Thursday, May 15, 2008

Diary clue to sudden death

Whose body parts are distributed between three major museums in Australia and New Zealand: the heart in the National Museum of Australia, the skin in Melbourne Museum, and the skeleton in New Zealand’s National Museum?

Phar Lap, a name which means ‘lightning’ in Thai, was a most extraordinary horse, perhaps the most famous and revered in the Australasian continent. Foaled in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1926, he was transported to Australia where he then dominated the racing scene for several years, winning more than two-thirds of all his races, including the Melbourne Cup. In 1932, he was shipped to a racecourse near Tijuana in Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap - where he won the largest purse ever raced for in North America - and then to a private ranch in California. But he died there suddenly and under suspicious circumstances, on 5 April. A necropsy revealed that his stomach and intestines were inflamed, and this gave rise to a strong suspicion of poisoning. American gangsters were considered to be likely suspects, since it was thought they were deeply concerned about Phar Lap’s potentially negative impact on their illegal bookmaking activities.

Over 70 years later in 2006, Australian scientists used a newly constructed synchrotron (a kind of huge and expensive electron gun or particle accelerator) to analyse hairs from Phar Lap. They concluded, according to ABC News, that the horse had been poisoned from a single large dose of arsenic. However, in another ABC News story the same day, a racing expert claimed that arsenic was often included in tonics given to horses at the time, and that 90% of horses then had arsenic in their system.

Now, a couple of years later, a new source of information has come to light - a diary kept by Phar Lap’s trainer, Harry Telford. It was bought at auction on 23 April by Museum Victoria with Australian government money. According to a ministerial press release, the diary details 30 recipes used by Phar Lap’s trainers to prepare him for races, and many ingredients in these recipes included poisonous substances such as arsenic and strychnine. All of which gives credence to the idea that he was poisoned - but not deliberately, and not by American gangsters.

To show how much Phar Lap was, and is, loved in Australia here’s a paragraph from a short memoir written by Doreen Borrow, who was born on the same day as Phar Lap. The memoir is entitled My Ride On An Ozzie Icon and is published in Illawarra Unity, the journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History: ‘His name still conjures up all that is good and brave in people. To have a heart as big as Phar Lap, carry more weight than Phar Lap, or to go like Phar Lap remain among the highest accolades heaped upon the most supreme champions by the older generation of Australians who remember what a great galloper he was. I recall my mate Mike using one of these expressions during a family dinner. My future son-in-law, being of Italian descent asked, ‘Who’s Phar Lap?’ There was a stunned silence from all present and utter disbelief that an eighteen-year-old, born in Australia, had never heard of the great Phar Lap! It was almost enough to make us cancel the wedding!’

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