Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Death of a Wonder Horse

by Deborah Blum

The name Phar Lap comes from an Asian word for lightning; a sky flash. A passing dazzle of light, a spark in the night.

And so he was, the big copper racehorse from Australia, his dazzling speed making him one of those unexpected beacons of hope during the Great Depression who, according to a report published in an international chemistry journal in April, was killed by a massive dose of arsenic.

Of course, no one who follows race horse history could be entirely surprised by that finding. For one thing, it built on preliminary results from 2006. But from the day Phar Lap died in California on April 5, 1932, rumors have circulated and suspicion simmered that he was killed by someone from the gambling syndicates who had invested in other horses.

After all, gamblers in Australia had earlier tried to shoot the big horse.

The Wonder Horse -- one of his many nicknames, along with the Red Terror -- was born in October 1926 in New Zealand and thought to have so little promise that he was purchased as a two-year-old by American businessman David J. Davis for about $130 (US). As the story goes, when the gangly youngster shambled into sight, the new owner was so horrified, he refused to pay to train him. The Australian trainer, Harry Telford, offered to train the colt for free in exchange for eventual part ownership of the horse.

Phar Lap won his first race a year later and, as they say, didn't look back. He'd matured into a beautiful, powerful chestnut with a cheerful disposition and a drive to win. Too much of a winner, some thought. On November 1, 1930, the day of the prestigous Melbourne Stakes, a car started following him on the way back from morning practice and shots -- apparently ordered by a rival owner -- were fired at the big horse. They missed, and no one was ever caught although a furious Davis offered a $100 reward, huge for the time. Phar Lap, though, remained unfazed. And won the race.

In fact, it was one of 14 straight victories that year, followed by 14 straight victories in 1931. In his four-year racing career, Phar Lap ran hard and often and fast. He won 37 of 51 races, and that would include his last.

Davis, by now enamoured of his bargain colt, decided to enter him in an international big prize race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, at a track near Tijuana, Mexico. The purse for the winner of that race would be more than $11,000 (comparable to about $100,000 today). Although Telford was reluctant, Phar Lap was shipped by boat to Mexico. In a hard-fought race, he once again triumphed in a flying finish, still watchable, in fact, in a YouTube video.

Three days later he was dying.

Davis had moved him to a private ranch near Menlo Park, California, while he negotiated for entrance into other lucrative private races. On that morning of April 5, 1932, one of the stablehands found the big horse convulsing in agony. Phar Lap died several hours later. Speculation of deliberate poisoning has followed his story ever since, although alternative theories have been offered -- from severe gastroenteritis to accidental poisoning from the use of pesticides on the ranch.

Phar Lap was such a sweet-natured horse that those who knew him mourned not only the loss of a champion athlete but the loss of a friend. Telford said, "A human being couldn't have had more sense. He was almost human, could do anything but talk ... I loved that horse."

The racehorse was such a hero -- and a martyr -- to fans in Australia and New Zealand that museums from both countries telegraphed to ask for the chance to display the horse. Davis, after consulting with Telford, decided to send Phar Lap's "great" heart to Australia's National Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. The skeleton went to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. And the hide was sent to the National Museum of Victoria, in Melbourne, where taxidermists labored for four months to create a life-like replica of the Wonder Horse, from his shining red coat to his tousled mane.

In the years since his death, songs have been written to the horse, movies been made about his life story. But it's that mane that eventually solved the mystery of what -- if not who -- killed Phar Lap. Australian researchers removed six hairs and then used a highly specialized x-ray microsope to bombard them with intense radiation, illuminating the chemical makeup of the hair. The analysis (done at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois) is so precise that it allows scientists to tell whether material was absorbed from the blood or introduced after death, such as through embalming processes.

In the case of Phar Lap, researchers were able to determine that arsenic had been metabolized: the horse had been given a massive dose of arsenic one to two days before he died. Those preliminary results were released a couple years ago. The final report, the official conclusion, was published in April under the title Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap.

A tidy, scientific way of describing a shameful episode and an example of epically bad sportsmanship. I'm glad that researchers in Australia were so determined to find some answers about the death of Phar Lap, even if it serves only to remind us of the realities of the American horse racing business of the 1930s, with its underpinnings of crooked money and sweaty desperation.

It's not justice, of course. Because Phar Lap deserved so much better. The big copper horse deserved to be more than a fleeting star, a flash in the sky. He deserved a chance to finish his glorious career with a much-petted old age in one of those fabled green pastures ... I hope that whoever came bearing arsenic to the stable in those soft April days of 1932 didn't finish out his own days happy and healthy. The man -- whoever he was -- deserves so much worse.


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Anonymous said...

Thank you for letting us know the facts about what happened to Phar Lap. I saw the movie many years ago and always thought he was poisoned, now it's been proven scientifically. His story deserves to be told as a great race horse, in the manner of Seabisquit and Secretariat. We all need to hear about the underdog being able to overcome misfortune to triumph in the end. Thanks for letting us know the truth. A Friend in Texas