WHEN THE THREE-YEAR-OLD Phar Lap landed in Sydney in the autumn of 1930, it was the first time the harbour city’s racing fans had seen the rising star of Australian racing since the previous October. On his first look at him, Vedette, the racing columnist for The Referee, wrote: ‘Since he was here in the spring Phar Lap has furnished into a much more impressive type of horse. Never an oil painting, he is not the pretty type, but he fills the eye with his bigness, his undoubted physical fitness and his general air of contentedness and well-being.’
Musket, in The Sydney Mail, added: ‘Were it not for his wonderful deeds few would take a second look at him; but now that he has become famous his rangy frame of greyhound proportions has many admirers.’
The Sydney press had a field day building up the Chipping Norton Stakes, over a mile and a quarter at Warwick Farm on April 12, in which Phar Lap would meet the best two older horses then racing in Australia, Amounis and Nightmarch, and another outstanding Kiwi, Chide. But what was expected in many quarters to be a close contest turned into a one act affair.
Musket: Five furlongs from home, Nightmarch appeared to be catching the three-year-old, but it was only on sufferance, for the gap became wider at the three furlongs, where Amounis began to close on Nightmarch. ‘Amounis will win yet!’ was shouted by his admirers as the old warrior began his famous finishing run, but though he caught Nightmarch he could not threaten danger to the three-year-old, who simply outclassed the placegetters.
‘That settles which horse should’ve won the Melbourne Cup!’ yelled a voice from the crowd. The previous November, Nightmarch had prevailed on the first Tuesday in November, with Phar Lap, the dual Derby winner, back in third place. Now racing had a new hero, and he couldn’t have come at a better time, with thousands losing their jobs due to the onset of the Great Depression and the papers filling with awful stories of hardship and misfortune. For trainer Harry Telford, the irony of his new-found wealth could not have been lost of him. Circumstances had changed drastically for both Telford and the world around him. Men who only a year previously had been calling in long-time battler’s debts were now seeking a handout.
Phar Lap enjoyed further easy wins in the AJC St Leger and the weight-for-age Cumberland Stakes, leading critics to rate him the equal of any of the great three-year-olds of the previous 30 years, such as Abundance, Poseidon, Mountain King, Prince Foote, Artilleryman, Manfred and Strephon. Similarly, it was now being suggested that young Don Bradman, who three months before had broken the record for the highest score ever made first-class cricket, was now on a par with the most celebrated of Australian batsmen, such as Charles Bannerman, Clem Hill and Charlie Macartney. Perhaps only Victor Trumper remained beyond the 21-year-old.
During the next four months, Bradman would smash a succession of Test batting records as Australia climbed quickly back to the top of the cricket tree, and rich and poor Australians alike would begin to rate ‘Our Don’ the best of all time, beyond even than the immortal Vic. In doing so, he joined Phar Lap, who had reached the same lofty status on the racetrack. The hardest markers reckoned only Carbine, the legendary winner of the 1890 Melbourne Cup, might be his equal.
The reason for Phar Lap’s rapid ascension to true greatness was, simply, the AJC Plate. If you talked to anyone in Sydney who saw most of Phar Lap races, the one performance they all raved about was the 1930 AJC Plate, run at Randwick over two-and-a-quarter miles on April 26.
The headlines are astonishingly exuberant: ‘GREATEST HORSE EVER,’ roared the Truth. ‘PHAR LAP MOST SENSATIONAL GALLOPER OF ALL TIME,’ shouted The Referee. ‘AN EXTRAORDINARY WIN’ was The Australasian’s verdict. ‘PHAR LAP A SUPERLATIVE GALLOPER,’ reckoned The Sydney Mail.
What Phar Lap did was take hold of Billy Elliott, up from Melbourne for the ride because regular jockey Jim Pike couldn’t make the three-year-old’s weight-for-age of 7lb 13 (50.5kg), and take off. The pace was suicidal for a normal horse, but Phar Lap just kept going, and going, until Elliott finally managed to ease him up over the last furlong.
