PHAR LAP DIED AT around 8.30am (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on April 6, 1932. This was around 2.30pm on April 5 in San Francisco, where the death occurred. For the next 68 years there was much conjecture as to the cause of the great horse’s death, until Peter Thompson and I released our biography, Phar Lap, in which we demonstrated that the cause of death was almost certainly a bacterial infection known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis.
In 2006, a new argument was put that Phar Lap had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. This theory received much coverage, even though Phar Lap did not show the signs of a horse suffering from arsenic poisoning in the last 24 hours of his life and the champion’s post-mortem specifically ruled out arsenic as a possible cause of death.
Since then, there have many claims made that Tommy Woodcock was to blame for the wonder horse’s death.
This is wrong ...
THE VRC HANDICAPPER GAVE Phar Lap 10.10 (68kg) for the 1931 Melbourne Cup, which meant he would have smashed Carbine’s weight-carrying record had he won. However, he finished eighth as a 3-1 favourite. It was the first time the champion had started at odds that generous since September 1929, and the first time since February 1930 he’d finished worse than second in a race.
By Cup Day 1931, Phar Lap was a tired horse. Soon after, however, he was on a boat to New Zealand, on to California, and then down the long road to the Agua Caliente racetrack situated just on the southern side of the US–Mexican border. There, in the rich Agua Caliente Handicap, Phar Lap produced one of his greatest performances, sitting four or five wide until he took off five furlongs from home to win by two lengths. That one win was enough for some US racing historians to rate Phar Lap one of the greatest horses to race in North America.
Sixteen days later, Phar Lap was dead, in what many thought to be sinister circumstances. For 68 years, from 1932 to 2000, one of Australia’s enduring legends was that the great champion had been poisoned. He had lived a heroic life and Australians wanted to believe that he was extraordinary. When the famous racecaller Bill Collins described the finish of the 1986 Cox Plate with that wonderful phrase, ‘Bonecrusher races into equine immortality,’ he eloquently captured how we feel about our best-loved stars of the turf. Thus, when Phar Lap’s mortality was so tragically confirmed and remained unexplained, we had to believe that something sinister had occurred. Ignorance of bacteria and how they worked made it easy to blame the dark forces of evil that we knew ran amok in that crime-ridden society of North America.
In 2000, when Peter Thompson and I published our findings about the actual cause of death — a humble bacterial infection whose existence was unknown until 1982 — it was widely acclaimed as the solution to the mystery. Six years later, when scientists discovered two forms of arsenic in some hair from Phar Lap’s mane, sensationalists in the media and opportunists in politics resuscitated the prejudices of the past.
‘Australia’s greatest racehorse, the mighty Phar Lap, may solve the mystery of his own death,’ was how the then Minister for Innovation in Victoria, former premier John Brumby, began a media release in October 2006, ignoring the fact that in our book we had put forward a compelling case that the cause of death was a common bacteria, which produced an enterotoxin that caused a disease syndrome known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. Mr Brumby was alluding to analysis that was being undertaken using synchrotron technology, which had revealed traces of arsenic in hairs from the stuffed hide of Phar Lap — the famous exhibit at the Melbourne Museum. In June 2008 further analysis allegedly ‘proved’ Phar Lap died of arsenic poisoning, a contention that was again argued in an article published in the journal Angewandte Chemie in April 2010. However, in that article the authors conceded that ‘many complexities in the analysis (and interpretation of results) of arsenic in hair exist’. They also contended that Phar Lap’s symptoms and autopsy results ‘are consistent with ingestion of a large dose of arsenic just prior death’.
THE SYNCHROTRON ANALYSIS DETERMINED that arsenic found in the shaft of the hairs from Phar Lap’s mane had not been used in the taxidermy process. By making assumptions about the rate of growth of the hair, estimations were made that the horse ingested this arsenic anywhere between 10 and 40 hours before his death. From this came the superficial and hysterical reaction: ‘Arsenic is bad, there was arsenic in his system, so arsenic killed him.’
