THE stage-by-stage development of Phar Lap from the unwanted yearling to the promising but raw racehorse, and from there to the high-class spring three year-old and, ultimately, the dominant champion of his time is a significant part of the legend of the great horse. Beaten into third place first-up in the 1930 St George Stakes won by Amounis, Phar Lap proceeded to win his next nine starts in his classic year by margins of up to 20 lengths, setting time records which lasted for years and more importantly, mastering his two greatest rivals, Nightmarch and Amounis.
Resuming at four in the Warwick Stakes, Phar Lap was beaten first-up narrowly by Amounis, with Jim Pike’s somewhat kind ride on the chestnut raising a few eyebrows. Nightmarch was third, three lengths away. Pike maintained that Phar Lap had got home that day.
Phar Lap won his next 14 starts on the trot that season, defeating Nightmarch comprehensively in the Chelmsford Stakes, Hill Stakes, Spring Stakes and again in the Craven Plate, when winning by six lengths in Australian record time. Nightmarch’s connections packed up and went home where at his next start the other great son of Night Raid won the New Zealand Cup. Fourteen consecutive wins in races of the highest class in one season is an Australian record I think.
Phar Lap then added the Randwick Plate over two miles a few days later and although the horse still had a Caulfield Cup entry, connections bypassed that race in favour of the Cox Plate the following week. But as legend has it, not before many in the know had backed the Amounis-Phar Lap Cups double heavily and when old Amounis won at The Heath, the writing was on the wall. Phar Lap, as the long odds-on favourite, defeated the AJC Derby winner Tregilla in the Cox Plate by four lengths with Mollison third, which set the stage for the Red Terror’s iconic Melbourne Cup week.
On Derby Day, Phar Lap was due to run in the Melbourne Stakes over 10f, with Tregilla and Amounis his main opponents. But following light work at Caulfield on race morning, the infamous attempt to maim the champion was played out in the Melbourne suburb’s early morning. Phar Lap came through that notorious incident unharmed and calm afterwards although those in his camp were no doubt more jittery. Back to business, Phar Lap cantered home in the afternoon for his seventh straight win.
Forewarned is forearmed, and in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Melbourne Cup favourite and a stable mate were discreetly loaded on to a float and transported away from Caulfield to Guy Raymond’s St Albans Stud at Geelong. Eighty odd years later, it is impossible to not feel the tension of those days.
The VRC handicapper had allotted Phar Lap an imposing 9st 12lbs for the Melbourne Cup and to win he was being asked to set a weight-carrying record for a four year-old. Once he actually arrived on course that is, as the float bound for Flemington chose that day to dig its toes in. But in the Cup all went smoothly and the odds-on favourite cruised home with a comfortable three-length margin from the good WA stayer, Second Wind, with Shadow King third.
As Tommy Woodcock wrote in a newspaper report several years later: “Had Phar Lap met the Melbourne Cup field of 1930 one week later he could have carried 11st 7lbs and won just as easily as he did on November 4”.
Two days later and back to a mile for the Linlithgow Stakes, Big Red defeated Mollison by four lengths and two days after that, Phar Lap cantered home in the C.B. Fisher Plate from Second Wind. This was Phar Lap at the absolute height of his amazing powers.
Phar Lap’s winning streak continued in the autumn, winning the St George Stakes first-up before one of his most famous victories in the 1931 Futurity Stakes over seven furlongs, coming from a distant last in running to storm over the top of the specialist sprinter Mystic Peak to win by a neck. It was nevertheless an energy-sapping effort on a rain-affected track and while he had easy victories at his next two starts against moderate opposition in the Essendon Stakes and King’s Plate, the run of 14 straight came to an end at his final start for the season.
On the morning of the C.M. Lloyd Stakes Phar Lap had shown symptoms of colic and while Tommy Woodcock pleaded with connections not to run at Flemington that day, the horse took his place in the field. The conditions of the race had been altered to weight-for-age with penalties and allowances with Phar Lap to carry 9st 7lbs conceding the talented miler Waterline 19lbs. Waterline at various stages that season had been favourite for both the Caulfield Cup and the Doncaster Handicap, in which he carried 9st 2lbs.
Waterline’s stable mate Temoin set a fast pace but was beaten on the turn where Waterline ran to the lead with Phar Lap soon alongside. But Waterline held on to his neck advantage over the final stages and a “sick and sorry” (to use Tommy Woodcock’s words) Phar Lap was finally beaten again.
