Australians solve mystery of what killed Phar Lap

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The Independent Online

For more than 70 years, Australians have been convinced American gangsters murdered their champion racehorse, Phar Lap, who died suddenly and agonisingly at the peak of his career while preparing to take on the US racing scene.

Now their suspicions of foul play appear to have been backed by science, with medical tests suggesting the five-year-old chestnut gelding was poisoned with arsenic.

Phar Lap, who triumphed in 37 of his 51 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the country's Grand National, won Australians' hearts during the Great Depression and is still regarded as a national hero.

But, in April 1932, days after winning North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente in Mexico, he collapsed at his stables in San Francisco. His trainer, Harry Telford, found him in severe pain and with a high temperature. A few hours later, he died from internal bleeding. The most popular theory is that Phar Lap was poisoned by gangsters who, because he appeared unbeatable, feared that he would disrupt their illegal gambling rackets.

Now, according to the Sydney Daily Telegraph, scientists have used a " synchotron", or particle accelerator, to test a strand of the horse's hair, taken from his preserved hide. The hair was bombarded with a beam of intense light, to examine chemical residue.

The same technology as used in 2000 to identify the cause of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven's death as lead poisoning.

The report, the Telegraph said, showed "Big Red", as the giant gelding was called, ingested a large amount of arsenic about 35 hours before he died. "The arsenic in the hair structure is consistent with ... a single large dose of arsenic," it said.

But the findings were disputed by racing experts, who said Phar Lap's strapper (stablehand), Tommy Woodcock, gave him a tonic commonly used in the 1930s, which contained arsenic. Bart Cummings, a contemporary trainer, said it was widely believed Phar Lap died from a gradual build-up of arsenic.

Percy Sykes, the founder of a leading equine centre based in Sydney, said: "I wouldn't be surprised if arsenic wasn't found in every horse in that particular era. I would say there was much more chance of him dying of travel sickness or natural causes."

Ivan Kempson, who analysed Phar Lap's hair, said there was little doubt arsenic caused his death. "A dose indicated to having been consumed so close to his death, well, I think you can infer something from that," he said.

Phar Lap was born in New Zealand but most of his racing was in Australia. His massive 14lb heart is in the National Museum in Canberra. His hide is on display at the Melbourne Museum, while his skeleton is in the Museum of New Zealand. There were plans to send his heart across the Tasman Sea for the centenary celebrations of the Wellington Racing Club. But it was decided it could be damaged.