His brief life was one of heroic deeds, drama, and ultimately, tragedy. And after nearly 80 years, New Zealand at last truly honoured the memory of Phar Lap, writes Neil Clarkson.
The dream seemed scarcely believable. Could a racehorse, even one as mighty as Phar Lap, successfully make a 16,000-kilometre journey by sea across the Pacific to take on America’s best?
The towering 17.1-hand thoroughbred had forged a remarkable record in Australia to become a hero to a generation worn down by the Depression.
His wins included a Melbourne Cup, and fans flocked to the track time after time to see his winning form and trademark massive stride.
Twenty-seven feet — that’s 8.23 metres. The horse nicknamed the Red Terror from the Antipodes was not far short of matching the world long-jump record with every stride.
Phar Lap began his journey on November 17, 1931, when he left Melbourne by train. Three days later he boarded the Ulimaroa at Sydney, bound for a month’s spell in New Zealand.
Admirers poured into Phar Lap’s Trentham digs to see the champion.
Phar Lap then crossed the Pacific on the Monowai, his connections eyeing the richest prize in North American racing, the $US50,000 Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico.
It was a huge ask. Phar Lap would have just seven weeks’ preparation and would race on an unfamiliar loam track.
Racing writers were sceptical that a horse from Down Under could match America’s best.
March 20, 1932. Phar Lap, with Billy Elliot in the saddle, lined up for the start. Elliot’s orders were clear. Stay out of trouble and don’t be concerned about going wide and covering extra ground.
Phar Lap’s preparation had been far from ideal. Serious damage to a front hoof had severely curtailed his training, reducing it to little more than long walks with his handler, Tommy Woodcock.
Phar Lap drifted back to be close to last, an estimated 10 lengths from the leaders. Then, with a light touch of the whip at the six-furlong mark, the champion lengthened to full stride.
In just two furlongs he strode to the front in a 22-second burst that made the field look like also-rans. But at the final turn the field closed on Phar Lap and some believed the southern raider was spent.
Lining up for the dash home, Phar Lap unleashed his trademark power again, clearing out for a comfortable two-length win — his 37th from 51 starts.
Phar Lap had completed his last race. In little more than a fortnight he would be dead in circumstances that, to this day, stir controversy. Was he poisoned, accidentally or otherwise? Were mobsters behind his demise?
His death broke the heart of two nations.
Today, he stands proud in Melbourne Museum in what still ranks today as a magnificent example of taxidermy.
He is immortalised in bronze at Flemington Racecourse, standing high upon a plinth. His preserved heart can be seen in Canberra, with special lighting to help protect the delicate tissue.
At Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, his mounted bones stand, somewhat sickle-hocked, in a glass case.
But what of that athleticism? What of the power and mighty stride of a horse that could swallow up a field of America’s best horses in a mere 22 seconds?
Bringing a champion to life
Sculptor Joanne Sullivan-Gessler confesses to a dream. Not the kind that comes in the dead of night, but a vision of a sculpture she hoped she could one day create.
It was certainly no modest affair. As far back as 1992, she envisioned sculpting a life-sized bronze of a galloping horse.
It was not until 2005 that her thoughts turned to Phar Lap. The concept grew in her head. She imagined the South Canterbury-born horse at full stride, supported by only one leg, planted firmly on a map of New Zealand.
What a challenge, she thought, bringing the horse to life in a way that showed his sheer power and athleticism, his tendons and muscles straining at the exertion.
The South African-born sculptor, who moved to New Zealand in 2002 after four years in the United States, had already established an international reputation. Other commissions occupied her time.
A friend persuaded her that she should exhibit some of her works at the Karaka Yearling Sales. So, early in 2006, she found herself under canvas at the sales showing off a selection of her bronzes.
A couple approached. It was Phar Lap Charitable Trust chairman Derek Mayne and his wife, Katherine.
Her work must have made an impression.
Could she do life-size and would she be able to do Phar Lap, they asked?
Yes, she replied, and in a few moments had handed over a rough sketch of her vision.
In May that year she travelled south to make a presentation to trust members and won the commission. A new journey had begun.
Sullivan-Gessler launched into a project requiring scrupulous attention to detail, patience and dedication to produce a statue that was unveiled in Timaru on November 25, 2009.
The research alone took nearly nine months before she picked up a tool and had the feel of sculpting clay between her fingers.
Australia beckoned. She visited Melbourne Museum to see him standing proud and study its Phar Lap material. The Australian Racing Museum in central Melbourne was very accommodating, as were staff of the racing museum at Flemington Racecourse, who opened the archives for her.