But there are alternative explanations for the arsenic found in Phar Lap’s hide, none of which carry a sinister undertone. It is true, for example, that hair absorbs substances via the blood supply to the follicle, but as research on other taxidermied museum specimens shows hair can also absorb arsenic from the environment. Dunnett and Lees, in a paper published in Research in Veterinary Science in 2003, proved that external contamination can cause the incorporation of drugs into all parts of the hair, including the follicle. The original theories about arsenic poisoning being the cause of Phar Lap’s death came about because trees adjoining the paddock in which he had been grazing were sprayed with a pesticide containing lead arsenate; there were fears that Phar Lap had eaten grass onto which the pesticide had fallen, and that this was his undoing. The autopsy refuted this notion, but it is still possible some or even most of the arsenic in Phar Lap’s hair came from the pesticide spray landing on Phar Lap’s skin and being absorbed into his hair, without causing him harm. Several other animals in the same paddock with Phar Lap were unaffected by that ‘contaminated’ grass.
It is also well recognised that the nature of hair, even its colour, can affect the amount of arsenic taken up from the blood supply and from the environment. Other variables include the rate of take-up from the blood and the pace of growth of the hair. So conclusions about how much arsenic Phar Lap had ingested, or when he had ingested it, must remain vague at best.
But for those so easily convinced arsenic was the culprit, the next question was obvious: ‘How was the great horse poisoned?’ And the most popular answer in the media was that Tommy Woodcock did it. For example, on June 19, 2008, the Melbourne Age reported: ‘It was probably strapper Tommy Woodcock who may have mistakenly put too much arsenic in one of his tonics for his beloved Phar Lap.’
Similarly, Agence France-Presse stated: ‘The latest theory surrounding Phar Lap’s demise was that the strapper that accompanied the gelding to the United States, Tommy Woodcock, used too much arsenic while making up a batch of tonic and accidentally killed his charge.’
At the same time, an old notebook, which once belonged to Harry Telford and contained a series of recipes for tonics, some of which included arsenic, was found (and then purchased by Museum Victoria for a reported $37,000). This was used as more evidence of Woodcock’s guilt, even though it is common knowledge that most trainers of the 1930s safely used arsenic-based tonics; some trainers were still doing so as recently as the early 1980s. To compare the amount of arsenic in such tonics against that needed to kill a thoroughbred is akin to comparing a test tube to a bucket.
CRUELLY, THE PEOPLE ACCUSING Tommy Woodcock of making a colossal, grievous and stupid error never stopped to think there are alternative explanations for the synchrotron’s findings. Much worse, they did not consider the known and unchallenged facts: that at the time of Phar Lap’s death, university experts specifically searched for evidence of arsenic poisoning and could only find small amounts, more likely to be beneficial than detrimental to the horse; and that the clinical signs and progress of Phar Lap’s rapidly deteriorating condition were a text book presentation of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis and entirely inconsistent with arsenic poisoning.
First, the clinical signs. In 2001, Dr Stan Casteel, Professor in Research Toxicology at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the United States, published a paper entitled Metal Toxicosis in Horses in which he wrote, ‘Clinical signs of acute inorganic arsenic toxicosis in horses include drooling, trembling, ataxia, depression, colic, recumbency and green-to-black watery diarrhoea.’ Six years later, Dr Sally Church, a senior lecturer in equine medicine and surgery at the University of Melbourne, told Graeme Putt, co-author with Pat McCord of the 2009 book Phar Lap: the Untold Story, that acute severe arsenic poisoning in horses is reported to cause severe haemorrhagic diarrhoea.
It is a natural reflex, when a horse is sick, for a veterinary surgeon to examine the horse’s droppings. According to Tommy Woodcock’s account, in the hours before Phar Lap died, the champion’s vet, Bill Nielsen, did so and then stated, ‘Gee, he don’t seem bad.’ This strongly suggests Phar Lap was not suffering from any form of diarrhoea.
