'Recipe book' holds the clue to Phar Lap's death

The riddle of the mysterious death of Australia's most famous racehorse may have been solved more than 75 years after his death.

Phar Lap probably died as a result of arsenic administered by his own trainer, rather than being murdered by American gangsters as Australians have long believed. That is the conclusion of experts who have studied a "recipe book" of tonics used by Phar Lap's trainer, Harry Telford, which sold at auction yesterday for close to £18,000.

Among the ingredients the tonics contained were arsenic, strychnine, belladonna, cocaine and caffeine – given to horses in small quantities in the past, as stimulants, before a race.

Phar Lap, a five-year-old chestnut gelding, died at the Menlo Park Race Track in California in 1932. He was at the peak of his career, having won 37 of his 51 races including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the Australian equivalent of the Grand National. Two weeks before his sudden and agonising death, he had won North America's richest race: the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico.

Australians were horrified by the news, and conspiracy theories involving foul play abounded. The most enduring one was that "Big Red", as he was known, was poisoned by gangsters who – because he appeared to be unbeatable – feared he would upset their illegal gambling syndicates.

Phar Lap was not accompanied by Telford on his first trip to the US, which was intended to launch him on to the American racing scene. Instead, Tommy Woodcock, his stand-in trainer, travelled with him. But Woodcock took Telford's 82-page handwritten book of tonics with him, and he may have accidentally given the champion a fatal overdose.

The auctioneer, Charles Leski, said yesterday: "It's the first time that we have had, in writing, confirmation that caffeine, cocaine, belladonna, strychnine – all of them we think of as poisons – were actually used by Harry Telford in the maintenance of his horses.

"In strictly measured doses, and mixed in with other feed, presumably these served the purpose of being a stimulant and didn't adversely affect the horses. But if Phar Lap had been unwell in the trip over to America, or if he had been in the hands of more than one person in the US, it's possible the dosage wasn't strictly adhered to, and it appears he overdosed on a concoction that was considered good for him."

The notebook, which contains 30 recipes, was bought by the Melbourne Museum, which has displayed Phar Lap's hide since 1933, as well as his saddle and other memorabilia. His skeleton is in the Museum of New Zealand, where the Australian-owned racehorse was born and bred. His massive 14lb heart is in Canberra's National Museum.

The thoroughbred gelding collapsed at his stables soon after travelling back to the United States from Mexico. Woodcock found him in severe pain, with a high temperature, and a few hours later he died in his trainer's arms of internal bleeding. A postmortem examination revealed the horse's stomach and intestines were inflamed, which triggered theories that he had been poisoned.

Tests in 2006 on a strand on his hair, taken from his hide, suggested Phar Lap had ingested a large amount of arsenic about 35 hours before he died. But racing experts believe that the arsenic is more likely to have built up gradually over a period of time.

In the days before swabbing, it was not uncommon for racehorses to be fed small quantities of arsenic, to give them an edge. A popular tonic of the day was Fowler's Solution, which was arsenic-based and was administered to Phar Lap throughout his racing career. Repeated doses might have accumulated in his body and eventually proved deadly.

Percy Sykes, a contemporary racehorse trainer, said after the tests in 2006: "I wouldn't be surprised if arsenic was found in every horse in that era."

Woodcock admitted on his deathbed in 1985 that the horse might have died from consuming an excessive quantity of one of his tonics. The notebook represents the first written proof of the ingredients found in the tonics.

Phar Lap was a source of national pride to Australians during the Depression and is still regarded as a heroic figure.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

PSHE Teachers needed for exciting project

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teachers with a passion for PSHE neede...

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

EBD Teacher in Shropshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: EBD Teacher - ShropshireWe are current...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits