Fame so widely diffused nearly always melts into the mists of legend. And so, it is with Phar Lap. The horse that is generally acclaimed to be the greatest ever foaled in Australasia stepped into the birdcage at Trentham racecourse to be sold as a yearling at around 5 o’clock on the afternoon of 24th January 1928; he was the last lot offered. Earlier in the day, the New Zealand record price for a yearling had been broken when 2300 guineas were given on behalf of George Greenwood for a Limond colt, but there was very little interest in this last fellow, Lot No. 41. There were only two serious bidders, Hugh Telford and Sid Reid, and Reid was bidding on behalf of an absentee client who had quit the sales early because of a heavy cold. In the circumstances, Reid didn’t feel comfortable continuing to up the ante and withdrew from the duel. It was in this way that the big and gangling youngster became the property of Hugh Telford for just 160 guineas.
Hugh Telford had been acting on behalf of his 51-year-old brother, Harry, a battling trainer then renting a box or two in stables in Doncaster Avenue, Randwick. Harry Richard Telford was one of the many fringe-dwellers that subsisted in the world of racing in those days, struggling to eke out a living from the game. It had always been thus. Born in Ballarat, Victoria, where his father had run a livery stable, Telford’s life had been nothing but horses from the day he was born. During the early years of his childhood, his father relocated to New Zealand, and it was there that Harry first became apprenticed in racing stables at Oamaru; he didn’t exhibit any particular flair for jockeyship and soon became too heavy for the saddle. Harry turned his attention to stable craft and in time became the foreman for Dick Mason, often accompanying the Mason team across the Tasman to the A.J.C. Spring Meetings. Eventually, Harry decided to settle in New South Wales, initially training out of Newcastle before gravitating to Randwick. His younger brother, Hugh, chose to remain in New Zealand where he also became a trainer, working out of Trentham.
What was it about the pedigree of Lot No. 41, a chestnut colt by the English horse Night Raid from Entreaty that so attracted Telford’s notice and prompted him to write to his brother asking him to buy the youngster, provided he could get him for less than 200 guineas? Night Raid as a stallion had little to recommend him. The horse had failed to win in six appearances on racecourses in England and was eventually shipped off to Australia in a package deal with another, better-conformed stallion, for £950 to Sydney trainer, Peter Keith. Night Raid started in 29 races in Australia, and the best he could manage was to win a maiden and share a dead-heat in a Tattersall’s Chelmsford Handicap. It is of interest to note in passing that, when Night Raid shared that handicap, a young lad named Tom Woodcock rode a horse called Shepherd’s Delight into fifth place behind him. Little could he know the profound effect that the winner was destined to have on the course of his life.
Eventually, Keith sold Night Raid to Paddy Wade for 1400 guineas and the horse stood briefly for one season at Wade’s Wagga Wagga stud, before Wade himself parted with the horse when Top Gallant commenced stud duties in his place. Wade sold Night Raid to New Zealand studmaster, A. F. Roberts, for 700 guineas. It is worth noting that once Phar Lap and Nightmarch began to strut their stuff, Wade made overtures to repurchase the stallion, but was quickly rebuffed by an asking price of 12,000 guineas plus contingencies. In New Zealand, Night Raid was installed at his owner’s Seadown Stud at Timaru; it was there that Phar Lap was foaled on October 4th, 1926. Entreaty, the mother of the future champion, had even less to recommend her at stud than Night Raid; she had broken down after her only appearance on the Turf when unplaced in a minor race and Roberts had acquired her for a paltry 60 guineas. Phar Lap was her second foal.
There were two things about the colt’s breeding that attracted Harry Telford. The first was that the great Musket, sire of Carbine, appeared on both sides of his pedigree. The second and the one that really got Harry interested in Lot No. 41 was a reference that the colt ran back to Miss Kate, one of the foundation mares of the New Zealand Stud Book. Years before, when young Harry was merely an apprentice in stables at Oamaru, he had dressed a rather good stayer named Prime Warden, one of the best horses of his youthful riding days. Miss Kate had been the dam of Prime Warden and was also the granddam of one of New Zealand’s most noted stayers in Blue Jacket. When Harry Telford sent that letter to his brother asking him to bid for the Night Raid colt, he did so after cajoling David J. Davis, a Russian-born Jew to fund the purchase. Davis was an American citizen who had migrated to Australia in the early 1920s and had prospered after opening a small photographic studio, before getting into the business of importing china and cutlery. He was relatively new to the racing game when Telford first approached him. One of the great might-have-been tales from the Australian Turf concerns a second letter Harry Telford sent his brother a few days after the despatch of the first. Telford was troubled by second thoughts about his impulsive purchase of a colt that he had never seen and suggested to his brother that if Lot No. 41 didn’t take his eye, then he might bid for another yearling instead. It was lucky for Harry that this second letter didn’t lob into Hugh Telford’s mailbox until the sales were over. If looks had been the reason for bidding, the Night Raid colt wouldn’t have stood a chance.
It was the liner Wanganella that delivered the future Phar Lap across the sea and onto the Sydney docks; although when Telford went down to claim his prize, he was disappointed to find a rather poor specimen of the thoroughbred. Nor had the rough passage across the Tasman done anything to improve upon nature. Davis didn’t want to have anything to do with the horse when he saw him, but Telford didn’t have the money to take the gangly colt off his hands. So, the two men struck a deal whereby Telford leased the horse for three years to relieve Davis of any further expenses during that time, with the American to get a third of any race winnings, while Telford paid all the bills and pocketed the balance of whatever the horse might return on the track. On first impressions that looked likely to be two-thirds of nothing. It was Telford that chose the name Phar Lap, a word derived from the Thai language and meaning ‘emitting light from the sky’, that is lightning. Even as a young colt, Phar Lap was a remarkably relaxed and laidback character, although after being broken in, his early gallops didn’t suggest there was much lightning in his action. Still, neither on the basis of his breeding nor his rather large gangly frame was the youngster going to be an early comer, so Telford decided to have him gelded and turned out into a spelling paddock at Windsor for a good few months.