Even more importantly, all reported cases of arsenic poisoning in horses are consistent on one critical point: the time from the appearance of clinical signs to death is always a minimum of 24 hours.
Woodcock slept in the stall opposite Phar Lap. When he went to sleep on the night of April 4 1932, the horse was okay. The next morning, Phar Lap’s breath was hot, he was sweating and he wouldn’t accept the sugar cube Woodcock offered him first thing every sunrise. Not long after 2 pm, just nine hours later, the great horse was gone. This would not have been enough time for arsenic poisoning to have killed the champion.
Four days after his death, Phar Lap’s organs were examined by chemists from the University of California, who tested for a number of poisons. They specifically analysed samples of liver, lung, spleen, stomach and kidney, searching for ‘common volatile poisons, alkaloidal poisons, arsenic and mercury’, and claimed afterwards that they found nothing untoward.
In Phar Lap, The Story of the Big Horse, published in 1964, Isobel Carter reports the findings of R.U. Bonnar, a chemist with the United States Food and Drug Administration. Bonnar examined Phar Lap’s organs in advance of the post-mortem and found the concentration of arsenic trioxide in Phar Lap’s liver was 1.143 parts per million, less than one-eighth of the concentration required to diagnose arsenic poisoning of a horse.
On the basis of what he had seen as Phar Lap died and then during the autopsy, Bill Nielsen initially suspected that the cause of death was acute gastric enteritis (inflammation of the intestines), brought about by a toxic substance, but because he and others couldn’t identify what that toxin was, in the years that followed observers and gossip merchants were left to concoct their own poisons. For our book Phar Lap, we sought the advice of Dr John van Veenendaal, one of Australia’s leading equine surgeons. Dr van Veenendaal, a man who has worked for many of the country’s leading trainers and who treated some horses trained by Tommy Woodcock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was shown the post-mortem reports of Phar Lap’s death. In response, he stated:
‘Phar Lap did die of poisoning but not a poison that was given maliciously or intentionally. The poison was an enterotoxin that caused Anterior Enteritis or more correctly Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. The clinical features that Tommy described to me and the reports you have supplied me with indicate that this was the most probable cause of death ... The disease syndrome now known as Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis was not described in the literature until the early 1980s. Nielsen would not have been aware of this disease but his summation of the cause of death was correct.’
In 2008, after the synchrotron analysis made the papers, we sent copies of all the information we had on Phar Lap’s death, including the post mortem and the published reports from the team behind the synchrotron analysis, to Dr Tam Garland from Texas A&M University and the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology. Her response in part reads:
‘I do not believe arsenic was involved. There may be a background level or a very low level from some solutions in use then. I am convinced the cause of death was Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis …’
Veterinary surgeons today know that horses can be quickly killed by Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis. Bacteria in the gut of the horse produce a toxin that attacks the lining of the small intestine close to the stomach, causing a functional obstruction. The walls of the small intestine are severely damaged and acutely inflamed. The intestine is blocked, not by a physical barrier but by a length of intestine that refuses to function
The textbook description of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis is a list of the signs Phar Lap exhibited before his death: elevated temperature, increased pulse rate, acute colic, distention of the small intestine, a build-up of fluid in the stomach leading to perforation and rapid death. In almost all cases of Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis, the horse has travelled significant distances in the preceding weeks. The fact that the disease was not identified until 50 years after Phar Lap’s died is important. Those performing the autopsy in 1932 would have looked first for a physical blockage in the intestine, and were probably astonished when they did not find one.
Only then would they have joined others in thinking seriously about less logical causes of death.
WHEN THE THREE-YEAR-OLD Phar Lap landed in Sydney in the autumn of 1930, it was the first time the harbour city’s racing fans had seen the rising star of Australian racing since the previous October. On his first look at him, Vedette, the racing columnist for The Referee, wrote: ‘Since he was here in the spring Phar Lap has furnished into a much more impressive type of horse. Never an oil painting, he is not the pretty type, but he fills the eye with his bigness, his undoubted physical fitness and his general air of contentedness and well-being.’
