How Phar Lap Was Named

The following item about how Phar Lap was named, is by ABC Lateline presenter Michael Rennie, being published in September 2003.

As a small boy, I can remember asking my father about the name Phar Lap and he replying that it was “something in Sinhalese”. Twenty-five years later, I was a passenger in a car with my wife and her family heading north from Bangkok to their home town of Udon Thani in the north-east of Thailand. We were driving through a fierce thunderstorm and everyone but me was engaged in animated conversation in Thai. As I dozed after our flight from Perth, the rain, the thunder and the windscreen wipers almost drowned out the sounds of their voices, but two words repeatedly struck my tired Aussie ears from among the other meaningless ones; phar lap. It then dawned on me that Dad had been wrong. It wasn’t Sinhalese but Siamese and they were talking about the lightning!

Today, another sixteen years later, my wife and I run a Thai Restaurant in Perth and I am pleased to say that my knowledge of the Thai language has improved. We employ Thai students at the restaurant and I am invariably asked by them about the name Phar Lap when they hear about the horse. Why does it have a Thai name? Who named him?

I decided to find out but soon discovered that nobody knew, not the Victoria Museum with the Phar Lap exhibit, not the Victoria Racing Club nor the Australian Jockey Club. All the books about Phar Lap mention a visitor from the Far East or an oriental gentleman. Some of these books erroneously state the language as Sinhalese or Sri Lankan while others merely say that it is an Asian language.

The horse was named in 1928 and assuming that none of the connections spoke Siamese, I sought the “oriental gentleman” responsible. A check of the census for that period all but ruled out anyone of Siamese origin living in Sydney and I didn’t think tourists from Siam would have been likely in those days. I decided that the person involved might have been a student and then I recalled a scene from the 1984 film Phar Lap in which a young man of Asian appearance is present at track work in Centennial Park and is asked jokingly what is the word for lightning in his language. He replies Phar Lap and so the name is born. In the film, this gentleman is called Mr. Ping so I wondered if this account was factual. I contacted John Sexton who produced the film, and he said that Tommy Woodcock, Phar Lap’s strapper and later trainer, was present during the making of the film and the scene in question was based on Tommy’s recollections. Although the name Ping did not sound Thai, I thought perhaps it could have been a nickname particularly if he had a typical long and unpronounceable Thai name.

If he were a student, perhaps there would still be records. The University of Sydney was very close to Centennial Park so I obtained the student lists for 1928. Naturally, Anglo-Saxon names dominated the lists, and no multi-syllabic Siamese names were evident but one name stood out, Aubrey Moore Ping, a medical student.

Further research revealed that he was born in 1899 and completed his Bachelor of Science at Queensland University. Many phone calls to Medical Boards and the Australian Medical Association revealed little more and weeks passed. Finally, from the most arcane source imaginable, directory assistance, I was given a current phone listing for a Dr. A Ping in Randwick who, I thought, could well be a descendent.

The lady who answered my call regretfully informed me that Dr. Ping no longer lived there, in fact, he had passed away some sixteen years ago but she was his wife. I asked her, “You are Aubrey Ping’s widow?” “That’s right”. I was astounded.  He would have been 101 but she was much younger. Her name was Dawn. I asked if her husband was of Asian origin and she told me that his father was Chinese and his mother was Scottish. When I asked her if her late husband was likely to have taken time off from his medical studies to watch track work at Centennial Park, she told me that he would definitely have been there and that they used to know Tommy Woodcock and Harry Telford and George Moore and Neville Selwood.

Having satisfied myself that he was the Mr. Ping remembered by Tommy Woodcock, I then asked if her late husband had ever mentioned to her about him naming Phar Lap.  She said that he hadn’t but that he could well have done. “But wouldn’t he have told someone if had?” “No, he was a very quiet man and kept things to himself”.  She told me that she only found out later that one of her husband’s horses (he became an owner) had won a Canberra Cup when she came upon the cup when cleaning the attic.

When I asked her if he knew Thai or Siamese she didn’t think so, but stressed that he was a brilliant man with a photographic memory and that he knew many things.

Aubrey Ping was one of at least ten children born in Gayndah, Queensland. He financed all his studies by winning scholarships and, according to Dawn, was the first oriental person to attend Sydney University. Dawn’s father had been the starter at the races, so perhaps that is how they met. His studies in Brisbane included French and Latin so it is reasonable to suppose that he had an interest in languages. Another possibility had occurred to me that languages similar to Thai are spoken in parts of China so maybe if he knew enough of his father’s dialect and if his father had come from one of those areas the puzzle would be solved.

Dr Anthony Diller at the Australian National University in Canberra suggested to me that “Zhuang” language from southern China was one such language and advised me to contact a native speaker of this language, Dr Luo Yong Xian at Melbourne University. I asked Dr Luo the same question which was asked 72 years ago of Aubrey Ping. “What’s the word for lightning in your language?”  The reply was the same, phar lap or par lap depending on the regional dialect of the speaker. He further informed me that the Zhuang language has over 18 million speakers and the other related languages in Southern China had millions more. He also told me that Zhuang speakers had indeed come to Australia last century, many to work on railway construction. The name Ping was a possible surname. He had never heard of the horse Phar Lap so I suggested he visit the museum.

I spoke to Aubrey Moore Mellor, a theatre director and nephew named after Dr Ping who recalled that Uncle Aub often spoke of Tommy Woodcock as a friend. He said that Aubrey was the youngest and brightest of all the children and possibly the closest of all to their father and the most likely of all to have learned from him his language. He later phoned me when he did, in fact, remember uncle Aubrey taking him to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney and ordering in Chinese. Mr Mellor agreed that his uncle was quite capable of being the person who gave Phar Lap his name and not telling a soul thereafter. I related to him the scene in the film based on Tommy Woodcock’s account where “Mr Ping” quickly changed the name Far Lap to Phar Lap to give it seven letters. Harry Telford wanted the name to have seven letters because the past three Melbourne Cup winners all had seven letters in their name. Mr Mellor said that that was his Uncle Aubrey to a tee. He loved playing with words and puzzles and was very quick – witted. Aubrey Ping’s father “John” (originally Yong) had arrived from China from the port of Amoy. If, as I now suspect, he was from a Zhuang speaking area, he may not have had to travel far at all. At around this time, according to Mr Mellor, three young Scottish women arrived together by ship and within a few weeks all three were married to Chinese men, one of whom was John Ping.

Finally, my main questions had been answered. Why did nobody know who had named Phar Lap? Because of Dr Ping’s unassuming nature, he had never told anyone. How did he know Thai language? He didn’t, he knew a similar, related language passed on to him by his father, John. Who named Phar Lap? A young medical student named Aubrey Moore Ping.