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Phar Lap’s Mystery Death

Phar is more of an Australian national icon than the most famous Australian racehorse of all time. The questions surrounding his death are also the basis of Australia’s oldest conspiracy theory. Was Lap’s death the result of foul play or was it just bad luck that the famous horse collapsed and died shortly after winning his first race in the United States?

The horse trained in Australia and born in New Zealand was owned by American David J. David at the time of his death. Over the objections of the horse’s longtime trainer and David’s business partner, Harry Telford, Phar Lap was shipped to Tijuana, Mexico, where he raced and won the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932 – earning a record purse of $100,000. After the race, he was resting in Menlo Park, California, where it was discovered by team personnel that he had a high temperature and was in severe pain. Within hours, the horse hemorrhaged to death in the early hours of April 5, 1932.

Speculation about the cause of PL’s death began almost as soon as news reached the Australian media. An autopsy was inconclusive – proving only that the horse had a badly inflamed stomach and intestines. Speculation ranged from death by mob poisoning, to accidental lead poisoning, to a fast-acting infection.

Given the enduring fascination with Phar and the mystery of his death, the story kept coming up in the news over the years. In the 1980s, equine pathologists reviewed the original reports and suggested that the 1930s autopsy indicated acute bacterial gastroenteritis.

The preservation of various parts of PharL’s body was fortuitous as scientists were able to apply modern forensic methods to the remains. The horse’s skeleton is on display at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, its heart is at the Canberra Institute of Anatomy and its stuffed body is on display at the Melbourne Museum.

In 2006, scientists from the Australian Synchrotron concluded that it was almost certain that P Lap had been killed by a high dose of arsenic. Conspiracy theorists suggest this was arranged by the American mafia who at the time controlled the illegal bookmakers in the American racing scene. There’s actually no evidence of gangster involvement – although that makes for an appealing theory. Also, arsenic at the time was considered a “tonic” for horses and humans – so it’s possible that Phar suffered accidental poisoning.

The most recent study in 2008 saw sophisticated analysis of arsenic in Phar Lap’s hair samples. This study distinguished between arsenic ingested by the horse and arsenic added to the remains during the taxidermy process itself. The results were that Ph Lap appeared to die after ingesting a massive dose of arsenic approximately 40 hours before his death.

Of course, science brings us one step closer to clarifying the mystery of Lap’s death. It would be a brave bettor who would count the odds on the betting choices of whether the overdose was accidental or deliberate and if deliberate by whom. Certainly, the mafia – who ran a profitable illegal horse racing betting scheme in the United States had a lot to lose if PhLap had continued to win in the United States. But that’s all speculation – and we’ll probably never solve the mystery of Phar Lap’s death.

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