear, chalking up a record of 9-4-1-1 from August to November. The wins came in the AJC Derby and the two-mile AJC Craven’s Plate (in October), as well as the prestigious Victoria Derby in November, where he was piloted for the second time by the legendary James Pike.

Under Pike’s guidance, Phar Lap had become the favourite to take the 1929 Derby. Unfortunately, “Gentle Jim” (as Pike was known) was not available and Bobby Lewis was given the mount. As it turned out, Big Bobby and Jockey Bobby fought with each other through the first quarter of the Cup, with Lewis trying to wrestle Phar Lap back, to rate off the pace. It was too much for the youngster and Nightmarch came home first with Phar Lap settling for third — an extraordinary performance considering how he had worn himself out. As 1929 closed, Phar Lap had started fifteen times with a maximum rest of 26 days between races, discounting a three-month summer lay-off. He had run at distances from 6 f to 2 miles and carried imposts from 91-122 lbs. (AJC Victoria Derby win) — an unheard of amount of weight by today’s standards.

Jim Pike brings PHAR LAP to the winner's circle after their win in the 1929 AJC Derby. Photo and copyright, Racing Museum, Australia

Jim Pike brings PHAR LAP to the winner’s circle after their win in the 1929 AJC Derby. Photo and copyright, Museum Victoria, Australia.

No surprise, then, that when Phar Lap started his 3-4 year-old season in 1930 he had quite the fan following — and the statuesque red gelding did not disappoint. It was to be the year of Bobby and Gentle Jim, for in all but 5 of his 21 starts, Jim Pike was in the irons. It was a year none would forget: racing at distances from 9f to 2 1/4 miles, the big horse won 19 and finished second and third respectively in the other two. Bobby reeled off nine consecutive wins between March and May, and another ten from September 13 – November 8. The maximum time-off between races that year was 14 days; the minimum, 9. Carrying weight of between 109 and 138 lbs., Phar Lap came home running easily. After his death, jockey Pike would say that he’d never even come close to finding the bottom of an animal with whom he, like Tommy Woodcock, shared a spiritual bond.

The great horse carried as much as 138 lbs. weight in his second season on the turf. But it didn't stop PHAR LAP from winning 19 of 21 starts. Photo and copyright, The Herald, Australia

The great horse carried as much as 138 lbs. weight in his second season on the turf. But it didn’t stop PHAR LAP from winning 19 of 21 starts. Shown here with Jim Pike. Photo and copyright, The Sydney Herald, Australia.

As Phar Lap’s second season progressed through a win in the Cox Plate — his sixth in a row at that point in the season — one thing was becoming eminently clear: the betting houses stood to lose a fortune if the “Red Terror’s” winning streak continued.

In the early doubles betting for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, the Phar Lap-Phar Lap double had been heavily backed, as was the Nightmarch-Phar Lap and the Amounis-Phar Lap double.  Telford and Davis had heavily backed the Amounis-Phar Lap ticket, hoping to make a very tidy sum for themselves. Telford had always been secretive about his plans for Phar Lap. Apparently not satisfied with their horse’s substantial earnings to date, Telford, Davis  (and perhaps others) used this same tactic to ferment conditions that would make betting even more favourable for themselves.

As the Caulfield Cup drew near and the war of nerves heightened, several owners, including the shady A. Louisson who owned Nightmarch, withdrew their horses from the race. Five days before the Caulfield Cup, Telford withdrew Phar Lap, provoking rage among those who had determined not to run their horses.

On Caulfield Cup day, Amounis obliged by winning and became Australia’s biggest stakes winner ever at 48,197 AUS pounds — an absolute fortune in 1930.

But Telford, Davis and others who had backed the Amounis-Phar Lap double were equally thrilled, since it seemed impossible that Phar Lap would lose.

AMOUNIS, a champion in his own right was another favoured for the Caulfield Cup.

AMOUNIS, a champion in his own right, was another favoured to win the 1930 Caulfield Cup.

