Phar Lap’s Mystery Death

Phar is more an Australian national icon than just the most famous Aussie racehorse of all time. The questions that have hung over his death are also the basis of Australia’s longest running conspiracy theory. Was Lap’s death the result of foul play or was it just bad luck that the famous horse collapsed and died soon after winning his first race in the US?

The Australian trained, New Zealand-born horse was owned by American David J. David at the time of its death. Over the objections of the horse’s long running trainer and David’s business partner, Harry Telford, Phar Lap was shipped to Tijuana, Mexico where he ran and won the Agua Caliente Handicap on 1932 – winning a record purse of $100,000. After the race it was being rested at Menlo Park, California, where he was found by stable staff to be running a high temperature and be in severe pain. Within hours the horse haemorrhaged to death in the early hours of the 5 April 1932.

Speculation as to the cause of PL’s death started almost as soon as news of it reached Australia’s media. A necropsy was inconclusive – just proving that the horse had severely inflamed stomach and intestines. Speculation ranged from death from poisoning by the Mafia, to accidental lead poisoning, to a fast acting infection.

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Given the enduring fascination with Phar and the mystery of his death, the story kept returning to the news over the years. In the 1980’s equine pathologists reviewed the original reports and suggested that the 1930’s necropsy pointed to an acute bacterial gastroenteritis.

The preservation of PharL various body parts has been a fortuitous as scientists have been able to apply modern forensic methods to the remains. The horse’s skeleton is displayed in Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, his heart is at Canberra’s Institute of Anatomy, and his stuffed body is on display at the Melbourne Museum.

In 2006 scientists at the Australian Synchrotron concluded that it was almost certain that P Lap was killed by a large dose of arsenic. The conspiracy theory advocates suggest that this was arranged by the US mob that, at the time, controlled the illegal bookmakers of the US racing scene. There is actually no evidence of gangster involvement though – though it makes for an attractive theory. Also arsenic at the time was considered a “tonic” for both horses and human – so it is possible that Phar suffered an accidental poisoning.

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The most recent study in 2008 saw a sophisticated analysis of the arsenic in hair hair samples from Phar Lap. This study distinguished between arsenic ingested by the horse and arsenic added to the remains during the taxidermy process itself. The results were that Ph Lap did appear to die after ingesting a massive dose of arsenic about 40 hours before his death.

Of course the science brings us only a little closer to clearing up the mystery of Lap’s death. It would be a brave punter who would count the odds on the betting picks of whether the overdose was accidental or deliberate and if deliberate by whom. Certainly the Mafia – who ran a profitable illegal horse racing betting system in the US had quite a lot to lose if PhLap had continued to win in the US. But that’s just speculation – and we will probably never solve the mystery of Phar Lap’s death.


by David Duffield