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Phar Lap's heart

At a glance

  • Great legend in Australian sporting history
  • Unusually large sized heart
  • Controversy over the death of a great horse
  • On show in the National Museum's Landmarks gallery
Horses heart suspended in a clear solution in a clear case. The bottom right quarter of the heart has been partially removed.
Phar Lap's heart. Photo: Jason McCarthy

A heart as big as Phar Lap's

The horse Phar Lap is one of the legends of Australian sporting history. His unusually large heart, weighing 6.35 kilograms, is one of the icons of the National Museum's collection, a testament to the great affection with which Phar Lap is held by the Australian people.

Phar Lap's victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, in the midst of the Depression, elevated him to the status of national hero. Two years later Australia was stunned at the news of the horse's death under suspicious circumstances in the United States.

Phar Lap's remains were dispersed across the globe. His mounted hide went to the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, the skeleton to the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington and the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra.

Phar Lap's heart was displayed for many years at Institute of Anatomy, next to the smaller heart of another horse. The average weight of a horse heart is four kilograms and the display was a visual confirmation of the Australian saying, 'a heart as big as Phar Lap's'.

The Institute of Anatomy collection of wet biological specimens became one of the key collections of the National Museum. The heart is repeatedly the object visitors most request to see.

Why is it so big?

Black and white image showing Phar Lap's heart on show as part of an Institute of Anatomy display.
Phar Lap's heart, bottom right, on display at the Institute of Anatomy. National Museum of Australia.

The heart of an average thoroughbred racehorse weighs around the same as a newborn baby (3.5–4kgs). Phar Lap's heart, on the other hand, weighs around as much as a five-month-old baby. But why is his heart so big?

Other successful racehorses have been found to have abnormally large hearts too. Research has uncovered a genetic anomaly, named 'the X-Factor', which is passed down through the female line, and originates in the daughters of a racehorse named Eclipse.

Eclipse was foaled in England in 1764, and began racing as a four-year-old. He won all his 18 starts, and was retired to stud, where he sired hundreds of winners. When he died in 1789 his heart was removed for burial, and seemed so large that it was weighed. Eclipse's heart weighed 14lbs, or 6.35kgs, the same as Phar Lap's.

Though his large heart sets him apart, it wasn't the only thing that made Phar Lap special to the people of Australia.

Phar Lap's place in history

Phar Lap was a rich red chestnut gelding who stood 17 hands high. His humble beginnings, tragic death and above all his phenomenal success on the race track have been woven into a classic Australian legend of sporting history.

Phar Lap was born in Timaru, New Zealand, on 4 October 1926 and was purchased that year by American-born David J Davis for 160 guineas.

Between 1928 and 1932, Phar Lap won 37 out of 51 races, including winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup, carrying a 62.6 kilogram handicap. In 1931 alone, he won 14 races.

It was characteristic that Phar Lap won by several lengths and finished at half pace. He was the only horse in Australian racing history to have been favourite for the Melbourne Cup three years running.

Rear view of a man, left, and a woman, right, leaning in to inspect a large heart, mounted in a glass case. The lower right front quarter of the heart has been removed.
Visitors inspect Phar Lap's heart. Photo: George Serras.

Sudden death

Phar Lap started his career as an outsider. He had neither looks nor obvious racing potential and was leased cheaply by a relatively unknown trainer, Harry Telford. Contrary to all expectations, he rose from the 'no-hoper' stakes to out-race horses with better breeding and financial backing, for whom he was the 'Red Terror'.

In the blighted years of the Depression, this story spoke strongly to the hopes and dreams of ordinary Australians. Phar Lap died suddenly on 5 April 1932, shortly after winning his first race in the United States. Tommy Woodcock, the devoted strapper who had seen the horse through all of his races, was heartbroken.

In Australia it was seen as a tragedy, and rumours spread that the horse may have been poisoned. After his death Phar Lap's heart was sent to the University of Sydney for examination by Dr Stewart McKay, an authority on thoroughbreds, in conjunction with Professor Welsh, Professor of Pathology at Sydney University. It was then that part of the wall of the left ventricle was removed, in order to show how thick the heart walls were. Dr McKay suggested to Harry Telford, Phar Lap's part-owner and trainer, that the heart be donated to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, where it was on display for many years until coming to the National Museum.

Phar Lap's heart in the laboratory, suspended in a case filled with golden-coloured liquid
National Museum conservator Patrya Kay talks with TV New Zealand correspondent Michael Holland about caring for Phar Lap's heart. Photo: Dragi Markovic.