The legend lives on

Phar Lap's last day

Last updated 11:55 01/04/2014
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Phar Lap in the 1930s.
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Phar Lap's statue in Timaru.
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Phar Lap's heart.
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Phar Lap on the wharf at Wellington, heading to Australia.

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On April 5, 1932, the legend that was Phar Lap breathed his last. This week, Past Times looks at the day news broke of the great racehorse's death.

The Timaru Herald
April 7, 1932

End Of Phar Lap
Sudden Death From Colic
Career of Wonder Horse Closes

San Francisco, April 5. Phar Lap died of colic today.

Phar Lap was stricken in the morning. The symptoms developed so rapidly that veterinarians were unable to counteract them, and the horse died at 2.20 in the afternoon.

News of his death was withheld for an hour.

At the time of the horse's death, Mr DJ Davis was en route to Los Angeles. The attendants were unable to immediately notify him.

Phar Lap was brought to Perry's farm, to train for the forthcoming race at Tanforan, and at the same time to be treated for his bruised hoof.

Mr Neilson, the Australian veterinary surgeon, directed the efforts to save his life, and he was visibly moved by the death, as were the attendants.

Woodcock's Discovery

The trainer, T Woodcock, who slept soundly only a few few away from the thoroughbred, entered the horse's stall upon awakening this morning. The animal was lying down and frightened. Woodcock summoned Mr Neilson, who had no difficulty in diagnosing the ailment. The veterinary then plunged into the task of relieving the animal;. With other veterinary assistance, he worked on his charge all the morning and into the afternoon. He bowed his head when Phar Lap drew his last breath.

The illness of the gelding was guarded in the stable as a jealous secret.

It transpired that a party of visiting newspaper men this morning asked to be allowed to see the horse, and when permission was refused suspicion was aroused, but several hours lapsed before the actual fact could be determined.

When the question was put directly to members of the stable, with tears coursing down their cheeks, they conceded that death had claimed their charge. Later rumours were current that the horse had been poisoned. Neilson, Woodcock and Elliott emphatically discounted this, but in order to remove all suspicion the authorities announced that they would make an investigation of the horse's oats, of which twenty sacks remained of the original consignment brought from Australia. Little if any American food had been given the racer since his arrival.

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Affecting Scenes

An affecting scene occurred when, after confirmation of the death, restrain was lifted. Woodcock gave way to his emotion and threw his arms round the neck of the horse. He wept unrestrainedly.

Mrs Davis was hurriedly called to the rang, and tried to comfort Woodcock, but it was of no avail. Friends were finally compelled to drag the trainer away from the horse and the stable.


Phar Lap's death stunned racing folk in Australia.

Mr Colin Stephen, chairman of the Australian Jockey Club, said it was very bad news, and was scarcely realisable.

Dr W Stewart McKay, a veterinary, declared that Phar Lap must have been poisoned. He added that colic and indigestion were only symptoms of something more serious. Dr McKay was very upset and declined to say more.

George Price, F Williams and other prominent Randwick trainers were astounded and deeply grieved. They emphasised that Phar Lap was the greatest advertisement Australia ever had.

The jockey, J Pike, who piloted the horse in many races, almost collapsed from shock. He had formed a great attachment for the champion.


In all, Phar Lap started in 51 races, for 37 wins, three seconds and two thirds, being nine times unplaced. In Australia his gross winnings were £56,600. The value of the Agua Caliente Handicap was slightly over 50,000 dollars, and various computations of the value of this in English money have been made. In depreciated Australian currency it has been placed at nearly £14,000, but at the exchange rate between America nad England, it would be much less than that. even at £10,000 it placed Phar Lap among the four highest winners in the world.


The champion racehorse Phar Lap has been the source of great trans-Tasman debate and rivalry. Phar Lap was New Zealand-born and bred, but never raced in this country. He won 37 of his 51 races (50 in Australia) and was placed second or third in five others. At the height of his career he was as close to a sure bet as was possible in the unpredictable world of horse racing. From the autumn of 1930 he won 32 of his last 35 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup. In the gloom of the Great Depression, Phar Lap's exploits thrilled the people of two countries.

Phar Lap arrived in Australia as a two-year-old. A bright red chestnut, he grew to a huge 17.1 hands (1.74 metres) high, earning nicknames such as Big Red and The Red Terror. His name meant lightning in the Thai language, and he lived up to it with his ability to finish races with a surge of speed. That he was no looker, with warts all over his head, mattered little to the punters. Having conquered Australasia, Phar Lap seemed set for similar triumphs in America. On March 24, 1932 he won the rich Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico by two lengths and in record time. Invitations to race in major meetings in the eastern United States flooded in. Unfortunately, Phar Lap died mysteriously 12 days later. Suspicions were that he had been fed poisoned grass, but the cause of death was never established.

Both New Zealand and Australia wanted a share of the champion's remains. His heart, which weighed an incredible 6.3kg, went to Canberra, while the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne obtained his hide. Phar Lap's bones were returned to New Zealand and his skeleton is on display at Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Source: NZ History Online

- The Timaru Herald


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