For the bookies — from those legitimate betting enterprises to the ones closely associated with Australia’s underworld, referred to as “illegal starting-price operators”  — the prospect of Phar Lap’s winning the Melbourne Cup spelled disaster. It was estimated that with doubles and straight betting combined, bookmakers would be paying out something in the region of 200,000 AUS pounds should Phar Lap win. The legitimate bookmakers would, albeit begrudgingly, meet their obligations. But the betting underworld was populated with gangsters, gunmen, drug lords and the like — a rough sort, unlikely to pay out such a vast sum.

And this doesn’t even include all the individuals who had lost money betting on a Phar Lap- Phar Lap and/or Nightmarch/Phar Lap double, or disgruntled owners like Louisson, who had pulled perfectly good horses from the Caulfield Cup and headed home penniless.

BOBBY and his best friend, Tommy Woodcock, were front page news no matter where they went or what they were doing.

BOBBY and Tommy were front page news no matter where they went or what they were doing.

BOBBY with Tommy and a young friend. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia

BOBBY in his rugs, with Tommy and a young friend. Children were always welcome to meet and greet the Champ — and especially when he was on holiday! BOBBY was a gentle giant and children were always safe around him. Photo and copyright, John Fairfax (Fairfax Photos) Australia.

At the same time, Phar Lap had woven his way into the hearts of a nation. Everything he did was front page news, from rolling around in the sand to carrying toddlers on his back to going for works with the grey pony who was his constant stable companion. It seemed impossible that anyone would try to take down a horse who had become a national figure.

About a week before the running of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, Tommy Woodcock looked up from attending to Phar Lap to see a friend of trainer Telford and a man “who stood high in my estimation…A person who had entry to Telford’s stables at any time” entering the barn. After a bit of smalltalk, this mystery man (Woodcock never identified him by name) tactfully suggested that, should Phar Lap win the Cup, “… the bookmakers would be calling for the bridle to make the weight.” Tommy laughed off the observation, even though he knew it was a reference to the plight of bookmakers should the big horse win.

Thinking that Woodcock would be easy to convince, the visitor tried again,  “I’ll wager you could get a fortune from some of those who are deep in if you doped Phar Lap before the race.” But Tommy wasn’t paying much attention — he was too busy “dressing” Bobby.

PHAR LAP, with Pike riding the white "pony" who was also the Champ's constant companion, heads out for a work. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia.

PHAR LAP, with Pike riding the grey “pony” who was also the Champ’s constant companion, heads out for a work. Photo and copyright, Fairfax Photos, Australia.

The Melbourne Cup was (and remains) THE race on the Australian calendar and on Cup Day the entire country shuts down. The pressure on anyone who has a Cup horse is already enormous. Added to the pressure assailing Tommy was that he was receiving threatening letters on a daily basis about what might happen to his beloved Bobby if the horse ran. Whether or not the mystery man was behind these threats has never been made clear, but they included spraying Phar Lap with acid and sticking him with needles. Others, of a similar bent, were seen by the young lad as patently ridiculous. But one letter made his blood turn to ice: this one threatened that Phar Lap would be “shot down like a dingo.”  It went on to say that “Phar Lap was used by gamblers unfairly to trick bookmakers and that if {Phar Lap’s} life was valued his name should be struck out of the Cup.”

The mystery man showed up again at Joe Cripps’ stables at Caulfield where Phar Lap was stabled. This time, “…He told me that the Ring would never get over the knock it would receive {if Phar Lap won} at the same time saying he knew of men who would give a heap of money to be relieved of their responsibilities. ‘Tommy, you could set yourself up for life if you listened to them,’ he added.”

The third visit was more straight forward. ” ‘ Tommy, the best I can do for you is four thousand (AUS),’ he said. I looked at him in astonishment. He must have thought that I was disappointed in the offer as he went on to tell me that there were only a couple of bookmakers in it, and four thousand pounds was a lot of money.”

To a young strapper during the Depression era, if not in general, it was indeed a fortune. Grooms and stable folk didn’t earn anything near to what owners, trainers and jockeys made — even when they were rubbing a champion. But Tom Woodcock was an honest youth and he loved Phar Lap. His response to the bribe was swift: he ordered the man off the premises and advised him to not return on threat of bodily harm. Then he called Harry Telford.