Growing up, I would read Isabel Carter’s book on Phar Lap at every opportunity and like so many others, became fascinated with his story. I hope I have done the old horse justice here. Suffice to say, there can only be one Bluebloods HOTY nominee in 1930/31.
As a five year-old, Phar Lap returned to racing in Melbourne in the spring and resumed his winning ways, recording eight straight victories leading into the 1931 Melbourne Cup. It has to be said that on most occasions the opposition was well below the standard he had faced in the previous two seasons. The veteran Amounis did not race during the year and the New Zealander Nightmarch missed the spring while on stallion duties back home.
Phar Lap’s sequence of weight-for-age wins that preparation began with the Underwood Stakes followed by the Memsie Stakes, and then, in Sydney, the Hill Stakes, the Spring Stakes, the Craven Plate, which he won in national record time for 10f, and at his final Randwick appearance, Phar Lap won the Randwick Plate over two miles from the only other runner, Chide. In those four races, there was “no betting” and the great horse simply breezed through them all.
The seventh victory of that spring came in the 1931 Cox Plate, where Phar Lap did meet two worthy new challengers from the classic crop in the future star Chatham and that season’s Victoria Derby winner Johnnie Jason, who would also win the Sydney Cup in the autumn. Phar Lap was at his imperious best and after a slow start, Pike allowed the horse to circle the field and control the race from the front. The opposition could not mount a serious challenge and Phar Lap’s form looked as good as ever when coasting to the line with a 2.5 length advantage over Chatham with Johnnie Jason two lengths further back.
Phar Lap had a closer call in the Melbourne Stakes on Derby Day and although he was never in danger of defeat, his margin on the line over the good stayer Concentrate was only a half-length. In the Cup, Phar Lap was weighted on 10st 10lbs and to win he was being asked to carry 5lbs more than Carbine’s record from 1890, while the turnaround from the Melbourne Stakes where Phar Lap and Concentrate had carried level weights, was now two stone in the latter’s favour.
As we know, Phar Lap was not up to the task on the day with the race going to the lightly weighted South Australian White Nose, who had won the Hotham Handicap impressively. White Nose carried just 6st 12lbs to defeat the unlucky Shadow King, on 8st 4lbs, with Concentrate in third place. In a slowly run race, White Nose dictated from the front while Shadow King was caught up in traffic in the straight before flashing home. That was the Cup old Shadow King should have won.
The triumph and tragedy of the final chapter of Phar Lap’s life and racing career is etched into Australian history, a story so sadly familiar to not just we racing folk but to most Australians in the 80-odd years since. On March 20, 1932, two months after arriving in San Francisco by sea, Phar Lap, under top weight of 9st 3lbs, ridden by Billy Elliott, and now officially trained by Tommy Woodcock, circled the field at the half way mark and then went through his gears to win the Agua Caliente Handicap over 10f in Mexico by a comfortable two lengths. The triumph.
And then the tragedy as just after noon on April 5, 1932, at Menlo Park in California, Phar Lap died in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day. The shock waves were felt across the Pacific.
Phar Lap won nine of his 10 starts in the 1931/32 season and 37 races in total during his magnificent, inspirational career on the track. He remains the biggest name in Australian Turf history. One of five inaugural horse inductees into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, Phar Lap, above any other participant, human or equine, was honoured further in recent years as the initial “Legend” of the Turf.
The three year-olds Johnnie Jason and Chatham ran the quinella in the Victoria Derby the week after the Cox Plate but it is the unplaced favourite in that race, Ammon Ra, who deserves the title of Champion 3YO for the season. And despite the everlasting aura surrounding the champion of champions, Ammon Ra’s performances make the 1931/32 HOTY contest not quite as one sided as legend would have it.
Racing’s golden era of the mid ‘twenties to mid ‘thirties produced some outstanding three year-olds, Heroic, Manfred, Rampion, Trivalve, Strephon, Phar Lap, Peter Pan and Hall Mark included. Ammon Ra’s record in his classic year of 14-10-2-0 places him within that select group with no questions asked.
Bred in New Zealand by Dr Milsom, one of that country’s foremost surgeons, Ammon Ra was by the outstanding classic influence Limond, whose most famous son Limerick had already proven to be one of the greats of the golden era on both sides of the Tasman. At two, Ammon Ra was unbeaten in three starts in his homeland, winning the important Great Northern Foal Stakes, the Royal Stakes and finally the Wellington Stakes. The horse was then sold and shipped to Australia, where he defeated Johnnie Jason in the AJC Sires’ Produce Stakes by two lengths but Ammon Ra was then beaten into third place at odds-on in the Champagne Stakes a few days later.