When Frank Marsden moved out of his ‘Gaulusville’ cottage, some of the loose boxes at the back of the property became available for rental. It was from one such box that Telford trained the gelding for his first season of racing. Unpromising was hardly the word to describe Phar Lap as a two-year-old. Telford delayed his racecourse debut until late February and a nursery handicap at Rosehill, and with the horse weighted at only 6 st. 11lb, he got the young stable apprentice, ‘Cashy’ Martin to ride him. This was to be sixteen-year-old Martin’s only real brush with fame during a brief career in the saddle that was to be cut tragically short less than two years later when he died as a result of a race fall at Gosford. The occasion of Phar Lap’s debut wasn’t auspicious, as our future champion was both unquoted in the betting and unsighted in the race. Similar anonymity attended his next three essays on the Turf, including an appearance in the prestigious A.J.C. Easter Stakes during the Randwick autumn fixture, before the horse finally broke through for a win. It came in a six-furlong juvenile handicap at Rosehill in late April at his last appearance of the season. It was one of the coldest April days for almost one hundred years, and Phar Lap’s rivals certainly felt a chill as he swept past them in the straight to claim victory after coming from a fair way back in the early stages.
Telford had set Phar Lap up for that race at Rosehill and got a friend to back him on his behalf getting as much as 20/1 for some of his money, although the horse eventually started at 7/1. Despite drawing number eighteen position in a field of twenty-one, it was a brilliant victory with Phar Lap stretching out in style over the last two furlongs. The result enabled Harry to discharge his accumulated debts on stable rent and horse fodder and, perchance, to dream of greater things. If so, the successful jockey on that occasion, Jack Baker, upon dismounting didn’t offer much encouragement to the inquiring Telford: “He might be all right, but I don’t think he’ll stay.” Much has been said about the judgement of jockeys over the years but I think this one of the more memorable utterances. Curiously enough, the same edition of the Sydney Mail that ever so briefly referred to Phar Lap’s maiden success, devoted columns of print in their lead article to speculations on the likely outcome of the 1929 A.J.C. Derby. Needless to say, Phar Lap’s name never got a mention. However, not everybody present that day at Rosehill missed the portents. The perceptive racing correspondent for The Australian Worker wrote: “Phar Lap’s galloping action is of an unusual order. With full pressure on it rises very high, comparatively, from the ground. With racing, no doubt, this peculiarity will be toned down. It (sic) has pace and courage and should be heard of again.” It was. Moreover, correspondents wouldn’t be referring to this gelding as ‘it’ for much longer. Phar Lap’s five starts in his first season had netted just £182.
The best youngster seen out on either side of the Tasman in the 1928-29 racing season was Honour, the commanding chestnut son of Limond that at 2300 guineas had topped the Trentham sales. He won the Canterbury Jockey Club’s Welcome Stakes at his first start and followed this up with wins in the Royal Stakes and Wellington Stakes in a manner that suggested George Greenwood’s outlay at Trentham was going to be repaid many times with interest. Greenwood then decided to send the colt over for the A.J.C. Autumn Meeting and offer him for sale at the conclusion of it. A well-grown, big-barrelled chestnut with four white feet, this grandson of Eulogy was widely admired when he stepped into the weighing-yard to be paraded for the A.J.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes at his Australian debut. Honour went to the front in the first furlong and was never headed, although the Dan Lewis-trained Comanche finished determinedly, running him close on the line. Dick Mason’s son, Peter, was in charge of Honour during that visit while Dick stayed at home, and it was his first winner in Sydney in his own right.
New Zealand was rarely represented in the principal Australian two-year-old races of the autumn in those days, yet that season proved rather an exception, for not only did Honour win the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick, but Nedda, a son of Paper Money, won the equivalent race at Flemington on behalf of the Dominion. After Honour’s brilliant debut at Randwick, everyone was looking forward to his clash with Holdfast in the Champagne Stakes, but a 10lb penalty and soft going prompted Greenwood to withdraw his colt. As it transpired, Holdfast was all abroad in the mud – the race being won by Parkwood, who was among the beaten brigade that Honour had humbled on the first day of the meeting. A few days later Honour was offered for sale at Chisholm and Co.’s auction for tried horses. Bidding started at 1000 guineas and quickly reached 4000 but beyond that price, there was no interest, and the chestnut was passed-in. Greenwood was rather evasive as to the reserve he had in mind at the time, and one was left to conclude that, as with Sol Green and Strephon who was offered at the same time, neither owner was serious about parting with their pride and joy.
July proved abnormally dry in Sydney in 1929, and until rains came in the last few days of the month, trainers were rather anxious about working their charges on the flint-hard surface of the racecourse. It was Telford’s practice that, to avoid too much jarring on the big gelding’s legs, he occasionally worked Phar Lap on the great stretch of sand hills that fringed the back of Victoria Park, riding the horse himself up the loose sand in a stockman’s saddle. The fact that the battling trainer often couldn’t raise the money for regular grass gallops at Kensington was another reason for this recourse to the seaside. It is said that gold refined in the hottest furnace comes out the purest. Whatever the motivation for this less than orthodox preparation, it laid the foundation for a spring campaign that would go down in history. I might observe that a big young horse often doesn’t have the strength to match his size. This, and racing over unsuitably short distances had been Phar Lap’s problem as a juvenile; the transformation that came with maturity and his growing into that huge frame was about to be revealed.
