Mighty Phar Lap’s skeletal makeover is complete

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Robert Clendon and Dr Alex Davies discuss the positioning of Phar Lap's left forelimb and scapula. © Kate Whitley, Te Papa

Each and every one of Phar Lap’s bones is a national treasure, and now they truly reflect the racing legend for the mighty horse he was.

New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa will on Saturday put the 1930 Melbourne Cup winner back on display in Wellington, having spend months re-articulating his skeleton.

For nearly 80 years, the bones of the South Canterbury-born racing legend have failed to do him justice.

His bones were originally arranged in 1938, but a series of errors meant the skeleton failed to match the true stature of the long-striding champion.

His vertebrae were mounted too close together, significantly shortening his back. His legs appeared sickle-hocked and, to make matters worse, metal fatigue had seen his proud head gradually droop over the decades.

The experts who painstakingly restored his skeletal pride have re-articulated him in the same stance as his magnificently mounted hide, which is on display at the Melbourne Museum.

A life-size photograph of the hide will form the backdrop for the new display of Phar Lap’s skeleton.

The rebuild of Phar Lap was done in consultation with Dr Alex Davies, a retired teacher of veterinary anatomy at Massey university, who had publicly voiced his dissatisfaction with Phar Lap’s previous stance.

Phar Lap’s skeleton travelled to the Melbourne Museum in 2010 to be displayed alongside his hide to mark the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cup.

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

He received a simple makeover for the trip, but, alongside his hide, his shortcomings were even more apparent.

Last October, Te Papa announced its plans to re-articulate the skeleton.

Te Papa had earlier defended the exhibit as an example of 1930s skeleton mounting, but Dr Davies noted at the time that museums around the world were full of old, poorly articulated skeletons.

Horsetalk owner Robin Marshall, who outlined her own objections to Phar Lap’s original stance in a 2009 feature, said at the time: “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.”

Colin Miskelly, in announcing the revamp last year on Te Papa’s blog, said staff had long debated whether it was more important to maintain the 1938 articulation as a historic exhibit, or whether to re-articulate the skeleton in a more anatomically correct posture.

Phar Lap at the Melbourne Museum.
Phar Lap at the Melbourne Museum. © Benjamin Healley

“The latter argument has finally been accepted!” he wrote.

Miskelly said the 1938 articulation was done by Dominion Museum taxidermist Charles Lindsay and osteologist E.H. Gibson of the Otago Medical School.

“Given that neither man was an expert in equine anatomy, they did a remarkable job,” he said.

“But there are a series of minor errors that collectively mean that the skeleton does not quite match the proud physique of Phar Lap in his prime.

“This was exacerbated by metal fatigue of the rod holding up the neck and skull, resulting in the skull drooping from its original position.”

Miskelly acknowledged that, displayed alongside the magnificently mounted hide for the first time, it was clear that the skeleton was overdue for a makeover.

Phar Lap was a Depression era hero on both sides of the Tasman, winning 37 of the 51 races he entered, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

He was foaled at Seadown, near Timaru, in 1926 and was bought by Sydney-based American businessman David J. Davis in 1928.

He dominated racing fields in Australia before heading across the Pacific for a much-anticipated American race campaign.

Despite a foot problem, Phar Lap stormed home in his first start to claim the richest race on North American soil in 1932. A fortnight later he died in mysterious circumstances.

The cause of his death is still debated today. There are suspicions the champion was poisoned, either deliberately by mobster connections or possibly through an accidental overdose arsenicsic in a racing tonic.

After his death, Phar Lap’s enormous heart, which weighs 6.2 kilograms, was given to what is now the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra. It is now considered very fragile and is unlikely to ever leave the museum.

Dr Alex Davies checks the positioning of Phar Lap's thoracic vertebrae. © Kate Whitley, Te Papa

His hide went to Melbourne Museum, where its mounting even today is considered a remarkable example of the taxidermist’s art.

Phar Lap’s bones were offered to New Zealand.

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.

A 1938 newspaper clipping showing the original Phar Lap articulation. E.H. Gibson on left, Charles Lindsay on right. © Te Papa

Horsetalk’s Marshall, a Phar Lap fan and horse lover, said she could not wait to get to Wellington to see Phar Lap standing proud.

“To be honest, I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.

“I’m sure all horse lovers will be pleased with the outcome.

“I think all credit must go to Te Papa. The museum had a long-held view that, even though his stance was poor, Phar Lap was a historic exhibit and should be left untouched.

“They changed that view last year and then got on and did something about it.

“It is remarkable that, 80 years after his death, Phar Lap remains in the news so often. I guess it’s a reflection on what a remarkable champion he was.”

The finishing touches go on Phar Lap's skeleton

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