Phar Lap’s sudden death in 1932 after a successful racing career baffled his owners, stunned the world and saddened racing fans.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the infection was formally identified and in 2000 equine specialists concluded that he died of duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, an acute bacterial gastroenteritis.
In 2006, Australian Synchrotron Research Scientists offered that Phar Lap probably died from a large single dose of arsenic given to him just hours before he died. This supports the theory that American gangsters organized the killing fearing that this racing superstar would inflict big losses on their illegal bookmakers. No proof supports this theory.
Another vet from Sydney, Percy Sykes does not believe that poisoning caused Phar Lap’s death. “In those days arsenic was quite a common tonic, usually given in the form of a solution.” (Fowler’s Solution*) and suggests that this was the cause of the high levels found in his body. “It was so common that I’d reckon 90 per cent of the horses had arsenic in their system.”
In December 2007, Phar Lap’s mane was tested so see if repeated doses of arsenic were the cause of accidental death. In June of 2008, the Melbourne Museum released forensic investigation results conducted by Dr. Ivan Kempson, University of South Australia, and Dermot Henry, Natural Science Collections at Museum Victoria. Six mane hairs were analyzed with an Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratories near Chicago, USA to detect arsenic samples. Thanks to this analysis the specific difference “between arsenic which had entered the hair cells via the blood and arsenic, which had infused the hair cells by the taxidermy process when he was stuffed and mounted at the museum.”
They concluded that 30 to 40 hours before Phar Lap died he had been given a massive dose of arsenic. Sadly, to this day, while we finally know what caused his death we may never know who caused his death.
Phar Lap was called the “Wonder Horse”, “Red Terror” and “Bobby” and at the time of his death he was the third highest stakes winner in the world. Australians have never forgotten their “Australian Wonder Horse.” His heart was donated to the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra and his skeleton to the New Zealand National Museum in Wellington. A New York City taxidermist stuffed his hide and it was placed in the Australian Gallery at the Melbourne Museum. In September 2010, the hide and skeleton were put on display at the Melbourne Museum as part of the celebrations for the 150th running of the 2010 Melbourne Cup.
Did You Know?
• Phar Lap is a national icon in Australia and New Zealand. In 1978 he was honoured on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post and he features in the Australian Citizenship test.
• A life size bronze statue of Phar Lap stands near his birthplace of Timaru, New Zealand.
• His heart, on display at the National Museum at Canberra, is the most popular exhibition. Most horse hearts weigh about 3.2kg but Phar Lap’s heart weighed 6.2kg (13.6 lbs) and Secretariat’s weighed 22 lbs.
• Phar Lap is ranked number 22 in the Top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th Century.
• Phar Lap is featured in the 1983 film called Phar Lap and in a song called Phar Lap-Farewell To You.
*Fowler’s solution is a solution containing potassium arsenite that once was prescribed as a remedy or a tonic. A Dr. Fowler of Stafford, England proposed its use in 1786 and it was prescribed in the United States until the late 1950s for a range of ailments including malaria, chorea, and syphilis. Fowler’s solution is dangerous and side effects include: cirrhosis of the liver, idiopathic portal hypertension, urinary bladder cancer, skin cancers.