Phar Lap Redux

By Morton Cathro
News reports from Australia alleging that the country's legendary wonder horse, Phar Lap, died not of colic but of deliberate arsenic poisoning, has thrust affluent Atherton, a secluded enclave on the San Francisco peninsula, into the limelight once again.

It was on the old Suzanne Perry horse farm in Atherton on April 5, 1932, that the giant gelding, believed by some to be the greatest Thoroughbred ever seen on the North American continent, met his mysterious and tragic end just 16 days after his greatest racing triumph.

This latest salvo from Down Under in the 74-year battle of words over exactly what or who caused the champion's death is being taken in stride by locals. After all, charges that "You Yanks killed Phar Lap" are nothing new to them.

"I hate to think someone would do something so horrible to such a lovely animal," said Marion Oster, president of the Atherton Heritage Association, as she escorted this correspondent to the stable where a suddenly distressed Phar Lap, his belly swollen, collapsed and died that spring day so long ago.

The supposed horrible deed, according to conspiracy theorists, was the intentional poisoning of the foreign invader by our Mafia to keep him from wiping out America's bookies in forthcoming races in which he would be a prohibitive favorite.

The theory was given a fresh airing Oct. 23 when a Sydney scientist announced that results of a test on hair follicles taken from Phar Lap's stuffed hide "proved" the animal was administered a single, fatal dose of arsenic. However, several prominent Australian horsemen have challenged the findings.

"This is something that comes up every so often, usually about Melbourne Cup time," said leading trainer Bart Cummings, who thinks it's possible the horse could have died from a gradual buildup of arsenic in Fowler's Solution and other tonics regularly administered to racehorses -- including Phar Lap -- of that era.

But Percy Sykes, 86, founder of Sydney's Randwick Equine Center, said there was "much more chance of him dying of travel sickness or natural causes."

This latter assessment is consistent with the conclusion of most Phar Lap biographers that exhaustion played a key role in his demise. They point to his arduous campaign in Australia, during which he won 37 of 51 races -- some after as little as two days' rest -- while carrying up to 150 pounds. His 18-day sea voyage to San Francisco, his 1,200-mile roundtrip by truck between Atherton and Tijuana, plus his unorthodox training schedule, made him especially vulnerable to acute intestinal distress were he to ingest moldy feed or grass heavy with dew.

California trainer Noble Threewitt, 95, who witnessed Phar Lap's sensational March 20 victory in the $50,000-added Agua Caliente Handicap, recalled the Aussie handlers' training regimen: "Every day they galloped him up and down over those rocky hills in the hot sun. We all thought they were crazy..."

Today, a strikingly lifelike Phar Lap stands stuffed behind glass in the Melbourne Museum; his skeleton is in his native New Zealand; his huge heart in Canberra. Following the post mortem on the day he died (during which no arsenic was found), his remaining vital organs were buried in a metal box, the exact location of which has eluded searchers, armed with metal detectors, ever since.

The old stable in California now is part of the cluttered maintenance yard of adjacent Menlo College, and not open to the public. But every April, Mrs. Oster posts a display of Phar Lap memorabilia in town to keep his memory alive. In recent years a prime minister of Australia has visited; a television crew has filmed a documentary; and a Phar Lap Day, complete with banners and official proclamation, has been staged. There's been talk of planting a memory garden. And now from Australia comes word of plans for another movie about its national hero who, like Seabiscuit, was a beacon of hope to a desperate nation struggling through the Great Depression.

This writer once asked Mrs. Plum Haet, retired secretary of the Victoria Racing Club of Melbourne -- the sport's ruling body -- about her fellow countrymen's steadfast belief in the conspiracy theory. "I wouldn't call it a national obsession," she replied. "It's more of a passively accepted fact, even though it's untrue."