The most frightening letter that Woodcock received stated that Phar Lap would be “shot down like a dingo” if he contested the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

First, Tommy told the trainer about the bribe. There was a long silence. Telford replied, “… Phar Lap {will} be lucky if he {sees} the post in the Cup, as more than one person {is} anxious to see him out of the way.” Telford went on to say that he,too, had been offered a bribe: ten thousand (AUS) pounds; Woodcock later heard, from reliable sources, that Jim Pike had also been bribed. But, although all three regularly bet (in fact, Jim Pike ended his years in poverty because of his gambling addiction) none accepted, leading Woodcock to conclude “…Whatever those who tried to engineer the defeat of Phar Lap thought of Telford, Pike or me for refusing to be a party to their scheme, they must at least have realized we were honest men.”

Woodcock then told the trainer about the threat to shoot the horse and a 24-hour guard was put on Phar Lap. As Tommy observed, ” …The only way they could maim him was to shoot him, so close was the guard on him, and it would have to be a shot at long range as little opportunity was afforded anyone of getting close to him.” Tommy moved his bed from near Bobby’s stall right into it. As his fears mounted, Woodcock confessed to be suffering from “imaginitis,” causing him to lie awake most of the night next to the giant gelding and to look as though he had eyes in the back of his head whenever they left the Cripps’ stable for Caulfield race track.

Like many who have trained famous thoroughbreds, Telford’s team habituated the early morning hours, when it was still dark, to work Phar Lap. So it was that on a Saturday that was also the morning of the Derby and the opening day of Melbourne’s Racing Carnival, Tommy on his pony and a hooded Bobby left the stable for Caulfield race track, where they would meet up with Bobby Parker, who had escorted the Cripps’ horses to the track and would, in turn, work Phar Lap.

Another lad who worked for Cripps, as well as a newspaper reporter, noted the car near the track. The reporter noticed that the numbers on its licence plate were scrawled crudely in what looked like chalk. (Cars were still rare in Australia at this time and it was even rarer to find one anywhere near a race track that early in the morning.) Tommy didn’t take note of it because he had taken a different route to the track, since Phar Lap liked to look at everything around him and always appreciated an improvisation to his usual routine.

PHAR LAP (foreground) training with other horses from Telford's stable. Photo and Copyright, Museum of New Zealand.

PHAR LAP (foreground) training with other horses from Telford’s stable. Photo and Copyright, Museum of New Zealand.

After Phar Lap’s breeze, the little band started out for home. It was about 5:20 a.m.

Usually the trio wound their way back at a leisurely pace along Roseberry Grove, but for some (fortuitous) reason, Tommy decided to take an alternate route along Manchester Grove instead. Which meant that they came up behind the car that Parker and the journalist had spotted earlier, instead of in front of it. Tommy saw its whitewashed, chalky plates immediately. The hairs on his head bristled. But he was almost alongside it before he knew something was not right and, as he passed, the occupants buried their heads in their newspapers. (He would subsequently recount that he saw a shotgun barrel peak out of the rear window as they passed by.)

Phar Lap and his pony moved alongside and passed the car, but before they got far enough away Tommy heard its engine start up. Digging his heels into the pony, he hustled around a corner and pushed Phar Lap up against a fence, planting the pony and himself between Bobby and the car. But the Studebaker came careening after them, its horn blaring, making straight for Phar Lap. The gelding became agitated and reared up, turning himself around 360 degrees in the process.

As Tommy tells it, “Lucky for him {Phar Lap} he did so, as the back seat passenger poked out a double-barreled shotgun and fired point blank. The pellets were embedded in the picket fence where Phar Lap had been standing…It was all over in a second. They didn’t stop to fire a second shot. The shooting took place at 5:40 a.m. and with the report of the gun and the honking of the horn it wasn’t long before heads were appearing out of gates and windows.” Woodcock failed to mention that he himself was thrown to the ground by the frightened pony, who was subsequently grabbed by a milkman.

It wasn't long before the shocked nation heard the story.

It wasn’t long before a shocked nation heard the whole story.


