Historical detective work has delivered a stunning result. Evidence strongly suggests the long-lost Melbourne Cup won by Phar Lap in 1930 is still intact – and has been pressed into service as the trophy for two later Cup races. Neil Clarkson reports.
What became of Phar Lap’s 1930 Melbourne Cup? It has been one of the enduring mysteries in the proud history of the great race.
As celebrations marking this year’s 150th running of the race at Flemington unfold, it is the Timaru-born racing legend that is front-and-centre in celebrations.
His skeleton has even crossed the Tasman from Wellington’s Te Papa Museum to join his mounted hide on display at Melbourne Museum, in a special four-and-a-half-month exhibition expected to attract 350,000 visitors.
Now, a remarkable piece of historical detective work by Dr Andrew Lemon has 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 has not emerged from a dusty attic or been found in 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.
How did Dr Lemon, an independent historian, manage to trace the trophy back to 1930?
Dr Lemon, whose third volume of The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing has just been released, began his research into Phar Lap’s cup in earnest three years ago, when he helped prove that an engraved gold trophy held by a New South Wales car dealer, and purported to be Phar Lap’s missing prize, was a forgery.
It has been a journey in which Dr Lemon used all his skills as a historian to put together, piece by piece, a puzzle to deliver a compelling argument that Lady Renouf’s rose vase is, indeed, Phar Lap’s cup.
“I would put the likelihood at more than 90 per cent,” Dr Lemon told Horsetalk. “I’m a historian, not a journalist, but the circumstantial evidence is very strong.”
Dr Lemon has extensively researched records, some of which categorically confirm parts of the cup’s history and others which come tantalisingly close to proving beyond doubt that the cup is the real deal.
While that final piece of evidence remains elusive, there can be no doubting the quality of his research and the strength of his findings.
So compelling is the case that Lady Renouf’s cup will at various times be on display during Victoria’s Spring Racing Carnival in the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup early in November.
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.
Dr Lemon had noted an interesting curiosity 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.”
Victoria Racing Club records confirm that.
However, it transpires that the 1953 Melbourne Cup was clearly not a product of the 1950s. It was bigger than the cups of the 1950s by a significant amount – by some 150 to 200 grams.
Too big? That pointed to the possibility that the 1953 Melbourne Cup was also recycled – and at least 23 years old when Wodalla stormed to the win.
Dr Lemon is helped by the fact that not all Melbourne Cups are identical. Those made between 1919 and 1930 – the year Phar Lap won it – were all considerably heavier than the cups which have been manufactured since.
“They are not identical,” Dr Lemon says of the 12 heavier cups, from the era when the distinctive three-handled design came to the fore.
“They all look like what you think of with the Melbourne Cup, but when you get into the details there are differences.”
Dr Lemon was put on to the records of the original goldsmith who made the cups by the maker’s grandson, the material being held in the archives of the University of Melbourne.
The records of Melbourne goldsmith James Steeth gave the weight of the 1930 cup, but not all the dimensions.
Steeth and his son, Maurice, were responsible for making all Melbourne Cups from 1919 to 1970, and their apprentice, Lucky Rocca, continued their work. That meant only three goldsmiths were responsible for the manufacture of the cups over an 80-year period.
Such research got Dr Lemon only so far, but key questions remained. Lady Renouf’s cup was unquestionably a Melbourne Cup – it was won in that capacity in 1980 and in 1953. But was it also a Melbourne Cup from the 1919 to 1930 era?
Dr Lemon has no doubts. The cup meets every description, is the correct weight, and even carries the mark of W.M. Drummond and Co, the Melbourne-based jewellers who effectively acted as the middle man between the goldsmiths and the Victoria Racing Club.
Unfortunately, Australia did not use the British hallmarks system, which would have seen marks stamped into the cup which would have identified the date of manufacture – and prove once and for all it was Phar Lap’s Cup.
It was highly unlikely the cup could have been a replica, he says. He has never found any records to indicate such a cup was ever made.
“So, if it was made before 1931, whose cup could be it be?” he asks, in outlining the path taken in his research.
“That turned out to be a bit of a detective story in itself.”
Accounting for the 12 cups was no easy task.
He applied two strategies. Firstly, what cups could he actually locate and therefore eliminate? Second, for those he could not locate, were there reliable sightings of them on record after 1953?
If so, he could safely eliminate them as they could not be Lady Renouf’s Cup – which was by that time taking pride of place in the home of the 1953 winner.
