Speakeasy Science

Arsenic and an old horse story

The name Phar Lap comes from an Asian word for lightning; a sky flash. A passing dazzle of light, a spark in the night.

And so he was, the big copper racehorse, born in New Zealand, trained in Australia, whose dazzling speed made him one of those unexpected beacons of hope during the Great Depression and who, according to a report published in an international chemistry journal in April, was killed by a massive dose of arsenic.
Of course, no one who follows race horse history could be entirely surprised by that finding. For one thing, it built on preliminary results from 2006. But from the day Phar Lap died in California on April 5, 1932, rumors have circulated and suspicion simmered that he was killed by someone from the gambling syndicates who had invested in other horses.
After all, gamblers in Australia had earlier tried to shoot the big horse.
The Wonder Horse — one of his many nicknames, along with the Red Terror — was born in October 1926 in New Zealand and thought to have so little promise that he was purchased as a two-year-old by American businessman David J. Davis for about $130 (US). As the story goes, when the gangly youngster shambled into sight, the new owner was so horrified, he refused to pay to train him. The Australian trainer, Harry Telford, offered to train the colt for free in exchange for eventual part ownership of the horse.

Phar Lap won his first race a year later and, as they say, didn’t look back. He’d matured into a beautiful, powerful chestnut with a cheerful disposition and a drive to win. Too much of a winner, some thought. On November 1, 1930, the day of the prestigous Melbourne Cup, a car started following him on the way back from morning practice and shots — apparently ordered by a rival owner — were fired at the big horse. They missed, and no one was ever caught although a furious Davis offered a $100 reward, huge for the time. Phar Lap, though, remained unfazed. And won the race.

In fact, it was one of 14 straight victories that year, followed by 14 straight victories in 1931. In his four-year racing career, Phar Lap ran hard and often and fast. He won 37 of 51 races, and that would include his last.

Davis, by now enamoured of his bargain colt, decided to enter him in an international big prize race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, at a track near Tijuana, Mexico. The purse for the winner of that race would be more than $11,000 (comparable to about $100,000 today). Although Telford was reluctant, Phar Lap was shipped by boat to Mexico. In a hard-fought race, he once again triumphed in a flying finish, still watchable, in fact, in a YouTube video.

Three days later he was dying.

Davis had moved him to a private ranch near Menlo Park, California, while he negotiated for entrance into other lucrative private races. On that morning of April 5, 1932, one of the stablehands found the big horse convulsing in agony. Phar Lap died several hours later. Speculation of deliberate poisoning has followed his story ever since, although alternative theories have been offered — from severe gastroenteritis to accidental poisoning from the use of pesticides on the ranch.

Phar Lap was such a sweet-natured horse that those who knew him mourned not only the loss of a champion athlete but the loss of a friend. Telford said, “A human being couldn’t have had more sense. He was almost human, could do anything but talk … I loved that horse.”
The racehorse was such a hero — and a martyr — to fans in Australia and New Zealand that museums from both countries telegraphed to ask for the chance to display the horse. Davis, after consulting with Telford, decided to send Phar Lap’s “great” heart to Australia’s National Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. The skeleton went to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. And the hide was sent to the National Museum of Victoria, in Melbourne, where taxidermists labored for four months to create a life-like replica of the Wonder Horse, from his shining red coat to his tousled mane.
In the years since his death, songs have been written to the horse, movies been made about his life story. But it’s that mane that eventually solved the mystery of what — if not who — killed Phar Lap. Australian researchers removed six hairs and then used a highly specialized x-ray microsope to bombard them with intense radiation, illuminating the chemical makeup of the hair. The analysis (done at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois) is so precise that it allows scientists to tell whether material was absorbed from the blood or introduced after death, such as through embalming processes.
In the case of Phar Lap, researchers were able to determine that arsenic had been metabolized: the horse had been given a massive dose of arsenic one to two days before he died. Those preliminary results were released a couple years ago. The final report, the official conclusion, was published in April under the title Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap.
A tidy, scientific way of describing a shameful episode and an example of epically bad sportsmanship. I’m glad that researchers in Australia were so determined to find some answers about the death of Phar Lap, even it serves only to remind us of the realities of the American horse racing business of the 1930s, with its underpinnings of crooked money and sweaty desperation.
It’s not justice, of course. Because Phar Lap deserved so much better. The big copper horse deserved to be more than a fleeting star, a flash in the sky. He deserved a chance to finish his glorious career with a much-petted old age in one of those fabled green pastures … I hope that whoever came bearing arsenic to the stable in those soft April days of 1932 didn’t finish out his own days happy and healthy. The man — whoever he was — deserves so much worse.

