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Phar Lap's Heart

Object type
Zoological specimens

Object number

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.

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.

Collection name
Australian Institute of Anatomy collection

Associated person
Alick Roberts
Roberts was Phar Lap's breeder.

Associated person
David J. Davis
Davis was Phar Lap's owner.

Associated person
Harry R. Telford
Telford was Phar Lap's trainer, and presented the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy.

Associated person
Tommy Woodcock
Woodcock was Phar Lap's strapper in Australia, and travelled with him to America in the role of trainer. Woodcock was with Phar Lap when he died.

Associated organisation
Australian Institute of Anatomy
The heart was displayed at the Institute before it was transferred to the National Museum of Australia.

Place of event
Timaru, South Island, New Zealand
Place where Phar Lap was foaled.

Place of event
Flemington, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup in 1930.

Place of event
Phar Lap won the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932.

Place of event
Menlo Park, San Mateo, California, United States of America
Phar Lap died at Menlo Park in suspicious circumstances.

Associated place
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
The heart was displayed for many years at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, and is now in the care of the National Museum of Australia.

Date of event
Date that Phar Lap was foaled.

Date of event
Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup in 1930 carrying a 62.6 kilogram handicap.

Date of event
Phar Lap won the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932.

Date of event
Date that Phar Lap died.

Animal material - non specific, Perspex, Liquid - non specific

Width: 300mm
Height: 378mm
Depth: 215mm
Weight: 6.35kg

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