New light shed on Phar Lap mystery

by Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson. Allen & Unwin, 236pp, $59.95.

January 16, 2007

The question of who or what killed Phar Lap has been a great mystery for nearly 70 years. Theories at the time of his death in California -- only weeks after he won a valuable race in Mexico in April 1932 -- and in the decades since, have ranged from the outlandish to the plausible, including an underworld or anti-racing lobby hit, deliberate or accidental arsenic poisoning, and severe colic.

It has even been said that Phar Lap's handlers should have been able to save the horse.

It is difficult to see how a new book about Phar Lap -- whose life has been examined in minute detail many times -- could come up with a fresh angle, but Armstrong and Thompson manage this by enlisting the veterinary opinions of experts, interviewing the few people still alive who remember the horse, and collecting and analysing reports from various sources, from the 1930s to modern times.

The New Zealand-bred Phar Lap was a racing machine -- and he was treated as such. He was owned and raced in Australia, but it was undoubtedly greed and the ego of his American part- owner David Davis that meant he travelled half-way across the world to race in North America.

Authors Armstrong and Thompson reveal that Bill Nielsen, the vet who travelled from Australia to North America with Phar Lap, was closest to the real cause of the horse's death with his post-mortem examination finding of "acute gastric enteritis brought about ... by some toxic substance".

The authors commissioned the opinions of specialist veterinarians who studied eyewitness accounts and autopsy reports -- published in this book -- and came to the conclusion that the great horse died of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis (also known as Anterior enteritis).

The disease had not been discovered in 1932, and Phar Lap did not have a chance. It is of bacterial origin and kills horses quickly, and even today close to 70 per cent of horses who are treated for it die. Stress makes a horse more susceptible than normal to bacterial infections, as does a change of weather and environment, travel, and hard racing.

Phar Lap experienced all of those factors -- and a foot injury on an unfamiliar dirt track -- before his death. Nothing that anybody could have done would have saved Phar Lap from an agonising death, in the arms of his best mate Tommy Woodcock.

The authors also reveal their belief that the attempted shooting of the horse before the 1930 Melbourne Cup might have been a set-up by the Herald, a local newspaper.

After Phar Lap's demise, Australia and New Zealand went into mourning. He was the hero of the Depression era, a shining hope when there was little else but poverty and desperation among the masses.

Armstrong and Thompson take readers back to the era, and tell the horse's story in a way that even those who are not the slightest bit interested in racing will find compelling.

Typically of an Australian viewpoint, it is interesting to read that one of Phar Lap's great rivals, his half-brother Nightmarch, is often referred to as "the Kiwi".