(Note: This story of Phar Lap is cross-posted today on Women in Crime Ink, a true crime blog that I write for on a monthly basis)

Comments

  1. #1 Keith Harwood
    June 23, 2010

    `Melbourne Stakes’? Don’t you mean Melbourne Cup?

  2. #2 Alan
    June 24, 2010

    The big copper racehorse from Australia? At the risk of inflaming trans-Tasman tensions, Phar Lap was and always will be a New Zealand icon.

  3. #3 Deborah Blum
    June 24, 2010

    Sorry, I was probably over-concise there. Fixed it, as you’ll see!

  4. #4 Deborah Blum
    June 24, 2010

    I do – change made.

  5. #5 Dwayne Nichols
    June 24, 2010

    A sad story, well told, about a great Austaliasian sporting icon.

  6. #6 Anneke
    June 25, 2010

    An “Asian language?” As opposed to, maybe, Europese? ;)

    Great story, though. Very poignant.

  7. #7 Phar Long
    June 26, 2010

    @Alan : Sorry, no, he’s an Australian national hero. He might have been born in NZ, but like so many Kiwi “icons” his success took place in Australia, with Australians, by Australians. Simply being born in New Zealand is obviously enough to make him a “hero” by Kiwi standards, but in Australia success is measured by your achievements, not your birthright. Perhaps that’s why so many Kiwis come over here eh? ;)

    P.S. – Phar Lap is Thai, not “Asian”. The Thai word for thunder is “Phar Long” – which means sky crying out.

  8. #8 Helly
    June 26, 2010

    “Science finds” makes it sound like science is a person. The usage of this sort of language runs the risk of clumping all findings together and treating them like a cohesive dogma, as frequently seen in arguments by creationists. I would suggest “science confirms” as an alternative. The more we talk about science as a process as opposed to a magical fountain that spontaneously spews forth knowledge the more the layman will understand it.

  9. #9 Roger
    June 26, 2010

    There are creationists in the world, this does not mean we should throw logic away. Quite the opposite, creationists are a sign that the world needs more logic and less confusion.

  10. #10 Grant
    June 26, 2010

    Nice article; it’s good to see the research set in it’s wider context. It makes my own brief report of the science seem rather cold in hindsight. (Brief because I had DIY work on the house to do!)

    Phar Long,

    Two different things: the nationality of the horse, and the nation (or people) that their success could be attributed to.

    Phar Lap is a New Zealand horse; the success in training him, etc., is Australian. I made a small nod to this, as Deborah does too, in my brief account of the science. I have to stand by Deborah on this one.

  11. #11 bunny
    June 26, 2010

    @Phar Long

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but most of those Kiwis that find success in Australia, had success long before moving to Australia, and long before Australians learn about them.

    And only Australian arrogance hides the truth from the Australian public. Along with the sad Australian claim to the Pavlova. The Australian who invented it had only returned from a six month trip to NZ when he “invented” it… YEARS after the name and the recipe had been published in many Kiwi recipe books. So did he invent it ten years prior to telling anyone about it, and somehow someone in NZ magically came up with the same base recipe and gave it the same name?

    There are a small number of Kiwis who publicly state that they no longer consider themselves Kiwis, and I support them. Most Kiwis though, for some unknown reason prefer to continue to be known as Kiwis, and ask to be buried in NZ (like one “Australian of the year” that had a fair bit to do with eye surgery).

  12. #12 Deborah Blum
    June 26, 2010

    As I understand it, Phar Lap’s name has roots in both the Thai languages and a Chinese dialect. I compromised and just said Asian language: http://museumvictoria.com.au/pharlap/horse/lightning.asp

    And responding to the discussions on claims to fame, I’ve got to say that a pavlova is one of the world’s great desserts and I only wish that it had been invented in the United States.

  13. #13 Dave Sheehan
    June 28, 2010

    I have never “blogged” before, but I feel morally obligated here. My grandfather worked with polo horses and race horses in northern California during the early 1900′s. A good friend of his worked as Phar Lap’s groom while he was stabled in Menlo Park. According to the groom, Phar Lap got out of his paddock and wandered into an “off limits” section of pasture that had been treated with weed killer that contained very high levels of arsenic. Phar Lap grazed in the tainted pasture for several hours. The groom retrieved Phar Lap and put him back in his stall. Soon afterwards, the horse became very ill. A vet was called but it was too late. At the time, the vet claimed the cause of death was acute colic. It is not uncommon for horses to die suddenly from colic. The groom never told anyone, (except for my grandfather), that Phar Lap had gotten out of the paddock. He did not want to lose his job.

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    June 28, 2010

    This talk of arsenic and some work I am doing IRL reminds me that arsenic is routinely given to chickens to increase the rate they put on weight. Enough so that chicken manure has so much arsenic that it really shouldn’t be used as fertilizer, an average of ~16 ppm.

  15. #15 Deborah Blum
    June 28, 2010

    Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Arsenic and cyanide were incredible common in the 1930s as insecticides – which makes this very possible. The thinnest part of the gangster murder theory has always been the motive, at least two me. Did they not want the competition, had they lost money in the earlier race…which is why some simpler idea like this is so appealing. At least to me.

  16. #16 Deborah Blum
    June 28, 2010

    You know, that arsenic in chicken feed subject is on the short list for me for this blog. Or it had been. Thanks for reminding me!

  17. #17 Dermot Henry
    July 1, 2010

    Museum Victoria recently acquired Harry Telford’s book of horse tonics. Telford was Phar Lap’s trainer. Numerous recipes in the book contain arsenic as an ingredient. Arsenic was widely used in the racing industry. In our paper (Kempson and Henry, Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap, we do not try to attribute a source for the arsenic rather we just state our data which supports that he had unfortunately ingested a large dose. We will never know if it was accidental or malicious.

  18. #18 Deborah Blum
    July 4, 2010

    Thanks for writing – gives me a chance to say directly what a nice piece of research your Phar Lap study was – a really great way to look at the process of science as well. It is one of the great frustrations of toxicology isn’t it, that identifying the poison doesn’t necessarily mean identifying the poisoner. But it’s been interesting to hear all the different possibilities as people have commented. I must figure out a way to write about this!

  19. #19 ankara nakliyat
    July 15, 2010

    Very nice makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Arsenic and cyanide were incredible common in the 1930s as insecticides – which makes this very possible. The thinnest part of the gangster murder theory has always been the motive, at least two me. Did they not want the competition, had they lost money in the earlier race…which is why some simpler idea like this is so appealing. At least to me.

  20. #20 ankara nakliye
    August 28, 2010

    makes it sound like science is a person. The usage of this sort of language runs the risk of clumping all findings together and treating them like a cohesive dogma, as frequently seen in arguments by creationists. I would suggest “science confirms” as an alternative

  21. #21 ankara nakliyat
    August 30, 2010

    very nice web site thanks very nice makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Arsenic and cyanide were incredible common in the 1930s as insecticides – which makes this very possible. The thinnest part of the gangster murder theory has always been the motive, at least two me. Did they not want the competition, had they lost money in the earlier race…which is why some simpler idea like this is so appealing.

  22. #22 bt
    September 1, 2010

    why do nz try to claim him all the time. no one over there wanted him, he was bought for rock bottom price and he was trained and loved here in australia where he raced all but one race. lived most of his live here. trained by an aussie. enough said.

  23. #23 ankara evden eve nakliyat
    October 9, 2010

    incredible common in the 1930s as insecticides – which makes this very possible. The thinnest part of the gangster murder theory has always been the motive, at least two me. Did they not want the competition, had they lost money in the earlier race…which is why some simpler idea like this is

  24. #24 yakutlar nakliyat
    October 24, 2010

    in the 1930s as insecticides – which makes this very possible. The thinnest part of the gangster murder theory has always been the motive, at least two me. Did they not want the competition, had they lost money in the earlier race…which is why some simpler idea like this

  25. #25 Peter Thompson and Geoff Armstrong
    November 21, 2010

    An interesting article, unfortunately not supported by the evidence.
    It is not surprising that arsenic was found in the horse’s system, as he was regularly fed it as part of a tonic commonly used by race horse trainers of the time. However, the claim that he ingested a ‘massive dose’ cannot be verified by the snychrotron analysis, nor is it supported by the signs that the horse displayed in the eight hours he took to die.
    Horses with acute arsenic poisoning display signs for 24 to 48 hours before they die, Phar Lap showed signs for eight. Acute arsenic poisoning results in gross, bloody diarrhea. Phar Lap’s manure was normal. A diagnosis of acute arsenic poisoning relies on a finding of a concentration of 10 parts per million in the liver; Phar Lap had less than 12% of this level.
    In our book ‘They Shot Phar Lap, Didn’t They?’ the finding that the great horse was killed by a bacterial infection in the small intestine was confirmed by a leading US veterinary toxicologists. What we find most surprising about the whole sad story is that people so willingly believe the preposterous notion of arsenic poisoning ahead of a more logical and much more common bacterial infection.

  26. #26 halı yıkama
    December 11, 2010

    no, he’s an Australian national hero. He might have been born in NZ, but like so many Kiwi “icons” his success took place in Australia, with Australians, by Australians. Simply being born in New Zealand is obviously enough to make him a “hero” by Kiwi standards, but in Australia success is measured by your achievements, not your birthright. Perhaps that’s