Phar Lap had been entered in the Melbourne Stakes as a kind of prep race on November 1, three days before the Cup, and — incredibly — his team decided to go on with it. Two policemen were stationed just feet away from the horse’s stall and remained with him up until the evening of November 1, when a victorious Phar Lap returned to the Cripps’ barn.

Having read the newspaper reports of the shooting, a Mr. H.G. Raymond, of the Victoria Racing Club, stepped forward to offer his property at St. Albans near Geelong as a hiding place for Phar Lap until Cup Day. The offer was jumped at by Telford. At about the same time, jockey Jim Pike went into hiding as well, since if the gunmen couldn’t get to the horse, he judged that he might well be their next victim.

Later that same night, horse, pony and Woodcock were shipped off the Cripps’ premises in the middle of the night. Bags were laid out on the ground to muffle the sound of horse and pony being loaded into the trailer. And before the van moved away, trainer Telford (who, with Cripps, was the only one other than Raymond, Woodcock and Stan Boyden, Telford’s trusted driver, who knew of the plan) handed a gun to both Tommy and Stan.

Fortunately, nothing happened that required either of them to use their weapons. All arrived safely at St. Albans, Bobby being a model passenger, since he was always happy if his beloved Tommy was close by.For the two days leading up to the Cup, Woodcock slept right beside Phar Lap, while another horse, Old Ming, was selected to pose as the champion and duly stabled at Cripps’ Stable. Telford later confided that Old Ming was rather shocked by all the fuss and bother that greeted him, dressed in Phar Lap’s tack of rug and hood, when he went to Caulfield to train.

The morning of the Melbourne Cup, Phar Lap had a short work with some of the St. Albans’ horses before being tacked up and loaded onto the horse trailer at 11 a.m. Arriving at the Flemington track in good time, the trailer entered via the member’s drive. At race time, Phar Lap was escorted to the track by armed guards.

Police accompany PHAR LAP to the start of the Melbourne Cup.

Police and armed guards accompany PHAR LAP to the start of the Melbourne Cup.

A crowd of 72,000 had turned out to see him and Tommy had groomed Phar Lap’s red coat to a burnished, gleaming copper. As Jim Pike sent him down to the start at a canter, a wave of cheers of tsunami proportion accompanied the gelding. It was a small field — not usually the case — likely as much due to the Depression as to Phar Lap’s reputation. But no-one minded. All were there to see the greatest thoroughbred that Australia had ever known win its most prestigious Cup.

Gentle Jim never touched him and carrying the staggering impost of 138 lbs. as though it was nothing, Phar Lap turned into the home stretch and cruised up to the wire, his ears pricked. Hearts that had been so tested by the Depression were swept up in a joyous abandon that shook the grandstand.

But no heart sailed higher than Tommy Woodcock’s. Later that night, feeding Bobby sugar while cradling his head, Tommy told him that he was “the best horse in the whole world.”

Which, of course, he was.

The winnings were 9, 229 pounds (AUS), together with the Gold Cup, worth another 200. Tom Woodcock received ten pounds from Phar Lap’s owners …. as a bonus for taking such good care of Bobby.

The headlines and celebration of the day follow, together with some remarkable footage of Phar Lap.


PHAR LAP comes to the wire, ears pricked, to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

PHAR LAP comes to the wire, ears pricked, to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

Coming home, Jim Pike hugging his neck. It was Pike's first Melbourne Cup after trying for it 14 times!

Coming home, Jim Pike hugging his neck. It was Pike’s first Melbourne Cup after trying for it fourteen times. And just look at the expression on the faces of those watching their champion — those faces say it all.

PHAR LAP in the news_02lrg

BONUS FEATURE: an absolutely stunning documentary entitled “The Mighty Conquerer” made about PHAR LAP just before his departure for New Zealand and then the USA. Nothing we have ever seen comes closer to its message of love for the mighty Phar Lap.


Carter, I. R. PHAR LAP: the Story Of The Big Horse. Melbourne, Australia:1964.

Woodcock, T. PHAR LAP MEMORIES  serialized in THE MERCURY, Hobart, Tasmania: 1936.

THE ARGUS, Melbourne, Australia 1929-1930.


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: