Phar Lap's Hide
How did a New Zealand-born horse become one of Australia’s most loved and enduring icons? Political cartoonist and columnist Warren Brown visits Melbourne Museum where the legendary Phar Lap – or at least his preserved hide – stands in a glass case.
Curator Elizabeth Willis explains why this big red horse won our hearts and the circumstances around his mysterious death.
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How do you know when you've cracked it for hero status in Australia, when you've made it as an Aussie icon?
Well you can be officially big, like the Big Banana, or you can have a song written about you, like Our Don Bradman. Or, you can enter the vernacular, 'as game as Ned Kelly'. But what happens when you score all three? Then you get a four-legged National Treasure.
Just a wonder horse known on every course . . .
He was affectionately known as 'Big Red', he was immortalised in song, and if you showed a bit of 'ticker', they said you had a heart as big as Phar Lap.
So why did a humble horse become a sporting legend?
Phar Lap's hide is on display here, at the Melbourne Museum.
Well here he is, all 17.1 hands of magnificent chestnut horseflesh. And take a look at him, it looks like he's ready to leap out of the glass case and do a few laps flat strap around Flemington. It's a nice idea, but it's not going to happen because, apart from being dead, he's missing a few vital ingredients — his skeleton, which is in New Zealand, and his heart, which is in the National Museum, in Canberra.
Elizabeth Willis is an expert on Australian social history. Elizabeth, at the time Phar Lap was racing, life would have been pretty tough for the average Australian.
Yes, it was because it was in the middle of the depression, and unemployment was up to about 30 per cent in some parts of Australia. People felt their Government had let them down, and they were looking for someone who would be persistent and persevere.
Australians love an underdog as much as they love a punt, so the timing would have been right for Phar Lap.
Yes, he was very cheap when he was purchased, and in his first few races he didn't do very well at all.
But it didn't take him long, though.
No, within a few months he started winning, and he won 37 races.
Out of how many — 51?
And he was so good that he was sent to America where he won the …
Agua Caliente race.
I'm glad you said that. And he had a mysterious death, and the theory was he was poisoned. Was he poisoned?
No. The people at the time thought he probably had been poisoned by these wicked Americans, but more recent research suggests it was a viral cause¹.
Australia's noblest racehorse, Phar Lap. What a pathetic contrast as the champion returns to Sydney. A perfect example of the taxidermist's art has restored Phar Lap.
So, when he died, when Australia's national identity was at its absolute lowest, it must have been a devastating thing for Joe Public.
Yes, it was front page news, and many Australians grieved greatly, many of them wrote condolence letters to Telford, the trainer, expressing their sympathy for him, and saying that Phar Lap was really like one of their family.
High profile sporting heroes are common enough these days, but back in Phar Lap's time they were pretty hard to come by. He was featured in the new talking newsreels, and was used to advertise all sorts of products, sort of like flogging a live horse really, and just before his death Hollywood was keen to tell his life story.
So is it any wonder that Phar Lap is still a legend, and will always be a National Treasure.
¹ Correction: Phar Lap's cause of death was actually anterior enteritis, a bacterial infection which attacks a horse's bowel and can kill it in hours.