Bone of contention over Phar Lap’s skeleton

Overlaid: Marshall's overlaid image highlights the poor posture of Phar Lap's skeleton - head bowed and legs positioned awkwardly. It also raises the possibility that Phar Lap is short in the back, possibly due to not enough space between the vertabrae. The skeleton is sized to line up with Phar Lap's back at his withers and at his front knee joints.
Overlaid: Marshall’s overlaid image highlights the poor posture of Phar Lap’s skeleton – head bowed and legs positioned awkwardly. It also raises the possibility that Phar Lap is short in the back, possibly due to not enough space between the vertabrae. The skeleton is sized to line up with Phar Lap’s back at his withers and at his front knee joints.

Could the bones of the legendary racehorse, Phar Lap, be due for a shakeup?

Self-confessed Phar Lap fan Robin Marshall flew to Wellington recently for her first visit to New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa.

Wandering through the floors of exhibits, she cast her eyes upon the skeleton of the 1930 Melbourne Cup winner for the first time.

Marshall, who runs the horse news website, Horsetalk.co.nz, carefully eyed up the bones of the South Canterbury-born horse, which are sealed in a glass cabinet.

“Phar Lap was a big thoroughbred,” she says of the horse, born in 1926. “He stood at 17.1 hands. At that height he would have stood over a lot of ground.

“The back and legs of Phar Lap’s skeleton just didn’t look right to me,” Marshall says. “He looked too short in the back, and his hind legs looked tucked under … they seemed to me to be placed too close to his front legs.”

Her curiousity was piqued further when she returned home and picked up a framed 1930s photograph of Phar Lap in her lounge.

The image shows Phar Lap in classic pose – the kind of image a horse owner is after to show off the best attributes of their animal. “He looked spot-on in the photograph, legs nicely posed and he is well proportioned.”

Marshall set off to do some computer detective work. She scanned the photograph of Phar Lap and then went to the Te Papa website and downloaded the image of Phar Lap’s skeleton.

She created a transparent background on the skeleton image and overlaid it on the photograph, using horse anatomy books to get the sizing as close as possible.

The results, she believes, confirm her suspicions. Phar Lap’s skeleton is not exactly striking the elegant pose one would expect from one of the world’s best-known racehorses.

“I think the picture speaks for itself. Phar Lap is well and truly tucked under himself.

Standing proud: Phar Lap strikes a classic racehorse pose in this image from the early 1930s.
Standing proud: Phar Lap strikes a classic racehorse pose in this image from the early 1930s. Dem bones: A Te Papa image of Phar Lap's skeleton. Dem bones: A Te Papa image of Phar Lap’s skeleton.

“If he had been my horse, I’d have wanted him more stretched out, showing off his dominating size,” she said of the thoroughbred who won 37 of his 51 races.

“They could do a lot better with his neck and head, and front legs, too. He’s not exactly standing tall and proud.”

She is curious, too, about the way the overlaid skeleton appears shorter than the historical image of Phar Lap.

Marshall sought overseas veterinary advice, referring the overlaid image to Colorado University’s Dr Kevin Haussler, a veterinarian and qualified chiropractor who has a doctorate from the University of California, Davis, in equine spinal anatomy.

Dr Haussler stresses that no concrete conclusions can be drawn without proper investigation of the skeleton, and a check for possible paralax error in the skeleton image.

Marshall, however, raises an interesting question, Dr Haussler says.

She had done a “good job” of aligning the skeleton with the photograph. If the skeleton is, indeed, short, the most likely cause was putting too little space between the vertebrae – the area that would normally be occupied by disks.

“From the photo it looks like Phar Lap had an extremely long back and I have to assume that it represents his true conformation since the picture was taken before the invention of Photoshop edits,” Dr Haussler says.

“The only anatomic explanation that I can suggest is that the process of removing intervertebral disks shortened the axial skeleton and the obvious incorrect anatomical positioning of limbs, head and neck, and pelvis associated with poor mounting makes the skeleton not match the photo.”

Phar Lap’s less-than-dignified pose is not exactly news to Te Papa.

“He was mounted in the style of taxidermy in the 1930s,” says Chris Paulin, projects manager for the museum’s natural environment team.

Phar Lap fan: Robin Marshall with the 1930s image of Phar Lap and her books on the champion thoroughbred.
Phar Lap fan: Robin Marshall with the 1930s image of Phar Lap and some of her books on the champion thoroughbred.