Musket, in The Sydney Mail, added: ‘Were it not for his wonderful deeds few would take a second look at him; but now that he has become famous his rangy frame of greyhound proportions has many admirers.’
The Sydney press had a field day building up the Chipping Norton Stakes, over a mile and a quarter at Warwick Farm on April 12, in which Phar Lap would meet the best two older horses then racing in Australia, Amounis and Nightmarch, and another outstanding Kiwi, Chide. But what was expected in many quarters to be a close contest turned into a one act affair.
Musket: Five furlongs from home, Nightmarch appeared to be catching the three-year-old, but it was only on sufferance, for the gap became wider at the three furlongs, where Amounis began to close on Nightmarch. ‘Amounis will win yet!’ was shouted by his admirers as the old warrior began his famous finishing run, but though he caught Nightmarch he could not threaten danger to the three-year-old, who simply outclassed the placegetters.
‘That settles which horse should’ve won the Melbourne Cup!’ yelled a voice from the crowd. The previous November, Nightmarch had prevailed on the first Tuesday in November, with Phar Lap, the dual Derby winner, back in third place. Now racing had a new hero, and he couldn’t have come at a better time, with thousands losing their jobs due to the onset of the Great Depression and the papers filling with awful stories of hardship and misfortune. For trainer Harry Telford, the irony of his new-found wealth could not have been lost of him. Circumstances had changed drastically for both Telford and the world around him. Men who only a year previously had been calling in long-time battler’s debts were now seeking a handout.
Phar Lap enjoyed further easy wins in the AJC St Leger and the weight-for-age Cumberland Stakes, leading critics to rate him the equal of any of the great three-year-olds of the previous 30 years, such as Abundance, Poseidon, Mountain King, Prince Foote, Artilleryman, Manfred and Strephon. Similarly, it was now being suggested that young Don Bradman, who three months before had broken the record for the highest score ever made first-class cricket, was now on a par with the most celebrated of Australian batsmen, such as Charles Bannerman, Clem Hill and Charlie Macartney. Perhaps only Victor Trumper remained beyond the 21-year-old.
During the next four months, Bradman would smash a succession of Test batting records as Australia climbed quickly back to the top of the cricket tree, and rich and poor Australians alike would begin to rate ‘Our Don’ the best of all time, beyond even than the immortal Vic. In doing so, he joined Phar Lap, who had reached the same lofty status on the racetrack. The hardest markers reckoned only Carbine, the legendary winner of the 1890 Melbourne Cup, might be his equal.
The reason for Phar Lap’s rapid ascension to true greatness was, simply, the AJC Plate. If you talked to anyone in Sydney who saw most of Phar Lap races, the one performance they all raved about was the 1930 AJC Plate, run at Randwick over two-and-a-quarter miles on April 26.
The headlines are astonishingly exuberant: ‘GREATEST HORSE EVER,’ roared the Truth. ‘PHAR LAP MOST SENSATIONAL GALLOPER OF ALL TIME,’ shouted The Referee. ‘AN EXTRAORDINARY WIN’ was The Australasian’s verdict. ‘PHAR LAP A SUPERLATIVE GALLOPER,’ reckoned The Sydney Mail.
What Phar Lap did was take hold of Billy Elliott, up from Melbourne for the ride because regular jockey Jim Pike couldn’t make the three-year-old’s weight-for-age of 7lb 13 (50.5kg), and take off. The pace was suicidal for a normal horse, but Phar Lap just kept going, and going, until Elliott finally managed to ease him up over the last furlong.
Before the race — which involved only three horses, Phar Lap, Nightmarch and the solid stayer Donald — some critics thought Nightmarch might be a chance. After all, he’d beaten Phar Lap easily in the Melbourne Cup and their only subsequent meeting had been over a mile and a quarter in the Chipping Norton. There was talk about, too, according to the Truth, that Phar Lap ‘was going to be raced right into the ground’. Consequently, the three-year-old came up only 2–1 on in the ring, but the big gamblers were on to that in a flash, with Sydney’s most prominent female punter, Maude Vandenburg, quickly taking £2000 to £1000 from rails operator Jack Molloy. The renowned Eric Connolly, however, was spotted supporting Nightmarch. At the jump, the favourite was 5–2 on.
