Friday, May 22, 2009
Phar Lap achieved world fame after winning the Agua Caliente Handicap near Tijuana in Mexico to take his race record to an amazing 37 wins, two seconds and three thirds in 51 starts.
It wasn't so much the win, but the way he achieved it. Phar Lap travelled by ship across the Pacific arriving in cold conditions in San Francisco; he then had an 800 km. road trip to Tijuana where conditions were boiling hot, none of which was conducive to having a horse at his peak.
Even though he had not raced since carrying 10st 10lb. (68 kg.) when unplaced in the Melbourne Cup the previous November, Phar Lap had to carry 9 st. 3 lb. (58.5 kg.) against some of the best horses in America and he was racing on dirt for the first time. On arrival he was starting to grow his winter coat; his body clock preparing for an Australian Winter - not a Mexican Summer.
A further complication occurred when he suffered a painful injury to his heel, which usually spells the end of any training program. Yet another negative factor was his rider, Billy Elliot. Capable Melbourne lightweight that he was, Elliot had no experience in the "big time" of America or on dirt tracks. Because of the hoof injury, Phar Lap's task looked even tougher when he was forced to wear heavy bar shoes for the first time.
History was also foreboding. Eight years earlier, the 1923 English Derby winner, Papyrus, who defeated Pharos (who sired turf immortals Nearco and Pharis) went to New York for a special match race against America's best horse, Zev, at Belmont Park. Papyrus, unable to cope with the dirt track and climatic changes, was annihilated by five lengths. Many American racing aficionados, remembering Papyrus, expected Phar Lap to suffer the same fate in 1932.
How wrong they were! Papyrus was a topliner, but Phar Lap was something different again. He circled the field from last place to win easily by two lengths in track record time of 2:2.8, clipping .2 seconds from the previous best time.
His trainer, Tommy Woodcock, said after Agua Caliente "Americans called him the "Wonder Horse", the "Red Terror" and other names that lifted him high above the level of other champions, but those closely connected with Phar Lap did not employ anything but names of endearment. To Jim Pike (regular jockey) he was "Old Boy"; to part-owner Mr D. J. Davis, he was the "Big Fellow", but to Harry Telford and me he was just plain 'Bobby'."
The racing fraternity at large knew him simply as Phar Lap, champion of the world.
Phar Lap started favorite in three successive Melbourne Cups, the only horse in the long history of Australia's most famous race accorded that distinction.
He triumphed during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when a hero was most needed by the people of Australia.
Then whilst in the USA, he went to the great equine heaven in the skies, struck down by a mystery illness that many suspected at the time was the work of gangsters.
He now lives 'beautifully preserved' in a sterile and climate controlled glass display case at The National Museum of Australia for all to enjoy. I have visited him regularly all my life.....seriously!!......we are great mates!
I hope my photo does the big fella justice.