Resuming at three in mid-August at Rosehill, Ammon Ra trotted up by four lengths over 6f from an open class field of sprinters, the first of five consecutive wins that spring. Comfortable victories followed in the Hobartville Stakes and the Chelmsford Stakes (where he carried a 7lb penalty over WFA) before Ammon Ra cruised home in the 1931 AJC Derby, winning by two lengths from Johnnie Jason after taking the lead at the half mile. Because of Ammon Ra’s natural brilliance (he was a free running type), there were some doubts about his stamina in the Derby and on the day his class won through, but in hindsight, those doubts may have been well-founded as, with one exception, three of his four defeats that season came at 12f or more.
A week after Randwick and coming back to a mile, Ammon Ra lined up in the Caulfield Guineas as the 4/6 favourite and was untroubled to win as he liked by 3.5 lengths from the 100/1 shot Middle Watch, with the classy Melbourne colt, Viol d’Amour, in third place. Ammon Ra’s connections publicly declared they had no intention of taking on Phar Lap in the Cox Plate (which would have been some clash) and so the gelding’s next start was in the Victoria Derby, where at the end of a long campaign and as the 2/7 favourite, Ammon Ra weighed-in fourth, with Viol d’Amour the minor placegetter behind Johnnie Jason and Chatham.
Ammon Ra resumed in the autumn in brilliant form, taking the St. George Stakes first-up from Viol d’Amour and Johnnie Jason before equalling the weight-carrying record of 9st 3lb for one of his age, under that race’s unique penalty and allowance conditions, when defeating 14 rivals in the Futurity Stakes when coming back to seven furlongs. Flashing home into third place was another familiar rival, the talented Middle Watch, which set the latter up for an upset win over Ammon Ra just a week later in the VRC St Leger over twice the distance, Middle Watch winning by two lengths. A result that raised further doubts on Ammon Ra’s stamina.
But the following Saturday, and back to a mile, Ammon Ra dominated the C.M. Lloyd Stakes from the start and had a comfortable margin at the post over Chatham and Johnnie Jason this time. As he had at each of his Australian starts, Ammon Ra started a warm favourite.
There was no rest for the young star and returning to Sydney Ammon Ra squared off against two outstanding older horses in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill seven days later. Nightmarch had returned to racing following the NZ stud season and came into the race as a last start winner of the Awapuni Cup, while the four year-old Veilmond was already established as one of the nation’s best gallopers, with wins in the AJC and VRC St Legers to his credit as well as the C.B. Fisher Plate in the Spring. Veilmond, fitter for two runs back from a spell, was well fancied as the 9/4 second elect, but Ammon Ra’s tactical speed won the day and the Limond gelding scored his ninth win of the season when 2.5 lengths clear of Nightmarch on the line, with Veilmond third.
Ammon Ra then went to the Chipping Norton Stakes over 10f with Nightmarch his main danger, but once again the younger horse prevailed, although this time the margin was a half-length as Nightmarch’s strong finish came just a little too late. Johnnie Jason was third. Nightmarch defeated Veilmond twice at weight-for-age over the AJC Autumn Carnival to highlight the depth of this form.
But in the AJC St Leger a week later, Middle Watch ran up to his Flemington best and again outstayed Ammon Ra to win going away by 1.25 lengths, with Johnnie Jason a distant third. And, after all that, Ammon Ra’s connections went to the well one more time four days later, but the brilliant star could do no better than fourth in the All-Aged Stakes won by another old rival, Viol d’Amour.
In the period from February 13 to March 26, 1932, Ammon Ra had raced week in, week out, contesting eight races over distances from 7f to 14f, winning five times. In hindsight, Ammon Ra was only beaten once during the season at less than 10f, when clearly a tired horse in the All-Aged Stakes. Within another week or so, came the news that Phar Lap had diedin California.
Although the pair did not meet on the track, the geldings Phar Lap and Ammon Ra share a common bond. From 1932 onwards, for a period of 29 years, geldings were barred from contesting the AJC Derby, Victoria Derby as well as the St Leger Stakes and the Sires’ Produce Stakes in Sydney and Melbourne. Ammon Ra was the last gelding to win the AJC Derby for almost three decades. Phar Lap was the second last.
And so, our judging panel will line up an Australian icon against a great three year-old to determine our Bluebloods HOTY in 1931/32. I, for one, had not thought it would be such a worthy contest between two such worthy horses.