Phar Lap was definitely the most famous horse in the world in his day and probably the most famous racehorse in the history of Australian horse racing. Bred by Alick Roberts in New Zealand, Phar Lap was bought as a yearling by Sydney trainer Harry Telford on behalf of American businessman David Davis. His name is derived from the Zhuang word ฟ้าแลบ (F̂ālæb) meaning ‘lightning’.
However, Davis emphatically rejected the big, ungainly chestnut and, instead, leased him to Telford, who duly had Phar Lap gelded. Immature and unfurnished as a two-year-old, Phar Lap made his racecourse debut in the autumn of 1928 and finished unplaced in his first four starts. He finally broke his maiden in the Rosehill Maiden Juvenile Handicap, over 6 furlongs, before being put away for the winter.
Phar Lap started his three-year-old campaign in similarly inauspicious style, again finishing unplaced in his first four starts before chasing home Mollison – the winner of 13 of his first 17 starts – in the Chelmsford Stakes. The Chelmsford Stakes proved something of a turning point for Phar Lap because, thereafter, he recorded a series of impressive victories, including in the AJC Derby and the VRC Derby, before taking on the older horses in the Melbourne Cup.
Despite the absence of regular jockey Jim Pike – who couldn’t make the allotted weight of 104lb, or 7st 6lb, and was replaced by Bobby Lewis – Phar Lap started even money favourite for “the race that stops a nation”. Having attempted to make all the running, though, Phar Lap faded in the closing stages.
The following season, the “Red Terror”, as Phar Lap became affectionately known to Australian racegoers, returned bigger, stronger and better than ever. He won 14 of his 16 races, including the Melbourne Cup, for which he started the shortest priced favourite in the history of the race, at 8/11, and won easily, despite carrying 9st 12lb.
In 1932, Phar Lap sent to the United States to contest what was then the richest race in the world, Agua Caliente Handicap at Tijuana, Mexico. He again won easily, breaking the track record in the process, but the race proved to be his last; he mysteriously collapsed and died at a farm in Atherton, California just 16 days later. All in all, Phar Lap won 37 of his 51 races and over A$66,000 in prize money.