Before the race — which involved only three horses, Phar Lap, Nightmarch and the solid stayer Donald — some critics thought Nightmarch might be a chance. After all, he’d beaten Phar Lap easily in the Melbourne Cup and their only subsequent meeting had been over a mile and a quarter in the Chipping Norton. There was talk about, too, according to the Truth, that Phar Lap ‘was going to be raced right into the ground’. Consequently, the three-year-old came up only 2–1 on in the ring, but the big gamblers were on to that in a flash, with Sydney’s most prominent female punter, Maude Vandenburg, quickly taking £2000 to £1000 from rails operator Jack Molloy. The renowned Eric Connolly, however, was spotted supporting Nightmarch. At the jump, the favourite was 5–2 on.
Chiron (The Australasian): Evidently the people who backed Nightmarch took the view that Phar Lap is really not a genuine stayer and that Nightmarch would be able to get the last run on him and outstay him at the finish. It did not work out that way at all, as Nightmarch could never get near enough to Phar Lap to find out whether he can stay or not.
Vedette (The Referee): Phar Lap went fast from the beginning and some of his intermediate times from a mile and a half on, according to private watches, were better than world figures for those distances. He full time of 3:49.5 was a second better than the previous Australasian record and he beat Nightmarch by 10 lengths, with Donald three-quarters of a length away third. He clipped the previous Randwick record by 6½ seconds.
An English writer a few weeks ago mentioned that Walter Lindrum [the champion Australian billiards exponent] was the only man in any branch of sport he would be prepared to back against the world. Sydney sportsmen who saw Phar Lap’s performance in the AJC Plate are convinced he is the Lindrum of the turf. It is difficult to make comparisons between Australian and overseas horses, but when a galloper arises who can make really good performers such as Nightmarch look like novices, there is no question of his class.
The first half mile was run in 49 seconds. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race! Along the back Phar Lap was ticking over the furlongs, 12 seconds at a time, as he opened up a lead of at least a furlong, perhaps longer. Vedette’s stopwatch suggested he ran the first seven furlongs in better than the Randwick track record, equal to the Australasian record, for THAT distance. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race!!
Jim Pike: Phar Lap is faster than Strephon. Much faster. Windbag could win a six-furlongs race and the Melbourne Cup. Gothic won two VRC Newmarket Handicaps and could stay a mile and a half, but I have no hesitation in saying that up to a mile and a half Phar Lap is better and could outpace either of them from anything up to that distance. I feel sure he could win a Newmarket, and win it easily. And I would not hesitate to back him, fit and at his best, to run a mile and a half in 2.27. That’s how good I think he is.
Pike’s comments came straight after the race. Phar Lap had run the first mile and a half of the AJC Plate in 2:28.5, nearly three seconds faster than the race-record time he ran to win the AJC Derby seven months before. Two miles were passed in 3:20.5, which would have won every Sydney Cup until 1971, and every Melbourne Cup until 1950, at which point Elliott was finally able to get a grip, and he slowed the champion down to a canter in the straight, while Nightmarch and Donald were ridden hard, chasing the second prizemoney. So slow was Phar Lap going at the finish, he was walking, ready to enter the mounting yard, only 25 metres after the passing the post.
Jim Marsh (later a rails bookmaker in Sydney): He could’ve won by a furlong. Roy Reed rode Nightmarch and afterwards the stewards got him up before them on a charge of not riding his mount out. He’d got beat a furlong! The judge didn’t say that was the margin, but that’s what it looked like to me. What Reed did was get half a length in front of Donald, then he just looked at him and stayed there. He didn’t try to run after Phar Lap, that was true, and he explained that to the stewards. ‘I could have run him to about 50 lengths,’ he said. All he wanted to do was beat Donald.
A. McAulay (trainer of Nightmarch): It is hard to say what would have been the result if Phar Lap had been asked to do his best: Nightmarch would hardly have been at the home turn when the crack finished.
Phar Lap would win another 25 races before succumbing to the disease syndrome Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis in April 1932. Some of these victories were remarkable, not least his triumphs in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the 1931 Futurity Stakes, and the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap in North America. But as phenomenal as these performances undoubtedly were, they might not have been as purely breathtaking as what he did at Royal Randwick on April 26, 1930.
That was the day, an important day in the history of Australian racing, when racegoers and non-racegoers alike started talking of Phar Lap as the best we’ve ever seen.
We’ve been doing it ever since.