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Phar Lap collection

Spirited: Australia's Horse Story

Champion racehorse a national legend

The horse Phar Lap is one of the legends of Australian sporting history. Phar Lap's sensational rise from humble beginnings captured the public's imagination during the difficult years of the 1930s Depression. His death in 1932 prompted an outpouring of grief and anger.

Phar Lap's unusually large heart is one of the icons of the National Museum's collection. The Museum's Phar Lap collection includes a portrait of the champion horse and items belonging to the jockeys who rode him to victory. 

A heart as big as Phar Lap's

Rear view showing a man and a woman looking at a large heart on display in a lit case.
Phar Lap's heart at the National Museum of Australia. The unusually large heart weighs 6.35 kilograms. Photo: George Serras.

How big is Phar Lap's heart?

 Horses heart suspended in a clear solution in a clear case. The bottom right quarter of the heart has been removed.
Phar Lap's heart. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Phar Lap's heart weighs 6.35 kilograms. This is more than 1.5 times the weight of an average thoroughbred racehorse heart, which weighs 3–4 kilograms.

The champion racehorse won 36 of 41 races, including the prestigious 1930 Melbourne Cup.

Phar Lap's heart was returned to Australia for testing after his sudden death in the United States in 1932. It was found to be of an unusually large size, and was donated to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, where it was on show for many years.

The Australian saying, 'a heart as big as Phar Lap's' alludes to the horse's strength and staying power, as well as the weight of his heart. It is used to indicate great courage, generosity or power.

Today, Phar Lap's heart is consistently the object visitors most request to see at the National Museum.

Click on the images below to see more of Phar Lap's heart

Phar Lap's place in history

Phar Lap's popularity was not just due to the fact he won, but due to his humble origins. In the blighted years of the Depression, Phar Lap's spectacular rise from humble beginnings spoke strongly to the hopes and dreams of ordinary Australians. He had neither looks nor obvious racing potential and was leased cheaply by a relatively unknown trainer, Harry Telford.

A colour portrait of a horse's head, signed bottom left 'Stuart Reid'.
This portrait of Phar Lap was produced by equine artist Stuart Reid. Phar Lap's owner, David Davis, commissioned the portrait in 1931. This oil is probably a study for a larger work that was presented to Sydney Tattersall's Club. Photo: Lannon Harley. The National Museum of Australia has made very effort to trace the rights holder but has been unsuccessful. The Museum invites the rights holder to make contact.

Melbourne Cup favourite

Phar Lap was born in Timaru, New Zealand, on 4 October 1926, a rich red chestnut gelding who stood 17 hands high. American businessman David Davis bought Phar Lap for 160 guineas, sight unseen, relying on the advice of Telford.

Phar Lap failed to place in eight of his first nine starts, but went on to win 36 of his next 41 races, including 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.

Side profile of a jockey riding a racehorse on a track.
Jockey Jim Pike riding Phar Lap at Flemington race course, about 1930. Photo: Charles Pratt, State Library of Victoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sudden death in America

In 1931 Telford and David became co-owners of Phar Lap. Davis suggested sending the horse to America to contest the 1932 Agua Caliente handicap in Tijuana, Mexico, the richest race in the world at the time.

Black and white photo showing a jockey in racing silks riding a horse.
Phar Lap and jockey Billy Elliot a week before the Agua Caliente race in 1932. National Archives of Australia.

Phar Lap and jockey Billy Elliott won the lucrative race. Sixteen days later, on 5 April 1932, Phar Lap died in mysterious circumstances in San Francisco. Tommy Woodcock, the devoted strapper who had seen the horse through all of his races, was heartbroken.

In Australia, Phar Lap's death was seen as a great tragedy, and rumours spread that the horse may have been poisoned.

Davis arranged for Phar Lap's heart to be sent to the University of Sydney for examination by Dr Stewart McKay, an authority on thoroughbreds, and pathology expert Professor Welsh. It was then that part of the wall of the left ventricle was removed, to inspect the muscle thickness of the heart walls.

Noting the unusually large size of Phar Lap's heart, Dr McKay suggested to Telford that it be donated to the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra.

Debate continues today as to whether Phar Lap died of an acute infection or from arsenic poisoning.

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.

Remains dispersed across the globe

Phar Lap's remains were dispersed across the globe.

His mounted hide went to the 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.

For many years it was on show in Canberra beside the much smaller horse of an army horse.

The Institute of Anatomy collection of wet biological specimens, including Phar Lap's heart, became one of the key collections of the National Museum in 1980.

Genetic advantage?

Other successful racehorses have also been found to have abnormally large hearts. 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 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 was weighed. Eclipse's heart weighed 14lbs, or 6.35kgs, the same as Phar Lap's.

Phar Lap collection

The National Museum's Phar Lap also collection includes:

  • A photograph album owned by David Davis, recording all of Phar Lap's 36 Australian wins. The photos show that Phar Lap often finished lengths ahead of his competitors. 
  • Jockey Billy Elliott's Agua Caliente Jockey Club official race program. The 1932 program from Phar Lap's last race includes this inscription on the cover: 'To my Darling Wife with best love from Bill'.
  • Jockey Jim Pike's riding boots and skull cap from the 1930s. At the peak of his career, Pike was known as 'The Master'. Pike rode Phar Lap to 27 wins in 30 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.
  • An Akubra hat that belonged to Mudburra man Pharlap Jalyirri Dixon, who was born around 1922 on a Northern Territory cattle property. The station owner nicknamed his Aboriginal stockmen after racehorses, and Dixon became known as Pharlap.
A cushion cover with an embroidered image of a horse and rider at the centre. 'Phar Lap' is stitched in red in the bottom right.
This cushion cover was embroidered by Ada Whitmore after Phar Lap won the 1930 Melbourne Cup. Like many Australians who neither gambled nor went to the races, she was an avid follower of Phar Lap's career. Photo: Lannon Harley.

On show

Phar Lap's heart and Jim Pike's riding boots and skull cap are on show in the National Museum's Landmarks gallery. Phar Lap's portrait and the photo album showing his Australian wins are among objects on show in the exhibition Spirited: Australia's Horse Story.

More

Collection database record

Horses in Australia online feature

'Phar Lap: from racecourse to reliquary' in our reCollections journal

Flemington on Cup Day interactive

Photographing Phar Lap's heart slideshow

Installing Phar Lap's heart slideshow