Phar Lap made his reappearance on the first Saturday in the new racing season in an unsuitable six-furlong handicap at Warwick Farm in which he ran unplaced. Two further unplaced efforts followed later in the same month at Rosehill in seven-furlong handicaps restricted to three and four-year-olds. Ditto the same results – unplaced each time. It came as something of a surprise to the racing public, therefore, when Harry Telford accepted with the unfashionable youngster for the A.J.C. Warwick Stakes, to be run on the last day of the month over a mile against some of the best weight-for-age horses in the land – a field that year which included the likes of Limerick, Mollison and Winalot. Phar Lap wasn’t the only three-year-old in the race – the well performed Nedda and Parkwood were others – but as a horse eligible for novice races, he was easily the most despised outsider at 25/1.
It was a race that saw Limerick receive a rousing reception as he returned to his best form, beating the odds-on favourite Mollison, with a brilliant finish. The third horse in the race was Winalot ridden by Jim Pike, who by the narrowest of margins deprived Harry Telford of a share in the prize money. In fact, Phar Lap had shadowed Winalot throughout the race. It was a splendid Derby trial, the best seen out that season, and eclipsed anything on offer in the Hobartville Stakes, run on the same card in which Toper upset the odds laid on Holdfast. In no sport or business are reputations made and lost as fast as in racing. That one run in the Warwick Stakes was enough to see Phar Lap promoted to join Carradale, Comanche and others on the second line of favouritism for the Melbourne Cup. From a Cups perspective, bookmakers were very wary of promising three-year-olds suddenly emerging in the early spring in those days.
During the week following that Warwick Stakes, Jim Pike celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday. The great jockey was now experiencing real difficulty in reducing his big frame below nine stone, and had all but ruled out the prospect of any mount in the A.J.C. Derby that year. True, he had managed to make the 8 st. 10lb to fulfil his commitment to ride Strephon in the previous year’s Victoria Derby, but the severe wasting involved on that occasion had disabused him of any notion of being in a hurry to make it a habit. But Phar Lap’s performance at the Farm changed his mind. He had already ridden the horse in a trial at Kensington in early August and, though Telford had been anxious even then to secure Pike to partner the big chestnut, the jockey had been non-committal. Pike had preferred to see how the horse developed. After all, at that stage Phar Lap was getting beaten in easy races over unsuitably short distances as his Derby preparation progressed. The Warwick Stakes changed everything. Pike accepted the mount in the Derby, but in the meantime, he was unable to make the weight for either of the horse’s next two engagements, the Chelmsford Stakes and the Rosehill Guineas.
The Chelmsford Stakes that year was expected to be a match between Mollison and Winalot with as much as tens on offer about Phar Lap, who was being ridden by Jack Brown. The race was over nine furlongs, and as the distances of his races increased, Phar Lap now began to come into his own. The big gelding was fairly wide throughout the race and although he went down to Mollison by a half-length, was most impressive having given Winalot a start into the straight to beat him at the post by three lengths; moreover, he had gained at least two lengths on Mollison in the last furlong and a half.
Considering that the last half-mile of the Chelmsford Stakes was run in 48 ¼ seconds, Phar Lap must at least have equalled, if not broken 48 seconds. Few early season three-year-olds could match that at the end of a nine-furlong gallop. Incidentally, on that day a young Billy Cook was substituting on Mollison for the suspended Daniels who was the horse’s regular rider, and it marked his first weight-for-age win. A week later Phar Lap was partnered by Jim Munro in the Rosehill Guineas and recorded only the second win of his career. Hemmed in behind five or six horses on the turn, it looked like the big horse might be in trouble until Munro pulled him to the extreme outside to sweep past the leaders in a matter of strides. Without being ridden out, Phar Lap won by three lengths and was extending his margin at the post. Clearly, nothing behind him that day was going to trouble him in the Derby, and he was immediately promoted to the top line of betting as the 6/4 favourite for the classic – this, despite the traditional hoodoo that seemed to surround the Guineas’ winner. At the same time, he was also promoted to joint Melbourne Cup favouritism with Crucis, although some operators in Melbourne quoted him as their outright fancy.
The 1929 A.J.C. Derby field and race conditions appear in the table below.
Eleven horses accepted for the Derby in 1929. Phar Lap opened on the course at 5/4 and finished at that price after touching even money. There were only three other horses considered to have any chance against him in the classic viz. Carradale, Honour and Comanche. Carradale’s preparation for a first-up tilt at the Derby had followed James Scobie’s usual routine. The colt hadn’t appeared on a racecourse since winning the Easter Stakes at Randwick on Sydney Cup Day, a race in which Phar Lap had finished in the ruck. Although a bronchial attack had hospitalised his veteran trainer and delayed the colt’s departure for Sydney, it was never really the intention to give the horse a run before the classic.
