May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Phar Lap. Thanks to our peculiar tendency to attribute every virtue to those who meet untimely deaths, the surest route to unqualified acclaim is to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. In 1932 an Australian racehorse named Phar Lap did just that, setting an American speed record for winning an overblown reputation. It took him only two minutes, two and fourfifths seconds, and he didn’t even do it in America.
Aptly named with the Singhalese term for lightning, the 1,450-pound red colossus was sent to the Agua Caliente racecourse, in Tijuana, Mexico, to challenge American horses in the track’s namesake race. He was splendid at Caliente, humiliating his rivals and setting a track record. Two weeks and a day later he was dead. Colic killed him, but a persistent Australian belief that Yanks had poisoned him led to many a brawl between Allied soldiers in World War II’s Pacific theater.
Dropping dead was bad for Phar Lap, but it did wonders for his image. Americans hailed him as a superhorse. They shipped him cross-country, stuffed his good-looking corpse, and propped him up at New York’s Belmont Park so throngs could mourn him. Over time, accounts of his race became inconsistent and apparently fantastic, and his reputation grew. Though Phar Lap never ran in the United States, a 1999 Blood-Horse magazine poll of experts ranked him among the twentieth century’s greatest American horses, above five of the eleven Triple Crown winners. A militant faction of horsemen calls him the best ever.
Was one race so compelling? Phar Lap set a track record, but Caliente was only two years old. His time stood for only one year, eclipsed by a long-forgotten successor. His competition was middling. Ever heard of his runner-up, Reveille Boy? Neither has anyone else. Phar Lap was never tested in American racing. Another Man o’ War? A onehit wonder? He didn’t live long enough to tell us.
Seabiscuit. After living memories die away, an athlete’s last monuments are numbers—wins, losses—that say nothing about the conditions under which his performances were staged. In consequence those who campaign timidly usually fare better in history than those who fulfill the athletic ideal by taking the path of most resistance.
Buried at twenty-fifth in the Blood-Horse poll, below Phar Lap, lies the ferociously game Seabiscuit. From 1935 to 1940 he waged a campaign of singular rigor under conditions that nearly always left him at a great disadvantage. In an era in which longdistance transport was so taxing for horses that few ventured far, he was shipped fifty thousand railroad miles to compete at twenty-three tracks in nearly every major handicap race. Seldom have great horses run more than forty times or raced beyond age five; Seabiscuit ran eighty-nine times at sixteen different distances through the bewhiskered age of seven. In spite of his diminutive size, he was one of history’s best weight carriers, regularly conceding twenty to thirty-five pounds to his foes. The weight spreads gave his rivals such tremendous advantages—equal to fourteen lengths or more—that losses were inevitable, but it often took a track-record time and a photo finish to beat him. Without such enormous handicaps, his best win streak would likely have stretched to twenty-four races; the record is sixteen. Even with those handicaps, he set a stunning fifteen track records, equaled another, and amassed worldrecord earnings. He whipped virtually every elite horse of his era, including the mighty Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Seriously injured in 1939, the Biscuit became the only horse ever to come out of retirement and regain worldclass form, doing it in record time under high weight against horses half his age.
It is testament to the overemphasis on statistics that the conservatively raced War Admiral ranks thirteenth on the Blood-Horse list, twelve places above his conqueror. When Seabiscuit’s career was fresh in men’s minds, his lofty historical rank was beyond question. Most of those men are gone, and what survive are numbers that say little about how extraordinary he was.