Anatomy expert backs call over Phar Lap's bones

August 22, 2009

by Neil Clarkson

This overlaid image highlights the poor posture of Phar Lap's skeleton, as discussed here.

Phar Lap at the Melbourne Museum.

A retired teacher of veterinary anatomy at Massey University has backed the call of a horse enthusiast critical of Phar Lap's skeleton, saying it was time something was done about the champion's bones.

Dr Alex Davies, who taught at Massey's veterinary school for more than 30 years, said there was no question Phar Lap's skeleton was badly mounted.

He saw the skeleton shortly after Te Papa opened in Wellington and said its shortcomings were plain.

Dr Davies contacted the museum to suggest that something should be done, and even met a senior staff member to discuss possible options. "We met there and had a look around the horse," he recalled.

He said the mounting of Phar Lap may have been state of the art at the time, in the late 1930s, but it did not stand scrutiny today.

He agreed with the view of self-confessed Phar Lap fan Robin Marshall, of Rangiora, that the thoroughbred that chalked up 37 wins from 51 starts - including 14 in a row - deserved better.

Dr Davies said Phar Lap's skeleton did not have proper spacing between the vertebrae. "They are jammed together," he said. It had probably shortchanged the 1930 Melbourne Cup winner by about 10 centimetres in length, he believed. Each disk would normally be roughly a fifth of the width of the accompanying vetebrae.

The line of his back was also incorrect, as was the placing of his legs. "No horse stands like that."

The mounting of the head and neck were also poor, something which he acknowledged was hard to get right in the display of animal skeletons.

Dr Davies qualified as a veterinarian in Queensland in 1962 and worked in Australia and New Zealand. He then travelled to Edinburgh, where he obtained a PhD in veterinary anatomy.

He returned to New Zealand where he taught anatomy at Massey for 33 years, and still lives in Palmerston North.

Dr Davies said his vision for Phar Lap, which he discussed with Te Papa at time, was mounting him in full flight, matching the position as he stormed to his Melbourne Cup win.

Phar Lap in 1930. Dr Alex Davies favours having Phar Lap's skeleton mounted in a more dynamic pose.
"It looks so dramatic," he said, adding that it would help show the dominating size of the 17.1-hand thoroughbred.

He contrasted Phar Lap's bones with the mounting of his hide in Melbourne Museum.

"He is magnificent. It's the most magnificent piece of taxidermy I have seen. He's big, red, and so real. The head, the eyes, the ears are so life-like.

"He was done by the best people at the time, who were in New York."

Dr Davies said the world was full of badly mounted skeletons. "It would be nice if Phar Lap wasn't one of them." Even veterinary textbooks cannot always be trusted to accurately portray a skeleton in a natural position, he said.

He said he pondered at the time he visited Te Papa whether the thoroughbred industry would be prepared to contribute to Phar Lap's remounting, but he thought plans for a thoroughbred museum in Auckland would probably be the main draw on funds at the time.

Dr Davies retired from Massey, where he was an associate professor in the Institute for Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, about two and half years ago. He has since been working in Northern Queensland, helping establish a new veterinary school at James Cook University, in Townsville.

Robin Marshall with the 1930s image of Phar Lap and some of her books on the champion thoroughbred.
Chris Paulin, projects manager for the museum's natural environment team, described the chances of Phar Lap's bones being re-mounted in a more dynamic pose as "fairly unlikely".

He said the skeleton image used by Marshall in her overlay had been distorted by a wide-angle lens that made Phar Lap appear shorter than he actually was. His own efforts indicated Phar Lap might be "a few inches" short. "It's slightly short, but not much."

Mr Paulin stuck to his position - that Phar Lap was mounted in the style of 1930s taxidermy and was more of a historical exhibit than an anatomical one.

"You have to decide what is the point of the exhibit."

He said the original mahagony case in which the skeleton first resided in the old Dominion Museum was not able to be saved for relocation to Te Papa.

He likened changing Phar Lap to scraping paint off an old painting and re-doing it with a more modern interpretation.

The skeleton as it is tells part of the Phar Lap story, he said, referring to the public fundraising that brought in enough cash to pay for the mounting.

Phar Lap at Agua Caliente in 1932.
Mr Paulin was referring to the efforts of racing writer S. V. McEwen, who was then editor of the New Zealand Referee. He had 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.

Marshall said she could not be persuaded that Phar Lap was better off staying in his current unrealistic pose, and said Dr Davies' view supported her own that the horse was substantially short.

"The great majority of those who gave money for Phar Lap's mounting would have been horse enthusiasts, many of them with dreams of breeding their own Phar Lap."

Their generosity had allowed generations to view Phar Lap's skeleton, she said.

"But most would have been knowledgeable horse people. They're not around today but, if they were, I imagine they would be the first to support re-mounting Phar Lap to portray him as the true champion he was."

Phar Lap's 1930 Melbourne Cup