Carradale had been the subject of consistent support for the Melbourne Cup in the weeks of late August and early September and the reports emanating out of Pytchley Lodge were encouraging. A beautifully-moulded colt by Harry Taylor’s young English stallion Caravel, Carradale had cost the V.R.C. chairman Lauchlan Mackinnon, 2000 guineas as a yearling. Although Caravel had been regarded more like a miler when he raced in England, there was sufficient stamina on the dam’s side to suggest the colt was genuine Derby material. In seven starts during his first season, Carradale had won twice: the Easter Stakes and earlier in the autumn, the Gibson Carmichael Stakes. It was the latter race, in which he first laid down his pretensions to class, winning in good time after having been the subject of some tidy wagers. Before leaving Melbourne, Carradale had recorded a trial at Moonee Valley that wasn’t much inferior to that of Trivalve on the eve of his Derby triumph, and the Scobie camp was confident.
Comanche was one of two horses in the Derby prepared by Dan Lewis – the other being the outsider, Sir Ribble. Comanche owed his place in Derby betting to some useful performances the previous season, having won the prestigious Canonbury Stakes and run Honour a very close second in the Sires’ Produce Stakes at Randwick. He had been expected by many to win the Champagne Stakes when the connections of Honour declined to pay up because of the state of the track; although he dead-heated for second in the race, there were some grandstand riders critical of Jack Toohey on that occasion for bringing Comanche along the rails where the going was heaviest. The horse had raced twice at three and his last start fourth in the Chelmsford Stakes entitled him to respect. Apart from encountering some interference in that race, Comanche, unlike Phar Lap, had carried a 7lb penalty, and including the allowance for geldings, was meeting the latter on 10lb better terms in the Derby.
Honour, in charge once again of Peter Mason, had arrived at Randwick in late August but, like Carradale, wasn’t given a public rehearsal before the Derby. Apart from Honour, the filly Nedda, winner of the V.R.C. Sires’ Produce Stakes, also represented New Zealand. There were three horses in the field by Tippler, a stallion imported to Australia by Hunter White at the same time as he brought over Roger de Busli. White raced two of the Tippler horses himself – Lorason and Cathmar – while the third, Toper, winner of the Hobartville Stakes, sported the colours of John Wren. Phar Lap might well have been the hope of the public as a heavily-backed favourite, but the casual manner in which he strolled about the parade sporting his trademark bandages on his front legs, showed the pressure wasn’t getting to him. Whereas the Rosehill Guineas had been merely a rehearsal, the Derby was to be his appointment with history.
From the start Rae Johnstone, partnering Queen Nassau, the extreme outsider of the field and only one of two fillies in the race, was determined that it would be a genuinely-run contest. Going out of the straight the first time, Queen Nassau had already opened up a three-length lead from Pentheus, who was another three lengths ahead of Lorason, with Phar Lap, Honour, Comanche and Carradale following in close order. So fast did Johnstone make the pace, Queen Nassau was eight lengths clear at the nine, twelve lengths at the mile, and even further ahead at the six-furlong post. Rumour had it that Johnstone had supported Phar Lap to win the race and the furious pace was intended to ensure the favourite didn’t ruin his chances by pulling.
Approaching the half-mile, Phar Lap carried the field to within three lengths of the tiring pacemaker, while Carradale was right alongside the favourite. Queen Nassau was stopping rather quickly now, and Pike found himself travelling smoothly. If one was to nominate the precise moment when the greatness of Phar Lap first became apparent to the racing public, one could do worse than suggest somewhere between the four and three-furlong mark in that record-breaking A.J.C. Derby. It was the only time in the entire race that Pike asked the big chestnut to do any serious work and in the twinkling of an eye he had opened up four lengths on the rest of the field, coming off a record pace! Phar Lap came into the Randwick straight three lengths clear to run home the easiest of winners. Carradale was second, beaten by three-and-a-half-lengths, with Honour a further eight lengths back in the minor placing.
The clock merely confirmed what 78,000 witnesses already knew: a true champion was in their midst. Phar Lap had covered the journey in 2 minutes 31 ¼ seconds. Thanks to the bold front-running ride on Queen Nassau by Rae Johnstone, this time was three-quarters of a second faster than the previous race record established by Salitros in 1920 and had there been any horse to extend Phar Lap in the straight, the time would have been even smarter. There was nothing particularly lyrical or elegant about the performance: it was sheer rugged strength -rough-hewn and impatient of restraint. Put bluntly: the big horse had galloped them into the ground.
One measure of racing greatness comes when parochialism is supplanted by a sense of privilege and history at having witnessed one’s own horse utterly humbled by a superior animal. James Scobie, who before the race had been supremely confident about Carradale, unhesitatingly declared immediately afterwards that Phar Lap was the finest three-year-old he had ever seen. Peter Mason for his part immediately scratched Honour from the A.J.C. Craven Plate and returned to New Zealand, deeming it frivolous to match his colt with Phar Lap again. Back home, Honour would take out the New Zealand Derby just a few weeks later. The trainer of Queen Nassau, the tearaway leader, was less than impressed with the manner in which the race unfolded; he complained to the stewards that Johnstone had ridden contrary to instructions and the future champion hoop of Europe was stood down for the rest of the meeting.
For Harry Telford, life would never be the same again. The gruff and sometimes impecunious struggler was now in that dazed and dazzled state of a man who had realised his every dream. Yet Telford was a man who was neither comfortable in the limelight of the press cameras nor the friendship of the multitude; he was of a naturally secretive disposition, and he regarded pressmen as his natural enemy. It happened that his brother Hugh was over from New Zealand for that A.J.C. Spring Meeting, having brought some horses across himself. Harry had seated himself in the trainers’ stand to watch the Derby, and as soon as he saw Phar Lap turn into the straight with a commanding advantage, he made himself scarce, leaving Hugh to receive the effusive congratulations and glad-handing of the press gallery.