“It’s a historical stance. It’s more a fashion thing, the way people thought skeletons should be mounted at the time.

“Over the years people have suggested he should be remounted into a more accurate racing posture.

“He is more of an historical item than a natural history specimen,” he says.

Paulin is unaware of any plans to remount Phar Lap’s bones, but had no doubt a modern interpretation would have Phar Lap in a far more dynamic pose.

Marshall is disappointed at the news that Phar Lap won’t be standing proud any time soon.

“He was a Depression-era hero. One of the best-known racehorses of all time. And I can understand the historical argument. But as a long-time fan of the horse, I’d personally rather see him standing tall than look upon him as an example of 1930s taxidermy.

“He’s a champion. He should look like one.”

Marshall’s childhood imagination was captured by the story of Phar Lap and her horse book collection includes half a dozen volumes on the thoroughbred who was nicknamed the Red Terror of the Antipodes.

She even has a living connection to the champion. The great great grandfather of Marshall’s 30-year-old horse, Bill, is Night Raid, the stallion who fathered Phar Lap.

Phar Lap died in mysterious circumstances during a race campaign in the United States on April 5, 1932, not long after winning his first start there – the richest race in North America at the time. Questions surrounding his death have swirled ever since.

Living connection: Robin Marshall with her 30-year-old horse, Bill. Bill's great great grandfather is Night Raid, the stallion who fathered Phar Lap.
Living connection: Robin Marshall with her 30-year-old horse, Bill. Bill’s great great grandfather is Night Raid, the stallion who fathered Phar Lap.

There are suspicions the champion was poisoned, either deliberately by mobster connections or possibly through an accidental overdose of arsensic in a racing tonic.

As recently as June last year, researchers in Australia announced results from the testing of six hairs from Phar Lap’s hide which indicated the horse had ingested a large dose of arsenic in the 40 hours before his death.

Phar Lap’s unusually large heart, which weighs 6.2 kilograms, is on display in the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra. It is the object visitors to the museum request to see most often.

His mounted hide is on display at the Melbourne Museum, where Marshall notes the horse strikes a far more dignified pose. She noted that the first display case earmarked for Phar Lap’s Australian remains in 1933 was found to be too small, such was his size.

Despite being New Zealand-born, Phar Lap’s Australian remains are considered a national treasure. The horse was a Depression-era hero across the Tasman as he stormed home to win race after race.

Phar Lap’s bones were offered to New Zealand so that both countries could have some relic of the champion.

New Zealand, it seemed, was far less awestuck by the Phar Lap story. His unassembled bones were shipped to Wellington but lay in packing cases in the basement of the Dominion Museum for nearly five years.

Racing writer S. V. McEwen, who was then editor of the New Zealand Referee, asked about the bones and was told the museum did not have enough money to prepare the skeleton for display.

He opened an appeal in the Referee and within two weeks enough money had been subscribed to allow the bones to be articulated. They were put on display in 1938.

Te Papa’s Paulin says Phar Lap’s bones were mounted by Dominion Museum staff. He believes some assistance was provided by a taxidermist from Dunedin’s museum.

Australian tribute: The bronze of Phar Lap at Melbourne's Flemington racecourse.
Australian tribute: The bronze of Phar Lap at Melbourne’s Flemington racecourse.

Phar Lap occupied a glass and mahogany case at the Dominion Museum until it closed in the early 90s. Phar Lap’s bones were partly dismantled and taken to Trentham Racecourse where they were reassembled for temporary display in a cabinet specially built for the purpose.

A new glass cabinet was erected at Te Papa after the $300 million building’s completion and Phar Lap’s skeleton was, again, partly dismantled for the return journey to central Wellington, where he now remains.

The two reassemblies since the early 1990s have seen Phar Lap retain his same pose, and all original mounts and struts were used, Paulin said.

“He is certainly very popular,” he says. “We know there is a certain number who come especially to see him.”

Wellington may have his bones, Melbourne his hide and Canberra his heart, but soon South Canterbury will have a life-size bronze memorial showing Phar Lap at full stride, with regular jockey Jim Pike in the saddle.

The Phar Lap Trust is currently raising money and is on track to unveil the bronze, by sculptor Joanne Sullivan-Gessler, on November 25.

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