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Phar Lap's Heart


On display

Phar Lap's Heart

Object information


Phar Lap was a late foal, born on 4 October 1926. He had been bred in New Zealand and sold for 160 pounds as Lot 41 at the annual Trentham Yearling Sales in 1927. Harry Telford, a down-on-his-luck Sydney trainer, had spotted the chestnut colt in the sale catalogue and thought that, with the horse's pedigree, it had the potential to become a success. He persuaded American businessman David J Davis to purchase the colt sight unseen. Upon first seeing his new horse, Davis is reported to have said simply, "Harry, I don't like the horse." Davis wanted nothing more to do with the ugly colt, who was gangly and had a face covered in warts. Davis and Telford came to an agreement, whereby Telford would cover the costs associated with the horse as part of a 3-year lease.

After an unpromising start Phar Lap's performance began to improve, and in September 1929 he won the Rosehill Guineas, followed by the AJC Derby. His most enduring victory was the 1930 Melbourne Cup, where he was the blaze of hope for a nation deep in economic depression. Over his short racing career, which began as a two-year old and ended with his death as a five-year old, Phar Lap had 51 starts for 37 wins, three seconds and two thirds. Thirty-six of his wins were from his last 41 starts. Some of his most notable wins included the AJC Derby (1929); Victoria Derby (1929); WS Cox Plate (twice - 1930 and 1931) ; Melbourne Cup (1930); and the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico on 20 March 1932.

Shortly after this last victory, Phar Lap succumbed to a mysterious illness that caused him to die in great pain on 5 April. An initial examination showed the horse's internal organs were highly inflamed and the idea of poisoning, whether accidental or otherwise, was considered.

The stable vet, Bill Nielson, removed the horse's organs on 7 April, and the heart was mounted and preserved. A post-mortem examination of some of the horse's internal organs was held on 9 April, and it was declared that "the death of the racehorse Phar Lap was caused by a colicky condition manifesting itself in the form of an acute inflamation (sic) of the stomach and intestines." Later in the report it was noted that "The factors responsible for the acute inflamation (sic) have not been determined and probably will never be determined on account of the incompleteness of the clinical data and post-mortem findings."

In the meantime, the heart was sent to Sydney University, where Dr Stewart McKay and Professor Welsh examined it. As part of the examination the heart was weighed, with the official weight being given as 14 pounds (6.35 kilograms). It was also during this examination that the triangular cut was made, to show the thickness of the heart's walls. At Dr McKay's suggestion, Harry Telford donated the heart to "the National Museum at Canberra in the charge of Sir Colin Mackenzie" [the Institute of Anatomy was formerly known as the National Museum of Zoology]. The heart was displayed for many years at the Institute, with various preserved animal hearts placed alongside it for comparison. In 1984, control for the collection of the Institute - including Phar Lap's heart - was passed to the National Museum of Australia.

Between 2006 and 2008, scientists used a synchrotron in Chicago to analyse a sample of hairs taken from Phar Lap's mane. Comparative samples were also analysed, and the findings indicate that some 35-40 hours prior to his death, Phar Lap ingested a massive dose of arsenic. Harry Telford's own tonic book indicates that arsenic was a key ingredient, as was common at the time. The most likely cause of Phar Lap's death, then, appears to have been an accidental overdose.

Physical description

Heart of the race horse Phar Lap. Phar Lap's heart weighs 6.35kg, which is significantly larger than an average horse heart of three to four kilograms. A triangular section has been removed. The heart is preserved as a 'wet specimen' submersed in a formalin solution, sealed inside a rectangular clear perspex container.

Educational significance

This is the preserved heart of the race horse Phar Lap, a champion racehorse in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is unusually large - 6.2 kg against the average 4 kg size of a horse's heart. A triangular section has been removed, which it is believed was taken for a biopsy. The heart is preserved as a 'wet specimen' submersed in a formalin solution, sealed inside a rectangular clear perspex container. Other parts of Phar Lap are held by other museums - his skeleton is at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and his hide is at Museum Victoria.

Phar Lap was bought in 1928 by Sydney trainer Harry Telford on behalf of an American-born businessman, David J Davis, and was raced in Australia and North America to brilliant success. Phar Lap became a legendary national hero regarded by many people as Australia's and New Zealand's greatest racehorse. Phar Lap's short career was at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many people were unemployed and struggling to cover the basic costs of living and to find positive aspects to their daily existence. Even to those who couldn't afford a wager, Phar Lap was a champion to admire, often described as though he had human qualities, like a noble warrior.

Phar Lap's race record was 37 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds for 51 starts, which included almost every major Australian race. Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup (1930), the AJC Derby (1929), the Victoria Derby (1929), the W S Cox Plate (1930 and 1931) and he also won the richest race in North America, the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico (1932), which was his last race.

For many years, the circumstances of Phar Lap's death in California were regarded as suspicious. An unidentified gunman had tried to shoot the horse in 1930, and many Australians believed he had been poisoned in America. This theory was revived in 2006 by American and Australian scientists. A sample of the horse's preserved skin was sent to a US laboratory and analysed by a synchrotron, which showed that there were large amounts of arsenic in the hair structure, probably ingested a day or two before his death. A range of theories have subsequently been proposed to explain the presence of arsenic, including the common use of small amounts of arsenic as a horse tonic.

Phar Lap's name comes from the Thai language, in which it means 'wink of the skies' or 'lightning'. However, he was called 'Bobby' by the stable boy who became his main attendant and close companion, Tommy Woodcock (1905-85), later a well-known horse trainer.

Horseracing has long been a popular sport in Australia and New Zealand. The first horseraces were recorded in the early days of European settlement and horseracing is now a multibillion dollar industry in both countries.

Physical description

On display at the National Museum of Australia.

Object information




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