Phar Lap wins the Melbourne Cup

4 November 1930

Phar Lap portrait, 1931 (Alexander Turnbull Library, B-165-001)

Ridden by Jimmy Pike, the New Zealand-bred (but Australian-owned) wonder-horse beat Second Wind by two lengths to claim one of his greatest victories.

The Melbourne Cup is the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing in Australasia. It is widely regarded as the most prestigious two-mile (3200-m) handicap in the world. Having finished third in 1929, Phar Lap started as the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race at odds of 8–11 (a return of approximately £7 for each £4 bet). Amazingly, he won on all four days of the Flemington Spring Carnival. He followed up his 1930 victory by running eighth in the Cup in 1931 under a crushing 68 kg, the heaviest weight ever carried in the race.

Other horses have won multiple Melbourne Cups, but few have eclipsed Phar Lap in Cup folklore. Standing at an impressive 17 hands (1.73 m), he combined stamina with speed. ‘Big Red’, as he was known, has been the centre of a trans-Tasman tug-of-war over bragging rights. Born in 1926 at Alexander Roberts’ Seadown Stud, near Timaru, he raced in Australia, where he became the darling of the crowds during the Great Depression. Between the autumn of 1930 and April 1932, Phar Lap won 32 of his 35 races.

The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861. Martini Henry was the first New Zealand-bred horse to win the race, in 1883. As of 2014, 41 New Zealand-bred horses have claimed victory in the great race. Other notable Kiwi winners include Carbine, who carried 66.5 kg in beating 38 opponents in race record time in 1890. This feat remains a record for both the weight carried by the winner and the number in the field. The dramatic last-to-first win by Kiwi in 1983 and the victory by the gigantic mare Empire Rose in 1988 have helped to ensure that ‘the race that stops a nation’ remains just as significant in New Zealand as it is in Australia.