Derby Day tomorrow sees the commencement of the annual extravaganza of fashion, betting, entertainment, food, wine and a little horse racing that is the Melbourne Cup Racing Carnival. Flemington will be set upon by fans in their hundreds of thousands, all eager to be a part of the week-long festival of racing. The premiere period of the sport in Australia sees international and local horses alike competing in some of the most prestigious and lucrative races in the world.
Throughout its history the Melbourne Cup Carnival, and its four race meetings, has seen some extraordinary tales unfold. This Flashback Friday we look back at the most extraordinary of them all, 1930, the year a big red gelding dominated like no horse before or since. After claiming the Cox Plate a week earlier, Phar Lap produced what may well be the greatest achievement in thoroughbred racing. In the middle of what would become a 14-race winning streak, he reigned supreme over the Carnival, racing and winning feature events at each of Flemington’s four race meetings.
On Derby Day, Big Red took on the field in the Melbourne Stakes, an event now known as the McKinnon Stakes, run as a weight for age, Phar Lap’s expected victory made him a prohibitive favourite. So prohibitive in fact, that a syndicate of bookmakers, fearful of the expected payout to punters on a Phar Lap win, unsuccessfully attempted to shoot the champion dead as he finished track work that morning. Despite the nefarious intent, their efforts had no impact on the Wonder Horse however. Unperturbed Phar Lap dominated the field, completing an easy 3 length victory, clinching the Melbourne Stakes, in a perfect preparation for the Melbourne Cup three days later.
Melbourne awoke to rain and hail on Cup Day 1930, weather that considerably slowed the Flemington track. Despite the Red Terror’s failure, 12 months earlier, and the hefty handicap he would need to carry to victory, expectations were high for Phar Lap. Hidden away in Geelong, because of the attempt on his life on Derby Day, Phar Lap arrived at the track only an hour before the race.
None of this was of any concern to the punters though, who flocked to the track in large numbers and backed Big Red into odds on favouritism. A bit like in 2005 for Makybe Diva, in 1930 the crowd was in attendance for one reason only – to see Phar Lap win. The betting rings were deserted before the race, with all interest at Flemington focussed on finding the best position to see the equine hero.
Again, like on Derby Day, Phar Lap was not challenged in the big race. Jockey Jim Pyke barely tested his steed as they settled comfortably in position mid field. Pyke remained nonplussed throughout the two miles, despite some despairing murmuring in the crowd as he fell back a little at the five-furlong post. With very little encouragement Phar Lap attacked at Pyke’s insistence, and with ease he swallowed up the gap and took the lead. The twin burdens carried by the racing behemoth – of the shortest ever odds on a runner in the cup, or his handicap, heavier than any weight carried by a winner in the race’s history – were not enough to slow the great horse down. A long way from home, the earlier despair turned to unbridled celebration with the champ easing to a comfortable three length victory.
Amid the Great Depression, Big Red’s efforts had been a shining light in dark times. In conditions such as these his victory seemed to hold greater significance. Those in attendance at Flemington celebrated the result as you would expect a crowd experiencing a rare joy. As the 4-year old wonder horse made his way back to the mounting yard, showing very little sign of distress after his dominant two-mile conquest, the giant-hearted gelding was feted by the crowd in an outpouring, described rather quaintly by newspapers at the time, as a ‘remarkable demonstration of enthusiasm’.
Phar Lap’s owner Harry Telford’s thoughts on resting race horses, was a little different to those held by connections of champion horses today. Telford’s long held position was that “racehorses are born to run” and that “if you want a pet, get a dog”. But it wouldn’t have surprised anyone, if after the good will and fanfare following the Melbourne Cup and having won three of the country’s greatest races in little over a week, the all-conquering hero had been sent off for a well-earned spell.
Seeing his glorious gelding barely troubled on his way to winning the Cup, Telford didn’t need much encouraging to keep his investment running. When Jockey Jim Pyke suggested his mount could have “done even better if required” in the Cup, Telford’s mind was made. Phar Lap would not go to paddock but would use the next four days to chase history. So, on Oaks Day, a mere 48 hours after winning ‘the race that stops the nation’ carrying enough weigh to sink a ship, Phar Lap again lined up at Flemington.
If lining up for his third race in six days wasn’t challenging enough, Phar Lap’s follow up to 3200m glory was the Linlithgow Stakes over only 1600m. Two days after defeating the country’s best stayers he would now drop rapidly in distance and be challenged by a crack field of milers all keen to dethrone the king. In the end, be it two miles or one mile, it made no difference Big Red was in a field of his own running away with a four-length victory.
By Stakes Day Phar Lap had overcome not just elite fields but an assassination attempt, punitive handicaps and dramatic distance changes too. The punters favourite had cleaned the bookies out and because of his three days of domination they were running scared of the Red Terror. Even though Big Red was attempting something never achieved before, bookmakers would not accept bets on Phar Lap for the CB Fisher Plate. It proved a shrewd position, he was unchallenged in the 2400m race winning easily by 3.5-lengths.
In the space of a week Australia’s most revered horse had achieved a feat that had never been done before and most likely will never be achieved again. Tragically, less than two years later Phar Lap was gone. News of the racetrack giant’s passing was greeted with deep national despair. A glorious career that yielded 37 wins from 51 starts transcended the sport in such way that Big Red is still a revered figure, 84 years after the great gelding’s death.
A giant both literally and metaphorically, Phar Lap’s tale is a much loved one in the annals of sport in this country. As the Melbourne Cup Carnival unfolds in front of us again, it gives us all the perfect excuse to remember seven amazing days back in 1930 when Phar Lap wrote the most wonderful chapter in an unbelievable career.