Out came the white gloves as Sullivan-Gessler got access to material normally kept locked in display cabinets or behind closed doors.
The experience was invaluable. The sculptor was determined to tell Phar Lap’s story. Faithfully reproducing every last detail was crucial to her vision.
She got to handle racing silks of the era — very different from those of today. The racing caps of the day were simply cardboard covered in silk, she discovered.
Saddles, whips, weight-bags, bridles, boots: Sullivan-Gessler got to handle them and photograph them. “They were all very different in those days.”
She obtained, from Australia and New Zealand, literally hundreds of photographs, each revealing a tiny detail or a fresh perspective on the champion.
At the Melbourne Museum, she even got to check out the riding boots and silks of Phar Lap’s regular jockey, Jim Pike.
She brought home copies of historic footage showing Phar Lap in action. Professor Graeme Putt, author of a new book about the horse, was also very helpful, she says.
“It’s vital with a piece like this that it tells the story of Phar Lap,” she explains. That detail goes right down to the unusual bar shoe that Phar Lap wore on his front feet.
“The most important thing is to get it right for Phar Lap, not my ego.”
The studio at her home at Greenhithe, on Auckland’s North Shore, became home to the sea of material.
Today, the images are somewhat the worse for wear, worn about the edges and stained with clay from the countless times a working Sullivan-Gessler referred to them as she created detail after detail of the sculpture, complete with Pike in the saddle.
Smaller version the first steps
The sculpting begins with the creation of a maquette – a smaller version of the work.
Her research largely complete, Sullivan-Gessler made up a wire frame to support the specialist oil-based sculpting clay that would come together to create the work, standing about 40cm tall and 75cm long.
Sitting at the table in her studio, the painstaking work began early in 2007. At times donning jeweller’s spectacles to work the clay, she sculpted and shaped it into a likeness of Phar Lap.
“It started fighting with me,” she confesses. Then came the sculptor’s equivalent of stage-fright — a realisation that what she was creating would be seen by thousands and scrutinised to the last detail by Phar Lap aficionados.
“Reality hit,” she says. Her stomach churned. “Suddenly, I had this feeling that everyone was watching.”
The day came when Sullivan-Gessler, weeks into the work, stripped off the clay and started again, knowing she could do better.
“He was just wrong. The energy that was in him was missing. I was putting the clay on without feeling the horse underneath it.”
She then fed off her stage-fright, driving her to complete a maquette of such quality that it later won formal recognition in its own right from the prestigious American Academy of Equine Art, which has made her a full member. She is one of only 20 or so equine sculptors to have earned full admission and is the only one in the Asia-Pacific region.
It took months of effort, working the clay by hand and with wooden and steel tools, some with points the size of a pin, as she shaped details as fine as tiny belt buckles.
The finished maquette sat before her. Sullivan-Gessler made a mould and re-created the maquette in wax. She took it to the United States to seek the feedback of renowned equine sculptor Gwen Reardon.
Affirmation came. Reardon looked at the work and told her: “You will be just fine!”
New Zealand approval
Sullivan-Gessler returned to New Zealand. The wax maquette received a warm reception when she unveiled it to members of the trust in Timaru.
After some minor adjustments, the wax maquette was headed State-side again, this time to a firm in Burbank, California.
The company had the technology to scan the work in three-dimensions and, aided by computer, milled out a three-dimensional rough form of Phar Lap in specialised foam, in a dozen or so pieces.
Phar Lap may have been in pieces, but he was now roughly 5 per cent bigger than life-size to allow for shrinkage during the foundry process that was to follow.
The foam pieces that made up Phar Lap were freighted to her Auckland door, where she set to work at a studio in Albany with her dozens of tools and 125 kilograms of sculpting clay to begin bringing the statue to life.
Sullivan-Gessler worked in pieces at first, shaving the foam where needed, applying the clay, working the finer detail. She would dash off to pick her daughter up from school, sometimes with a leg from Phar Lap or Jim Pike sitting in the back seat.
When appropriate, she would assemble parts using simple armatures and epoxy resin. The painstaking process took nine months, moving near the end to a new studio in Coatesville to get the necessary ceiling space to finish the work.
Then came more scrutiny. Equine vet Noel Power checked him for anatomical correctness. Long-time trainer Colin Jillings also looked him over. Phar Lap won ringing endorsements.
Heat is used to melt the wax and drain it from one of the ceramic shells, which would then be poured in bronze.