Hugh Telford found it hard to believe that the big and powerful racehorse that plundered the Derby was the same scrawny, awkward animal that he had consigned on the Wanganella all those months before. The A.J.C. Derby was worth £6,735 to the winning owner, plus a breeder’s bonus of £400, and took Phar Lap’s earnings to £8,430 in less than six months. This was more money than Telford had ever dreamed and the days when the battling trainer struggled to feed both himself and his horses were now but a memory. For jockey Jim Pike, the win represented his second victory in the Randwick classic, his first having come with Beragoon sixteen years earlier. It was to mark the first of his twenty-seven wins on the big horse over three seasons, in what was to become the most famous horse and jockey partnership in the history of the Australian Turf.
The racing public was left to ponder whether lightning could strike twice at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting when Telford paid up for a return clash with Mollison in the rich weight-for-age Craven Plate on the third day. Over the years this race had proved rather difficult for a three-year-old to win, and on this occasion thunderstorms the night before and rain on the day itself delivered up a heavy track to further muddy the issue. Phar Lap had never been tried in such conditions, and although his name suggested he should feel at home in the rain, the bookmakers sent him and Mollison off as joint-favourites. Billy Cook made the race to suit himself on Mollison, slowing the tempo to the three, and then sprinting home. But neither the tactics nor the mud dulled the remarkable acceleration of Phar Lap. The son of Night Raid travelled so fast in the final furlong that he won by four lengths from Mollison with Amounis ten lengths further adrift. Racing men were now beginning to wonder just how good this fellow was?
The city of Melbourne was curious to see the new wonder horse in action, but rumours abounded in the southern capital that all was not well when the Telford caravan settled there after the A.J.C. Spring Meeting had finished. Phar Lap contracted a slight cold in mid-October and Telford was forced to gallop him over a lot of ground on four successive days before the Victoria Derby. The betting on the race was 10/1 bar one, with Carradale offered at that quote. It might have been an unorthodox preparation but the result was always going to be the same. According to Pike, the big horse didn’t understand the walk-up start at Flemington and was last into his bridle. Having let the horse then find his own stride, Pike made a lightning dash from second last to about third approaching the nine-furlong post. After that, it was merely a procession. Taking the lead going into the straight Phar Lap wasn’t pushed to beat Carradale again, by two lengths. This Derby too, like its A.J.C. counterpart, was run in race record time with Phar Lap clipping a quarter-second off the mark set by Manfred only four years earlier. It was the first glimpse the Melbourne sporting public had of that transcendent power that would so capture their imagination in the coming months. Spare a thought for Carradale – the runner-up in both Derbies. As a colt, he enjoys the strangest of all immortality, rather like that of the fly in the amber: the fame of having blundered into the orbit of a legend.
Impetuous souls now installed Phar Lap the shortest priced favourite in Melbourne Cup history at even money – this about a horse who was yet to go beyond a mile and a half. Just think about it. In less than ten weeks this awkward gelding had risen from obscurity before the Warwick Stakes in late August to absolute domination of Cup betting. So little had the handicapper thought of Phar Lap’s two-year-old form, he had originally allotted him only 6 st. 12lb in the Melbourne Cup. Derby wins had brought him up to 7 st. 6lb., but it was still much too light for Pike and the mount went to fifty-year-old Bob Lewis. Phar Lap’s seeming domination was such that he bluffed many owners from paying up for the race – the field of fourteen was the smallest since Banker won in 1863!
It was an event lacking in quality too, and the top weight, Winalot with 9 st. 5 lb, was the least handicapped horse to lead the Cup entrants onto the course in almost fifty years. To a large extent, Phar Lap was a victim of his own success. The small field resulted in the absence of pace, and this was one of the two critical factors that brought about his defeat. The other was the presence of Nightmarch; another son of Night Raid and the same dapple brown stallion that had squandered the Epsom field at Randwick on the day Phar Lap had won the Derby. Brought from New Zealand and one-year older than Phar Lap, Nightmarch had emphasised his class two days later at the A.J.C. Spring Meeting, when, with 9 st. 12lb. or twelve pounds over weight-for-age, he went down by only a half-length to Loquacious in the A.J.C. Metropolitan; Nightmarch then came out on the final day and won the Randwick Plate.
‘Tis a pity for Bob Lewis that despite a brilliant career in the saddle, which saw him win no less than four Melbourne Cups among countless other victories, he is best remembered for a losing ride. Drawn on the rails, and with a smart beginning, Lewis was forced into leading the Cup field initially and was never worse than second in the running, and a close second at that. But the pace was so slow for the first mile that Phar Lap wasted a lot of energy fighting for his head in those first six furlongs. So rarely was a Melbourne Cup not truly run in those days that Telford hadn’t even considered arranging for a pacemaker. The race was certainly made for Nightmarch, for any horse that could win an Epsom with 9 st. 4lb was always going to relish a dawdling first mile at Flemington when carrying 2lb less, only to see the race develop into a sprint over the second half of the journey. In the wake of his Cup defeat, most grandstand critics rounded on Lewis, while others muttered that perhaps Phar Lap might not be quite as good as believed and that Manfred was the better horse. Harry Telford partly blamed himself for the loss, as his instructions to Lewis had been to try and keep just behind the leader. “What if they walk?” asked Lewis. “You walk too!” was Telford’s rejoinder.
