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Phar Lap From obscurity to greatness

Australia might have witnessed a lot of great racehorses but there can be no one greater than Phar Lap -- the legendary chestnut gelding from Down Under. With an enviable record of 37 victories from 51 races, the New Zealand-born champion lived up to his name. Phar Lap is a Thai phrase meaning 'wink of the skies' or 'lightning'. Trainer Harry Telford, who could foresee a champion in Phar Lap, persuaded American-born David J. Davis to buy Phar Lap for a bargain price of 160 guineas ($336).

However, Davis was not impressed with what he saw. The horse was skinny and clumsy with warts all over his head. Davis, not wanting to waste any money on his training, leased it to Telford for three years.

He was brought to Australia as a two year old and he grew up to be a huge 17.1 hands high and in the race track he went on to beat everyone with an unmatched run that became his mark in the horse racing arena.

Called Bobby by his trainer Harry Telford the horse had not much of a breeding and was very gentle to handle but he had a heart and the legs that made him surpass all in the run. Phar Lap was also known in his times with several other names such as The Super Horse, The Australian Wonder Horse, Big Red, The Red Terror, The Wonder Horse, The Big Fellow, but to Telford he was just Bobby.

Under Telford's training, Phar Lap went on to become a champion horse and scored impressive victories in one of the three prestigious Melbourne Cups in 1930 and became an instant hit with the race-goers at a time when the world was experiencing the great depression. He also won the Victoria Derby, the Australian Jockey Club Derby, the W. S. Cox Plate (twice), the Melbourne Stakes, the Linlithgow Stakes and many other stakes between 1929 and 1932.

Phar Lap was simply the No 1 in Australia and had very little to prove Down Under. At that time, his owner was invited to the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico, which offered a prize purse of $50,000 and to Phar Lap another challenge for The Wonder Horse to conquer.

So off they went to a new adventure on a new continent. Phar Lap travelled by ship across the Pacific Ocean, undertaking a 400-mile journey in a horse van to a very hot Tijuana from San Francisco. And this for a horse that was facing winter back in his homeland.

Phar Lap, accustomed to racing on cushioned grass, was preparing to run on dirt for the first time and on top of that he was starting to grow his winter coat, his body preparing for an Australian winter, not a Mexican spring. Then he suffered a painful injury to his heel. Because of the hoof injury, Phar Lap had to wear heavy bar shoes for the first time in his life.

But the brave-heart that he was, Phar Lap broke slowly, steadily gained ground as he got his stride and then circled the field from last place in his usual style to win easily by two lengths in the record time of 2:02 4/5, cutting 1/5 second from the previous track record.

He became a celebrity, all the newspapers rejoiced at his win, calling him the "Super Horse", the "Australian Wonder Horse" and more. He was then taken north to prepare for his American racing career. But unfortunately, it was not to be. Before he had another race, in Menlo Park (California), he became ill and died on April 5, 1932.

The question of who or what killed Phar Lap has been a great mystery for nearly 70 years. Theories at the time of his death and in the decades since, have ranged from the outlandish to the plausible, including an underworld or anti-racing lobby hit, deliberate or accidental arsenic poisoning, and severe colic.

According to a book titled 'Phar Lap' authors Armstrong and Thompson reveal that Bill Nielsen, the vet who travelled from Australia to North America with Phar Lap, was closest to the real cause of the horse's death with his post-mortem examination finding of "acute gastric enteritis brought about by some toxic substance".

The authors commissioned the opinions of specialist veterinarians who studied eyewitness accounts and autopsy reports -- published in this book -- and came to the conclusion that the great horse died of duodenitis-proximal jejunitis (also known as anterior enteritis).

The disease had not been discovered in 1932, and Phar Lap did not have a chance. It is of bacterial origin and kills horses quickly, and even today close to 70 per cent of horses treated for it die. Stress makes a horse more susceptible than normal to bacterial infections, as does a change of weather and environment, travel and hard racing.

Phar Lap experienced all of those factors -- and a foot injury on an unfamiliar dirt track -- before his death. Nothing that anybody could have done would have saved Phar Lap from an agonising death.

The authors also reveal their belief that the attempted shooting of the horse before the 1930 Melbourne Cup might have been a set-up by a local newspaper.

After Phar Lap's death, his heart was found to weigh 6.2 kilograms (about 14 pounds) -- roughly 50 per cent larger than a typical racehorse's heart. The champion's hide was stuffed and returned to the National Museum in Melbourne, where he remained a popular exhibit for decades.