Legendary Phar Lap died 80 years ago today

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Phar Lap, with Jimmy Pike and Tommy Woodcock in 1930. Museum Victoria
Phar Lap, with Jimmy Pike and Tommy Woodcock in 1930. Museum Victoria

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the mighty racehorse Phar Lap – a death that still sparks speculation and debate among fans of the New Zealand-born thoroughbred.

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 Agua Caliente Cup, which was the richest race in North America at the time.

Questions surrounding his death have swirled ever since.

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

He had been shipped across the Pacific from Australia for the campaign, and his training had been hampered by a hoof injury.

Phar Lap looked no better than his competitors until he pushed into top gear and his massive stride demolished the field.

In 2008, 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 is never far from the news. His skeleton travelled to Australia in 2010 and was put on display at the Melbourne Museum alongside his mounted hide to mark the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cup – a race which Phar Lap won in 1930.

The finishing touches go on Phar Lap's skeleton
The finishing touches go on Phar Lap's skeleton.

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.

Efforts to get it to Melbourne for the 150 anniversary proved fruitless, as the museum now considers the preserved heart tissue too delicate to travel.

Phar Lap’s skeleton returned to New Zealand early last year and New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, announced last October it planned to re-articulate his skeleton, correcting some errors in his mounting in the process.

The new-look Phar Lap, now striking the same pose as his mounted hide, went on display in mid-March.

The fate of Phar Lap’s Melbourne Cup has long been a mystery, but a remarkable piece of historical detective work by Dr Andrew Lemon, reported in 2010, all but completed the puzzle and most likely identified the gold cup the so-called Red Terror of the Antipodes won 80 years ago.

The historic cup did not emerged from a dusty attic or from some long-forgotten vault. The 1930 Melbourne Cup, it seems, resides in the Toorak, Melbourne, home of Australian socialite Lady Susan Renouf, having been pressed into use as a vase.

Lady Renouf’s cup was the spoils of victory in the 1980 Melbourne Cup. She was then Susan Sangster, wife of well-known English thoroughbred owner and breeder Robert Sangster, whose stallion, Beldale Ball, claimed the cup victory.

Phar Lap's Melbourne Cup presentation.
Phar Lap's Melbourne Cup presentation.

Dr Lemon had noted an interesting curiousity about the 1980 Melbourne Cup. It was not like other Melbourne Cups of the era.

“After 1930, the Melbourne Cups that were made right up to this year were all similar in terms of dimensions and the amount of gold in them,” he explains.

It was clear that Lady Renouf’s heavier cup did not belong in the 1980s.

The reason for that has been established beyond doubt: the 1980 cup was actually the recycled 1953 Melbourne Cup, which was won by Wodalla.

“There is no doubt about that at all,” Dr Lemon explains. “The people involved in doing that are alive and well. We established that the 1980 cup was definitely the 1953 cup.”

Research, involving a process of elimination and based on the records of goldsmiths who made the cups of Phar Lap’s era, produced a compelling case that the cup owned by Lady Renouf is Phar Lap’s cup.

» Phar Lap’s Cup

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