Perhaps the most rational assessment of Phar Lap’s defeat came from the esteemed veterinary-surgeon, J. W. Stewart McKay: “The failure of Phar Lap in the last Melbourne Cup is, I think, an illustration of how quite a mild infection can upset a horse. Phar Lap was in perfect health when he left Sydney, but he picked up an influenza germ either in the railway horsebox or in his new stables, or in the ever-changing air of Melbourne. Two weeks before the Cup Phar Lap was coughing and did very little work. The week before the Cup he was worked every day to make up for the lost time. He had to exert himself very much to win the V.R.C. Derby because he won in record time, and Pike said that he did not pull up nearly as well as in Sydney; some observers report that he blew a bit, which, I think, is probably true. In the Cup he was very excited, perhaps he had taken ‘tonics’ to help him, and then had been over-excited, for in the race he ran like a horse that was ‘possessed’, and fought like a demon, and so his brain batteries and his heart gave out and he pulled up a very tired horse and poor old Bobby Lewis was reviled most unjustly. Let us hope that the race has done Phar Lap no harm.”
It hadn’t. Phar Lap had remained in Victoria after the Melbourne Cup, spelling at Sol Green’s ‘Underbank’ property set amongst the rolling hills and verdant pastures of Bacchus Marsh. It was an Arcadia used by Telford throughout the horse’s career. By the time Phar Lap resumed light work at Caulfield in midsummer he had grown into his huge frame and matured into an altogether stronger racehorse. It is impossible to capture in words the majesty of Phar Lap’s dominance during that autumn of 1930, but let me say that no blaze in your fancy is likely to mount higher than the reality did. The big horse resumed running third, beaten less than a length, to Amounis in the St George Stakes. He then reeled off nine successive victories in a brilliant close to his three-year-old season. Phar Lap led all the way to run a race record in the V.R.C. St Leger and then rounded off the Flemington meeting by winning both the Governor’s Plate and King’s Plate, the latter by twenty lengths! In Sydney, only two moderate three-year-olds in Sir Ribble and Peacemaker opposed him in the A.J.C. St Leger, betting was stifled and that pair simply raced each other for second money, entirely ignoring Phar Lap who was always out by himself.
At the close of that A.J.C. Autumn Meeting, Phar Lap was being acclaimed as the most sensational Australasian galloper of all time. The race that prompted that tribute was the weight-for-age A.J.C. Plate run over two-and-a-quarter miles on the final day of the meeting. Could I make a bargain with Time and swap a Saturday afternoon at Randwick now for one from years gone by, I would roll back the clock some seventy odd years to that day in late April 1930. Throughout those weeks of autumn, Phar Lap had continued to mature and strengthen, and for size and reach he was now in a class of his own: every inch of his large frame exuded sheer power. And it all came together that day in the A.J.C. Plate when just two horses bothered to oppose him: Nightmarch, his nemesis of the spring; and Donald, a useful stayer that had been in good form during the summer. Phar Lap only carried 7 st. 13lb and had Billy Elliott in the saddle.
He went fast from the start and at one stage led Nightmarch by almost a furlong. Despite being eased up at the post, Phar Lap still won by ten lengths and established a new Australasian record of 3 minutes 49 ½ seconds for the distance, a full second better than the previous time. It was six-and-a-quarter seconds faster than the previous Randwick record. But that was only part of the story. Phar Lap’s intermediate times that day from a mile and a half onwards, according to private watches, established new marks for all the other distances as well. It is worth noting that, even in the 1920s, critics were only too willing to take studmasters to task for breeding purely for speed. When the result was a wonder-horse that could extend his speed from six furlongs to two-and-a-quarter miles, there didn’t seem so very much to worry about! Frank McGrath observed at the close of that autumn campaign: “It is hard to draw comparisons between Phar Lap and some three-year-olds of previous seasons. Unlike most, he does his work in the first part of his races. He goes so fast that the others do not try to follow, and, after getting a big break, he slows down in the latter part. I cannot recall any other three-year-old that ran his races in a quite similar fashion, the times he made in the early part of his long races being previously unheard of.”
Harry Telford rounded off his season by taking the horse to Adelaide where the King’s Cup was being run that year. He was untroubled to win a lead-up weight-for-age race and the Cup itself, with no betting allowed on either contest. Perhaps the most significant aspect of his King’s Cup win was that Phar Lap demonstrated that it was wholly unnecessary for him to lead in order to win. Because he had won most of his autumn races in that fashion the idea was beginning to take hold that he needed to be allowed to run to get the best from him. This last victory completed a remarkable season for horse and trainer. Thanks to the thirteen wins and minor placings of the gelding, Telford headed the list of principal winning owners for the 1929-30 racing year with £26,669 – catapulted from the abjectness of poverty to the splendour of riches in one easy season. It was after the 1930 autumn campaign that Telford quit Sydney, settling into extensive new training quarters at Braeside in Victoria, accommodating his more than twenty horses, and taking out a V.R.C. trainer’s licence. Part of the reason for the move was the desire to put some physical distance between himself and Davis, whose business interests were in Sydney and who was beginning to take too close an interest in the doings of the stable. A number of Telford’s staff moved south with him, including the man who would come to play an integral role in Phar Lap’s unfolding career, Tommy Woodcock.
