Field of Science

Three-Quarters of a Century, and We Still Care about a Dead Horse

Phar Lap at the Flemington race track in 1930. Photo from Wikipedia.

Overheard on the news yesterday evening - 76 years after he died in 1932, forensic investigations have fairly conclusively demonstrated that Phar Lap died of arsenic poisoning. The presence of elevated levels of arsenic in hair taken from the mane of Phar Lap's mounted hide was first reported back in 2006 but as the exact procedure that had been used to preserve his skin was unknown, it was uncertain whether the arsenic had been in his system before death or whether it had been added as part of the preservation process. Comparison with other preserved animals has allowed researchers from South Australia and Victoria to distinguish between pre-mortem and post-mortem doses of arsenic, and revealed that Phar Lap had ingested a large dose of arsenic in the last 30 to 40 hours before his death.

For those of you who are not from Australasia and may be wondering who exactly Phar Lap was, Phar Lap was a racehorse born in Timaru in New Zealand in 1926. He was bought by a Sydney trainer and taken over to Australia - though the colt appeared in such poor health on arrival that the invester who had ponied (hah hah) up the money for him refused to pay for his training and the trainer was forced to offer to train him for free, his only compensation being a share in any of the horse's winnings. Despite this unpromising start, Phar Lap ended becoming one of the most successful horses in Australia, winning 37 of the 51 races he was entered in, and becoming the only horse ever to start as the favourite to win in three successive Melbourne Cups (for the record, he came second in the first of these, won the second, and eighth in the third though he won every other race he was entered in that year). Such was the degree of Phar Lap's success that an assassination attempt was actually made against him in 1930. In 1932, Phar Lap was taken to America to race in the Agua Caliente Handicap, America's richest race. Despite the unfamiliar conditions and a hoof injury a few weeks before the race on March 20th, Phar Lap (dubbed the 'Red Terror' by the Americans) won by three lengths. In little more than a fortnight, he was dead.

Needless to say, many have regarded the sudden death of the celebrated racehorse with suspicion. An autopsy after his death was inconclusive. Many suspected that he had been poisoned by American interests, a rumour that has persisted ever since. Others have suggested that he died of a rapidly developing bacterial infection. It now seems clear that he did die of arsenic poisoning, but it should be immediately added that this does not prove foul play. Racehorses at the time were often given tonics containing ingredients that seem incredible today, such as arsenic or strychnine, and records show that Phar Lap was no exception. It has also been suggested that arsenic compounds used in treating nearby orchards against insects could have been blown onto the grass Phar Lap was pastured on. The horse's death could well have been accidental.

Meanwhile, Phar Lap became more confirmed as an Australian and New Zealand icon. Like many icons, the reverence accorded probably seems illogical to one not raised with it - after all, who would believe that the death of a horse 76 years ago would be regarded as news? Mind you, the winning of an American race by an Australasian horse was then a remarkable achievement, perhaps surpassed in significance only by the Australian team winning the America's Cup yachting tournament in 1983 and becoming the first non-American team to take the Cup since its inauguration 132 years previously. The position of Phar Lap in Australasian popular culture has also been reinforced by the nature of his history - foaled in New Zealand, rose to success in Australia - which has led to his becoming a focus of the trans-Tasman rivalry, like Crowded House and the pavlova, as both sides stake their claims. Indeed, perhaps no better symbol of this rivalry can be seen than the fate of Phar Lap's remains - while his hide is on display in Melbourne and his heart is in Canberra, his skeleton is one of the most popular exhibits at Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand.


  1. Descendants?

    I saw a claim recently that three out of four thoroughbreds today are descended from one 17th-century winner.

  2. Phar Lap was gelded before he was ever raced, so no chance of any direct descendants.

    The three "founding fathers" of the thoroughbred breed were the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. Wikipedia cites a genetic study that apparently found that 95% of all modern male thoroughbreds are direct descendants of the Darley Arabian, but this of course may not be reflected in the female line.


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