While the US struggled through the great Depression and pinned its hopes and dreams on a funny looking little hero of a horse named Seabiscuit, our friends in Australia and New Zealand had their own hero to carry them through the Depression. Their National Icon was a large, chestnut thoroughbred named Phar Lap.
Phar Lap was foaled on Oct. 4, 1926 in Seadown in the South Island of New Zealand. Sydney trainer, Harry Telford convinced wealthy American Businessman, David J. Davis, to buy him as a yearling, sight unseen based upon his pedigree. When he arrived in Australia he was a gangly, awkward colt with warts all over his face! When Davis saw him he was so angry he refused to spend another penny training him. So, Telford offered to train him for nothing in exchange for 2/3 of his winnings...if there would ever be any! Telford had him gelded so he would concentrate on his training better.
His first race he came in dead last and he didn't even place in his next three. However, as he matured, his achievements slowly started to accumulate and so did his reputation. In fact, criminals tried to shoot him early in the morning of Nov. 1, 1930. They missed and he went on to win the Melbourne Stakes that afternoon. Three days later he won the Melbourne Cup. In 1931, he won fourteen races in a row!
Eventually Telford had enough money to become joint owner of Phar Lap whose name comes from a Thai word that means "Lightening."
His nicknames included "Big Red," just like Man 'O War and Secretariat,) and "Australia's Wonder Horse."
In 1932 Davis insisted upon bringing Phar Lap to America to run in some races. He ran his last race in Tijuana Mexico for the largest purse ever offered in America. He was then taken to California.
On April 5, 1932, Phar Lap died by Hemorrhaging to death. A necropsy revealed that hte stomach and intestines were severely inflamed. Since that time, theories have abound as to his cause of death, the most sinister of which involves U.S. Gangsters who poisoned him so he wouldn't mess up their bookie businesses. In 2006, a team of researchers in Australia concluded that it was almost certain that Phar Lap was indeed poisoned with a large dose of Arsenic. This supported the Gangster theory. However, Arsenic was a common tonic in those days and most horses were given it in small doses. In 2008, a study of six hairs from Phar Lap's mane suggested that he was given a massive dose of arsenic 30 to 40 hours before his death. Very Suspicious I would say!
Phar Lap's remains have been divided up between his two countries. His Hide is in the Melbourne Museum, His Skeleton in in the Museum of New Zealand and his enormous heart, like Secretariat's, is in the National Museum of Australia.
He is an icon in both Australia and New Zealand and a worthy nominee for Unicornhood!
Here is a clip from the 1983 movie about Phar Lap titled "Phar Lap: Heart of a Nation."