Jul 06, 2012
PHAR LAP: ONE OF HISTORY’S MYSTERIES
By: HOWARD ROWE
The following is an article from the Hoofbeats From The Past book by Howard Rowe. If you would like to order it call 1-800-645-2240.
PHAR LAP: ONE OF HISTORY’S MYSTERIES
There have been many unsolved mysteries surrounding the sport of thoroughbred racing. John McEvoy, the veteran turf writer, has done an excellent job of reminding us of a few that made headlines in the 20th century.
His book, Great Horse Racing Mysteries, covers the major whodunits starting back in 1932 with the puzzling death at age five of the sensational Phar Lap, precipitating an international furor that has not subsided and lingers in the hearts and minds of many Australians.
Phar Lap’s last race was the Agua Caliente Handicap, which he won carrying 129 pounds and running the mile and a quarter in track-record time. He caused the crowd to gasp in disbelief as he stayed along the outside rail for the entire trip. This was done for two reasons, according to his trainer and jockey.
“He doesn’t like dirt kicked in his face,” commented the rider following Phar Lap’s easy score. His trainer was more to the point: “We didn’t want to suffer any interference during the race, especially after several threats were received.”
These fears of foul play were all founded, and a rifle shot the day before the race almost caused the death if a horse touted as “better than any thoroughbred ever to race in America” – and that included the celebrated Man O’War,
For the victory, Phar Lap netted $50,000 in an economically depressed era, placing him just $45,000 below the world’s money-winning record then held by the American horse Sun Beau. Had the mighty Australian survived, there is little doubt that he would have achieved his financial goal, with an entire nation begging for his appearance at major tracks from coast to coast.
Australian bookmakers hated the idea of an unbeatable champion – it was bad for business. He was the only horse in history to have gone postward at odds-on in the famed Melbourne Cup and also in the great majority of his 51 lifetime starts, of which he won 37. The saying was: “The only time the competition got near him was at the barrier.”
Australian racing fans were unwilling to accept short odds on their beloved favorite and even more unwilling to bet against him. As a result, little action with bookmakers took place in Australia’s most prestigious turf events. The occasional defeat, as when Phar Lap was assigned 150 pounds in a two-mile marathon, was cause for genuine public mourning.
On April 15, following the victory at Agua Caliente, future plans for Phar Lap were discarded. He was found dead in his stall at the Edward Perry ranch, and The New York Times, under a San Francisco dateline, reported the available facts:
“Phar Lap, with expectations of becoming the greatest money-winner of all time, died today of colic on the Perry ranch at Menlo Park near Palo Alto …
“Hours later, sportsmen were so stunned at the suddenness they could scarcely believe the news. The horse was being conditioned for an appearance at the Tanforan track, following his sensational victory in the $50,000 Agua Caliente Handicap …
“Rumors flew that the horse had been poisoned. This was immediately discounted by Dr. Walter Neilsen, an Australian veterinarian. Police Chief Frank Love of Menlo Park ordered an examination of Phar Lap’s oats.
After an autopsy, Dr. Neilsen gave acute enteritis as the cause of death and stated it had existed for several days. He believed that alfalfa or barley covered with dew in the stable yard had been eaten by the horse because it was not properly prepared.”
So much for the immediate reaction for public consumption. When Phar Lap arrived in California, he carried no insurance, as it was impossible to place an accurate value on him. This revelation was followed by an announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they were launching an investigation. This disclosed arsenic to be present in leaves from trees on the Perry ranch, sprayed with insecticide. Traces of arsenic were found in Phar Lap’s liver and lungs, but in such minute quantities that they could not have caused his death.
The conclusion did not satisfy everyone. A New Zealand newspaper (quoting a Dr. McKay) printed a story stating: “Phar Lap ate two clay pills containing arsenic, but the matter was hushed up.”
Tommy Woodcock, who trained Phar Lap in America, was extremely blunt in his appraisal: “I was placed in charge of a superhorse who was a menace to owners and trainers of other horses – and to bookmakers as well. Phar Lap was a marked horse whose life was in forfeit.”
Woodcock was convinced that Phar Lap’s death was not accidental, and his outspoken comments to that effect appeared almost daily in the press. He was continuously naming a gangster, known as “the Brazilian,” who had been constantly in the vicinity of the horse’s quarters since his arrival from Australia.
According to Woodcock: “I was finally able, once the big race was over, to sleep soundly, and I was inclined to relax a bit. While I slept, it no doubt would have been easy for the Brazilian to mix poison with Phar Lap’s feed.
“The analysts for Mr. Davis (one of the horse’s owners) declared there was more than enough arsenate of lead found to bring about his painful end.
“I know that gangsters in the States are not put behind bars on evidence as flimsy as I had, so I had to keep my suspicions to myself. Had I voiced them I am sure that I would have followed closely in the footsteps of the horse I loved.”
The mysterious death has never been solved, but in September of 1989, 57 years later, a Melbourne newspaper claimed that Woodcock himself had accidentally killed Phar Lap by mishandling an arsenic-based appetite stimulant named Fowler'’ Solution.
What’s your guess?
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