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Seabiscuit ‘Phar’ from only legend

Nov 9, 2004 6:47 AM

It turns out it wasn’t the Mafia or jealous rivals. It was bad oats. That, at least, is the latest chapter in the greatest horse racing mystery of all time, the story of Phar Lap.

People besotted by the syrupy story of Seabiscuit may not remember who Phar Lap was, just as they would not have known about Seabiscuit if Laura Hillenbrand had not turned her fertile and at times fanciful prose into her incredibly successful best seller.

But Phar Lap was a far more dramatic story than Seabiscuit.

For one thing, he was an international champion, and a national hero in the two countries that claimed him: New Zealand (where he was foaled on October 4, 1926) and Australia (where he established his reputation, winning 37 of 51 races, including that country’s national holiday race, the Melbourne Cup).

Between 1928 and April 5, 1932, when he died under mysterious circumstances in Menlo Park, California, Phar Lap was a true living legend. A huge bright chestnut, 17.1 hands high, he captivated the southern hemisphere and then, lured by what then was North America’s richest race — the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap — his connections somewhat reluctantly shipped him to California for the race just across the Mexican border.

He won it, although the depression forced reduction of the purse to $50,000. Two weeks later he was dead. No one will ever convince Australians and New Zealanders that he was not poisoned here. That still is the prevailing belief in both countries, 72 years after his death.

His body was returned to Australia, where his huge heart still is displayed in the capital, Canberra. His regal body was preserved by veterinarians and is on display in Melbourne. And to assuage the hurt feelings of New Zealanders, his bones were sent there.

The two countries still battle over his legacy, and last Sunday a new theory surfaced in the controversy of how he came to die after his only North American triumph. A 91-year-old racetracker who is the last living link to Phar Lap says it was because Australians overfed the great champion with New Zealand oats.

Les Church was a 17-year-old stable foreman and apprentice jockey for an Australian trainer named Joe Cripps. When Phar Lap raced in Melbourne, he was stabled in the Cripps barn.

Church says his old boss, Cripps, told him in advance of Phar Lap’s death that the horse was in danger. Cripps claimed that Phar Laps trainer and co-owner, Harry Telford, was over-feeding the horse with New Zealand black oats, which Cripps said were twice as strong as South Australian white oats. Church says Cripps told him, "They’ll kill that horse."

It is interesting that a biography of Phar Lap mentions the Great Depression of the early 1930s as part of Phar Lap’s appeal, saying, "a hero was most needed then by the people of Australia."

The appeal of Seabiscuit today, and part of the success of Ms. Hillenbrand’s book, above her writing skills, is that America, despised as it is in the Muslim world and far beyond for our venture in Iraq, also is in need of a hero. Human ones being in severely short supply, Seabiscuit filled the bill nicely.

There is one consolation with Seabiscuit. While Australia and New Zealand, close friends and neighbors, continue their long argument as to who deserves credit and bragging rights to Phar Lap, we own Seabiscuit hoof and hide. He too was a hero of the depression, although the clouds of war in Europe diverted attention from it during his racing career, but he played his own role in diversion as our hero and the underdog, with War Admiral regarded as the regal king until the little man’s little horse dethroned him.

Seabiscuit will remain an icon through book and movie. Phar Lap will remain a museum figure, spread thinly between two countries, but a super hero nonetheless. Whether he was Australian or New Zealander, it would be hard to convince racing fans of either country that he was not the greatest race horse that ever lived.