Doing Phar Lap justice
Trust members headed north and declared themselves delighted. Mayne said afterwards: “It exceeded my expectations and, believe me, we had high expectations. We are doing this once. Phar Lap needs to be done justice.”
Enter the team from the Avondale foundry, Artworks, who set about taking moulds in silicone rubber held within fibreglass casings.
A total of 22 moulds came off Phar Lap. The moulds were painstakingly cleaned and poured with a layer of wax, which Sullivan-Gessler reworked one at a time to recreate the finish and texture.
As she completed each wax section, she would take it to the foundry to be poured in bronze and take another home to finish it.
As the wax-work was being undertaken, Sullivan-Gessler turned her attention to the patination — the art of applying the finish to the bronze work.
In May 2009, she travelled to the US for a two-yearly course in patination run by master patineer Patrick Kipper. It brought an unexpected change in direction.
Sullivan-Gessler’s original concept had Phar Lap supported by only one leg. The addition of a fountain around the statue’s base was to ultimately make the support structure easier. Phar Lap could be supported on three legs, with the playing water of the foundation hiding the mounts.
Kipper cautioned against it. No matter how good the water quality, discolouration and crusty deposits would build up on the parts of the statue touched by the water, he explained.
The fountain, designed to create the sound of galloping hooves, remained, but the water was to no longer touch the statue. Phar Lap would be true to Sullivan-Gessler’s original concept, supported by only one leg.
Such a mount, however, required careful engineering input and a special stainless armature system was designed and built, adding $35,000 to the cost of the $500,000 project.
Work continued apace as Sullivan-Gessler recreated the finest of details into the wax pieces from which the final bronze pieces would be created.
The artisans of Artworks set about creating the ceramic-based moulds from the wax panels, into which 1000-degree Celsius molten bronze would be poured.
Fibreglass, silicone rubber and other materials may play a part in modern-day bronze casting, but the process has essentially changed little over the centuries.
The team of Matt Olsen, Matt Williams, Jake Iuli, Alex Lau, Martin Seidek and Sullivan-Gessler worked on. One by one, the bronze panels were joined together with a TIG welder. The seams were ground back with grinding tools and, using a specially made implement, the original texture of the bronze was restored to make the joins invisible.
Phar Lap was growing by the day. The day came when a headless and riderless Phar Lap was wheeled outside. Unless completed outdoors, it would not be possible to get him out of the foundry building.
Sullivan-Gessler bought several sail cloths and Phar Lap went under cover outside the building.
For nine nights a guard stood watch over the sculpture, affording the champion the same security extended to him in the US in the build-up to his last great race.
Finally, the patina. Sullivan-Gessler made her own ferric nitrate, the key ingredient that would give Phar Lap his reddish tinge.
The team, using two blow torches, worked around the horse for 13 hours, spraying a mist of ferric nitrate on to the heated bronze to create the finish.
Phar Lap then needed heating again, opening microscopic pores into which liquid wax was worked, effectively sealing the statue from the elements.
It seems appropriate that Phar Lap’s final journey was made by sea.
Wrapped in blankets and crated, he left the foundry on November 13, 2009, bound for the port of Auckland. His journey was in an open-top container — the sculpture was too tall to fit in a standard shipping container.
He arrived in the South Island at Lyttelton and completed the journey by truck, arriving just days before his unveiling. Sullivan-Gessler was there to meet her creation.
Phar Lap back home
One of the finest views in Canterbury is to be had in the final approach to Timaru from the north. As motorists settle into that final long stretch of highway leading into the city, a soft mosaic of gently undulating farmland appears to fall away to the west towards the Southern Alps.
His statue’s home is at the end of the straight, next to Phar Lap Raceway. The suburb of Washdyke is largely industrial, but Phar Lap was first and foremost a hero of the working classes, a beacon of hope in the darkest days of the Depression.
Sullivan-Gessler recalled the days when she first dreamt of creating the champion in bronze.
“I wasn’t dreaming about doing a statue of a horse. I was looking at telling the story. That is what this is about.
“If he isn’t alive, I haven’t done my job. I want people to feel the essence of what he was about.”
A nod to Tommy Woodcock
The affection between handler Tommy Woodcock and Phar Lap was plain for all to see.
Woodcock was a constant in Phar Lap’s life and a crucial figure in allowing the horse to withstand the challenges of a heavy racing campaign that some believed was too arduous.
In much of the surviving film footage, a winning Phar Lap was often seen to flick one of his ears forward and the other slightly to the side as he strode across the finish line.
Many believed it was a sign he was looking for the presence of Woodcock.
It is a touching story and Sullivan-Gessler was not about to let it pass.