Chiron (The Australasian): Evidently the people who backed Nightmarch took the view that Phar Lap is really not a genuine stayer and that Nightmarch would be able to get the last run on him and outstay him at the finish. It did not work out that way at all, as Nightmarch could never get near enough to Phar Lap to find out whether he can stay or not.
Vedette (The Referee): Phar Lap went fast from the beginning and some of his intermediate times from a mile and a half on, according to private watches, were better than world figures for those distances. He full time of 3:49.5 was a second better than the previous Australasian record and he beat Nightmarch by 10 lengths, with Donald three-quarters of a length away third. He clipped the previous Randwick record by 6½ seconds.
An English writer a few weeks ago mentioned that Walter Lindrum [the champion Australian billiards exponent] was the only man in any branch of sport he would be prepared to back against the world. Sydney sportsmen who saw Phar Lap’s performance in the AJC Plate are convinced he is the Lindrum of the turf. It is difficult to make comparisons between Australian and overseas horses, but when a galloper arises who can make really good performers such as Nightmarch look like novices, there is no question of his class.
The first half mile was run in 49 seconds. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race! Along the back Phar Lap was ticking over the furlongs, 12 seconds at a time, as he opened up a lead of at least a furlong, perhaps longer. Vedette’s stopwatch suggested he ran the first seven furlongs in better than the Randwick track record, equal to the Australasian record, for THAT distance. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race!!
Jim Pike: Phar Lap is faster than Strephon. Much faster. Windbag could win a six-furlongs race and the Melbourne Cup. Gothic won two VRC Newmarket Handicaps and could stay a mile and a half, but I have no hesitation in saying that up to a mile and a half Phar Lap is better and could outpace either of them from anything up to that distance. I feel sure he could win a Newmarket, and win it easily. And I would not hesitate to back him, fit and at his best, to run a mile and a half in 2.27. That’s how good I think he is.
Pike’s comments came straight after the race. Phar Lap had run the first mile and a half of the AJC Plate in 2:28.5, nearly three seconds faster than the race-record time he ran to win the AJC Derby seven months before. Two miles were passed in 3:20.5, which would have won every Sydney Cup until 1971, and every Melbourne Cup until 1950, at which point Elliott was finally able to get a grip, and he slowed the champion down to a canter in the straight, while Nightmarch and Donald were ridden hard, chasing the second prizemoney. So slow was Phar Lap going at the finish, he was walking, ready to enter the mounting yard, only 25 metres after the passing the post.
Jim Marsh (later a rails bookmaker in Sydney): He could’ve won by a furlong. Roy Reed rode Nightmarch and afterwards the stewards got him up before them on a charge of not riding his mount out. He’d got beat a furlong! The judge didn’t say that was the margin, but that’s what it looked like to me. What Reed did was get half a length in front of Donald, then he just looked at him and stayed there. He didn’t try to run after Phar Lap, that was true, and he explained that to the stewards. ‘I could have run him to about 50 lengths,’ he said. All he wanted to do was beat Donald.
A. McAulay (trainer of Nightmarch): It is hard to say what would have been the result if Phar Lap had been asked to do his best: Nightmarch would hardly have been at the home turn when the crack finished.
Phar Lap would win another 25 races before succumbing to the disease syndrome Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis in April 1932. Some of these victories were remarkable, not least his triumphs in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the 1931 Futurity Stakes, and the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap in North America. But as phenomenal as these performances undoubtedly were, they might not have been as purely breathtaking as what he did at Royal Randwick on April 26, 1930.
That was the day, an important day in the history of Australian racing, when racegoers and non-racegoers alike started talking of Phar Lap as the best we’ve ever seen.
We’ve been doing it ever since.