The general design of this chronicle is not intended to examine in detail any horse’s career beyond the close of its three-year-old season, and the story of Phar Lap has been retailed elsewhere by pens far more fluent than mine. Nonetheless, a brief sketch seems in order. Impressive as the big horse had been during that autumn of 1930, it served merely as a prelude to the meridian splendour of his next two seasons. As a four-year-old, Phar Lap started sixteen times and only lost twice, those defeats coming at unsuitable distances at the very start and finish of the campaign and even then, he was only beaten quite narrowly into second place. The drama of that season, of course, was associated with the 1930 Caulfield and Melbourne Cups and the heavy doubles betting surrounding each race. Telford was never particularly forthcoming with the press as to Phar Lap’s likely programme and this was never better shown than in respect of those two races. Phar Lap was deliberately left in the Caulfield Cup as late as possible, purely as a ruse to get a better price on the Amounis-Phar Lap double, which Telford and Davis proceeded to lay heavily. When Phar Lap was finally withdrawn from the first leg to concentrate on the Flemington race, and the extent of their doubles wagering was revealed, there was something of a hue and cry in the press.
Amounis kept his part of the bargain when he proceeded to win the Caulfield Cup in hollow fashion, setting a weight-carrying record and becoming Australia’s highest stakes winner up to that time. The subsequent doubles liabilities of certain illegal S.P. bookmakers were considerable, and this was probably the cause of the infamous bungled attempt on Phar Lap’s life. The incident occurred near Caulfield racecourse on the Sunday morning before the Cup when a gunman in a passing car fired shots at the horse. Phar Lap escaped unharmed and two days later, with contemptuous ease, set a weight-carrying record of 9 st. 12lb for a four-year-old in Australia’s most famous handicap, enriching Telford and Davis quite handsomely.
It was in the midst of Phar Lap’s four-year-old season, in February 1931, that Telford’s three-year lease on the big horse expired, and Davis accepted a mere £4,000 for a half-share in the champion. Davis was primarily persuaded by his wife to sell, as she believed their good fortune with the horse had been wholly attributable to Telford’s judgement in the first place. Given that Phar Lap won almost £20,000 in prize money after this time, it proved a rather generous gesture on Davis’s behalf.
It was before the beginning of the rich Caulfield and Flemington meetings in February 1931 that the V.R.C. altered the conditions of some weight-for-age races so that they carried penalties and allowances while removing the specific weight benefit for geldings. The scrapping of the allowance for geldings was the logical extension of a policy that the club had first put into effect in April 1929 when it announced its removal in the Sires’ Produce Stakes, Ascot Vale Stakes and Maribyrnong Plate. But the concept of penalties and allowances in hitherto purely set-weight contests was another matter. The chairman of the V.R.C. at the time, Lauchlan Mackinnon, hasn’t enjoyed a good press in Australia in the years since his death in 1935, and perhaps the main reason for the dark and hostile portrait that has emerged was his administrative intrigues to ban geldings from the Derby and this interference with some traditional weight-for-age contests. The popular newspapers at the time were able to portray these actions as Machiavellian and nothing more than an attempt to bring Phar Lap back to the field.
If that was the intention, it failed spectacularly. In the calendar year of 1931 Phar Lap ran fourteen times in Australia, winning on all but two occasions. The first of those defeats came in February in the C.M. Lloyd Stakes at Flemington – his last start as a four-year-old – when Phar Lap went down by a neck to Waterline conceding twenty-one pounds in weight. At five, Phar Lap proved absolutely dominant, winning eight successive races including the Hill Stakes, A.J.C. Spring Stakes, Craven Plate, Randwick Plate, W.S. Cox Plate and V.R.C. Melbourne Stakes all for the second year in succession, before failing in the Melbourne Cup when carrying an impossible burden of expectations along with his 10 st. 10lb. Telford didn’t want to start him in that Cup, but he already had his Melbourne Cup and Davis wanted one for himself. It was his last race in Australia. The fateful decision had already been taken to campaign the champion in America. Telford, with his extensive string of horses and commitments at Braeside, was unable and unwilling to accompany the champion, and so his loyal strapper, Tom Woodcock, made the journey in his stead.
Woodcock was just 26-years old at the time. As a lad, he had served his apprenticeship at Barney Quinn’s stable at Randwick before increasing weight forced him to retire at the age of twenty-two and he linked up with Telford shortly after. Although he wasn’t a success in the saddle he had a natural affinity with horses that dated from his early childhood when his father used to drive the Cobb and Co. coach from Kempsey to Bellbrook. The older Telford’s silence and antipathy to pressmen were in marked contrast to the younger, guileless Woodcock, who became Phar Lap’s devoted attendant. As a result, newspapermen often sought out the lad when writing stories on Phar Lap and his profile became unprecedented for a mere strapper. Nonetheless, the American adventure with Phar Lap was a huge responsibility for one so young. The big horse was only destined to race once on foreign soil, in the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico, winning with consummate ease. Within sixteen days of that famous victory, Phar Lap was dead from acute intestinal inflammation, either as a result of eating highly fermentable green lucerne dampened by an early morning San Franciscan fog, or an application of arsenic to which he had been treated. Telford blamed Woodcock for the death of Phar Lap and it tore open a breach between the two men that wasn’t mended for years.
One of life’s intriguing questions is: ’To what extent does sudden wealth and fame change a person?’ Harry Telford presents an interesting case study. All of the money Phar Lap won for Telford was channelled back into racing. Hugh Telford at one time suggested to his brother that he invest in a station property. Harry replied: “Why? You can’t race a station.” To the extent that Harry did put money into property, it was Braeside, a 143-acre farm at Mordialloc, south-east of Melbourne and only a few miles from the Mentone and Epsom racecourses. Braeside had formerly been the private training quarters of Dr A. E. Syme, who raced his horses under the nom de course of ‘S. A. Rawdon’. Telford took a five-year lease on the place, adding a second tan track to the grass training-track already put down by Syme, as well as constructing additional stabling. At one stage he was employing more than twenty-five staff to maintain the gardens, grounds and horses. It was an incredible drain on Telford’s resources but was manageable while Phar Lap was winning. The champion had deluded Harry into thinking that he enjoyed the knack of being able to spot other potential champions as yearlings and believing in his talent for training. Phar Lap had convinced several other owners likewise, and many beat a path to Harry’s door. The one-time battler proceeded to buy expensive yearlings with gay abandon.
