NMA collection record

Phar Lap's Heart, 1932

Description

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.

Educational value

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.

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