In the end, question marks hung over four cups – 1921, 1922, 1925 and 1926.
The 1926 cup was won by Spearfelt. The cup’s owner died in 1972 and left the trophy to his niece, Dr Lemon explains. “It has turned out that when he died the cup had disappeared. His family believe he still had it in 1953.”
He therefore considers it highly doubtful this could be the cup in Lady Renouf’s possession.
The goldsmith’s records studied by Dr Lemon revealed the measurements and weights of the 1921 and 1922 cups. “They are both too light to be the cup that Lady Renouf has,” he says.
That leaves the 1925 cup, won by Windbag, which was stolen from its owner prior to 1953. However, pictures of the cup show it to have distinctive features which rule it out as Lady Renouf’s Cup.
That left only Phar Lap’s 1930 cup.
The evidence was mounting.
“The next part of the detective work was tracing what happened to Phar Lap’s cup,” Dr Lemon says.
The cup was in the possession of trainer Harry Telford, but what did he do with it?
“We do know that Telford owned that trophy and did dispose of it when he was hard up.”
Telford actually owned three gold racing trophies, among them Phar Lap’s Cup.
Speculation surrounds the fate of the trophies after they were sold, including the suggestion they were melted down, but Dr Lemon says there is no evidence of that.
It was, Dr Lemon points out, more profitable to the parties involved to keep the cup, rebadge it, and sell it to the Victoria Racing Club, rather than manufacture a new cup from scratch.
“We know it was done on more than one occasion in the 1950s.”
Three to four cups, in various eras, were recycled, he said.
Dr Lemon says there was no collectibles market for the trophies in the 1950s and the Victoria Racing Club could have bought the recycled trophy for the value of the gold.
And, in the case of the 1953 cup, racing club records prove categorically that the Victoria Racing Club did, in fact, buy a second-hand cup that year from W.M. Drummond and Co. for £440 – coming in £110 under budget.
“They were trying to save money when the price of gold was going up.”
Not only that, but there is no record of Seeth making a Melbourne Cup that year.
It is now a matter of record that the 1980 cup in the possession of Lady Renouf was the recycled 1953 Melbourne Cup.
Dr Lemon has also shown that the 1953 Cup was, in fact, a recycled cup from 1919 to 1930.
Through a process of elimination, the evidence unearthed by Dr Lemon is compelling that the cup owned by Lady Renouf is Phar Lap’s cup.
So, how does Lady Renouf’s cup compare with photographs of Phar Lap’s trophy?
Dr Lemon says several photographs exist of Phar Lap’s cup, among them newspaper pictures at the time of its presentation.
However, the best image is a studio photograph taken of Telford’s three gold cups, now held by the Melbourne Museum.
Dr Lemon suspects Telford commissioned the photograph before he sold them, so he would have some memento to keep.
“That is by far the clearest photo,” he says. “The comparison is very, very strong.”
Dr Lemon said he had some niggling doubts about the size of some of the components, but only so much detail could be extracted from a photograph and there was distortion – however minor – of the camera lens to account for.
“[That said], it is a very, very strong resemblance.”
What of the weight?
Steeth’s records show Phar Lap’s Cup weighed 35 troy ounces (1088 grams). The cup in Lady Renouf’s possession weighs 1045 grams – a weight considered spot on for Phar Lap’s cup, given two lots of engraving, from 1930 and 1952, have been polished off the cup.
Dr Lemon’s remarkable probe has revealed what is almost certainly the startling the truth – the Melbourne Cup held by Lady Renouf is Phar Lap’s Cup – a trophy that is nothing short of an Australian national treasure and potentially worth up to $A1 million.
The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but not one piece of evidence proves with complete certainty it is Phar Lap’s cup.
Dr Lemon is not sure evidence will ever emerge to prove the case beyond a shadow of doubt.
Perhaps a document might emerge showing that W.M. Drummond and Co. had purchased the cup from Telford, ultimately to sell it on to the Victoria Racing Club. However, existing W.M. Drummond records from the 1950s are not precise, he says.
Perhaps the Telford family may uncover a record showing where and how he sold the cup.
Phar Lap’s life was one of drama and intrigue, and Andrew Lemon has played the central part in a detective story worthy of a Dick Francis novel – a page-turner with twists and turns aplenty, but in which the final page cannot yet be written.
Dr Lemon knows how the story should end, but he is a historian, not a novelist, and can deal only in the facts.
“If there is another story, another explanation, I can’t quite think of one.”
Article first published on Horsetalk.co.nz in October, 2010.