Less than a year after Phar Lap’s Derby success, Telford was training more than thirty racehorses at Braeside. No expense was spared but apart from the odd victory – such as La Justice in the 1930 V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate on behalf of the ‘F. Smithden’ partnership and the 1933 V.A.T.C. Australian Hurdle with Poidale – the Braeside experiment was a failure. After Phar Lap died and the Depression continued to linger, Telford’s fortunes quickly plummeted. Those rich owners who had once beaten a path to his door were no more to be seen, and he was forced to relinquish the lease on Braeside, which was left prey to the cold winds and rains that swept across the sandy flats of Mordialloc. Years later the dissolute stable block still stood as a haunted ruin; a wild sorrow sounded through the place – a folly to one man’s imagination of greatness. Braeside was taken over for a time after Telford by the trainer Ernie Willmott, but the house was eventually demolished while a fire in 1982 ultimately consumed the historic stables built by Dr Syme.
Almost all of the racing trophies that Phar Lap won during Telford’s lease, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, were melted down to realise their base metal value during the hard times that followed. I might note here, the one prize that did survive was the W.S. Cox Plate trophy of 1931 garnered when David Davis was a part-owner. It was an 18ct gold cup, and when sold by Sotheby’s in November 1999 it realised $420,000 – a then-record auction price for Australian sports memorabilia. One is led to speculate just what the 1930 Melbourne Cup trophy would be worth today had it only survived. Telford became yesterday’s man and while he did manage to train Aurania to win the 1938 V.R.C. Maribyrnong Plate, after that he failed to have a metropolitan winner for fifteen years. Nor was he any more successful as the master of apprentices. The only one to make his mark after being indentured to Telford was Teddy Preston, who enjoyed a brief springtime of fame when he won the Caulfield-Melbourne Cups double on Rivette in 1939. Telford’s last gasp of glory came as an old and broken man of seventy-six when he trained Silver Hawk to win the 1953 S.T.C. Rosehill Guineas. In 1957 old Harry finally retired from the racecourse and spent his last years pottering about Underbank Stud at Bacchus Marsh – where Phar Lap had enjoyed some of his happiest days. Harry Telford died in 1960.
Telford’s destinies, post-Phar Lap, make an interesting contrast with those enjoyed by both David Davis and Tommy Woodcock. Davis only returned to Australia once after Phar Lap’s death, and that was in December 1932. He had accumulated a tidy fortune from his share of Phar Lap’s earnings and shrewd wagers, such as the 1930 Caulfield-Melbourne Cups double. Davis established a breeding ranch, Oak Dell Farm, near San Francisco. In 1949 he was responsible for importing the 1946 Melbourne Cup winner, Russia, to stand stud duty there. Later on, he also stood Bernbrook, a full brother to Shannon. Davis died in San Francisco in December 1959.
Although his association with Phar Lap never brought him much money, save for the generous ‘slings’ from Jim Pike, Tommy Woodcock did become the most famous strapper in Australian racing history and this at least afforded sufficient recognition for him to be able to launch a successful training career of his own. After staying in America for a time following upon Phar Lap’s death and trying his hand there, Woodcock eventually returned to Australia. In May 1934 he was granted a trainer’s licence by the V.R.C., and he set up stables at Mentone. It was to prove a long and successful career in which he won many big races including the V.R.C. Australian Cup (Knockarlow), V.R.C. Oaks twice (Amarco and Chosen Lady), V.R.C. St. Leger (Reinsman) and the Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane Cups (Reckless). He was also the master of Geoff Lane, the golden boy of Victorian racing in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and one of the most brilliant apprentice jockeys Australia has ever produced. Woodcock remained an extraordinarily kind and famous old man to the very end. Awarded an M.B.E. for services to racing in 1979, he died in April 1985.
Comparisons between Phar Lap and Carbine were inevitable. Universally acknowledged as the two greatest champion racehorses ever foaled in Australasia (at the very least, until 14 September 2011), there was one master horseman who had seen both horses race and was in a better position than most to render judgement. That man was Frank McGrath, who in his own right had already trained two champions in Prince Foote and Amounis and whose stable was sheltering another at the time of Phar Lap’s death. McGrath unhesitatingly nominated Carbine as the greater racehorse and was emphatic that Old Jack was the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle in these parts of the world. In a 1935 interview and referring to that famous 1890 Melbourne Cup, McGrath declared: “In beating a horse like Highborn with next to nothing on his back, Carbine carrying 10 st. 5lb was superlative. Highborn subsequently won the Sydney Cup with a big weight. He also took the Australian Cup and then went to India to appropriate three Viceroy Cups. That is the class of horse that Carbine conceded practically half a cwt and a beating.”
I don’t suppose that we shall ever see Phar Lap’s like again. It was inevitable that the hard times of the Great Depression would summon forth a genuine champion racehorse into our midst and thereby bring light and hope to those otherwise dark, insufferable days. It was Australia’s singular good fortune that the summons was answered by a quite remarkable animal: one that established new standards on the Turf. Standards by which his successors, even today, continue to be measured.