“Phar Lap wins the Agua Caliente Handicap” by Bert Wolfe

Phar Lap made all dreams come true yesterday to the shouts of fifty thousand racing fans when he won the Agua Caliente Handicap. He did more to advertise Australia and New Zealand in the United States and Mexico than a million dollars.

Today he is the ‘big news.’ Every newspaper of any consequence in the United States is printing stories of the success of ‘the Big Train from the Antipodes.’ They are saying that Phar Lap and his connections made American trainers and jockeys look like ‘suckers.’ They are lauding Woodcock to the skies for his cleverness, Elliot is being described as the Tod Sloan of Australia, and owners are being advised to send to Australia for a shipload of trainers and jockeys.

Not only was Phar Lap’s win considered sensational, but regarded as even more sensational was the fact that he was having his first run in America, his first race on dirt tracks, his first start from the barrier stalls, and his almost unequalled feat of giving the leaders ten lengths’ start from the six furlongs and being in front at the half-mile.

Americans love the unusual. They also love to see freaks in sport, and they almost worship anybody or anything that has some pretensions to world’s championship class. So today they are talking about Phar Lap with affection and telling their friends that he is ‘some hoss – and I don’t mean maybe.’

It could not have been a better day for the big race. Warm in the forenoon with a breeze from the desert, gradually getting chilly as the afternoon wore on. And the excitement! Thousands of motor cars, hundreds of aeroplanes, scores of movie cameras, everybody shouting, gambling, laughing and drinking.

Arrangements had been made for the candidates for the Caliente Handicap horses to be saddled in field, or on the flat, as we know it. Each horse’s name was nailed to a flagpole, on which a flag of its owner’s colours waved in the breeze. Phar Lap was brought to the course before the twelfth race – there were fifteen on the card that day – and caused quite a flutter. He walked round the inside paddock as if he could not understand what all the fuss was about. Woodcock looked drawn and tense, Nielsen and Martin were like cats on hot bricks, Mr. D. J. Davis wandered from one roulette table to another as if endeavouring to divert his thoughts, while Mrs. Davis gradually got more nervous as the day wore on, and finally disappeared to watch the race by herself . . .

As the field passed the judge for the first time (a mile from home) Phar Lap was in seventh place ten lengths from the leaders. Leaving the straight he was in the middle of the track and holding his place. When the back stretch was reached (six furlongs from home), Elliot let him go. In a flash his amazing speed was apparent, and the crowd, following his dash with intelligent interest, let forth a mighty cheer. As one writer said afterwards, ‘He won America in an eighth of a mile.’

Of all the famous sprints Phar Lap has ever made that two furlongs from the six furlongs to the half mile was his greatest. He ran the journey in 22 seconds, and when he arrived at the half mile he had left the field astern. At the turn he was a length in front, with Reveille Boy gaining ground fast.

I must confess I could not tell whether Elliot was giving him a breather or not. My field glasses would not remain still. When fairly in the straight Reveille Boy almost seemed to head him, and the thought flashed through my mind that owing to his foot injury the amazing dash from seventh to first had taken its toll. But just when everybody was getting ready to cheer the American horse, Phar Lap gave a few terrific bounds and in a twinkling he was lengths in front and Elliot was easing him up passing the post well clear of the field.

It is impossible to describe the scene at the finish of the race. The crowd cheered itself hoarse, the paddock seethed with excitement, and when he returned to the winner’s circle pandemonium reigned.

It was a great moment, and the coolest person of all was little Elliot, who, in a quiet voice, said, ‘When do they want me to weigh in?’ The crowds milled around Phar Lap, he was photographed from all angles, his connections were photographed, but the horse steadfastly refused to be decorated with roses.

The Melbourne Herald

21 March 1932

*Extract from The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing (A 200 Year Collection) edited by David Headon

Bert Wolfe



Filed under Literature, Non-Fiction, Sport

2 responses to ““Phar Lap wins the Agua Caliente Handicap” by Bert Wolfe

  1. Phar Lap raced from 1929 to 1932, having 51 starts with 37 wins, three seconds and two thirds. In Australia, he won such notable races as the AJC Derby, Victoria Derby, WS Cox Plate (twice), and the Melbourne Cup. He travelled overseas and won North America’s richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in 1932.

  2. Turf journalist Bert Wolfe was born on 19 July 1897 at Maitland, New South Wales, and died in Sydney on 6 April 1968, aged 70 years.
    Bert Wolfe was widely respected and recognized as Australia’s leading turf writer. He was known by his famous pseudonym of ‘Cardigan’ – the 1903 Melbourne Cup winner Lord Cardigan bred by his grandfather.
    Sir Keith Murdoch, owner of the Melbourne Herald, recruited Wolfe.
    In 1932 he accompanied Phar Lap to Mexico where the horse won the Agua Caliente Handicap. Wolfe obtained permission to land an aeroplane at the course so that he could fly to San Diego, California, to cable the story home. A fortnight later he was present when the gelding died.
    Bert Wolfe was inducted to the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2005.

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