New Claim: Arsenic Poisoning Killed Phar Lap

Arsenic killed Australasia's greatest racehorse Phar Lap near San Francisco 74 years ago, a new scientific study alleges. The story in the Rupert Murdoch-owned (Melbourne) Sun-Herald suggests that the finding 'reveals' that Phar Lap was poisoned.

It contends that a lethal dose of the poison was administered to New Zealand's great champion about 35 hours before he collapsed and died at Menlo Park, California on April 5, 1932.

Previous theories included speculation that the champion died of a stomach condition. But there remained the suspicion of foul play. There were accusations that some were trying to avoid losses from Phar Lap's anticipated U.S. successes, following his grand win in the Agua Caliente Handicap at Tijuana, Mexico, on March 20 of that year.

Before his death at five, Phar Lap won 37 of 51 races in his four-year career including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

Six hairs were taken from the horse's stuffed hide at the Melbourne museum, sent to a U.S. laboratory in June and analyzed by a synchrotron--a light-emitting particle accelerator.

The quoted report states: "The arsenic in the hair structure is consistent with ... a single large dose of arsenic between one to two days prior to death".

Australian scientists who participated in the study were quoted as saying that arsenic associated with traces of lead were also found in the sample.

"The lead arsenate may have been used to preserve the hide but produces a different chemical signature and distinct from ingested arsenic," Ivan Kempson said.

"You will never get a 100% definitive answer, there is no doubt about it," the Australian Synchrotron Research Program scientist continued. "But we cannot explain it by any other way than the scenario of poisoning."

On face value, the report tends to discredit the long-held theory that Phar Lap died as a result of cumulative effects of arsenic--regularly administered as a tonic to at least 90% of racehorses before testing regimes were introduced.

Australia's best known veterinary surgeon, Percy Sykes, doubts the veracity of the findings and believes the horse died of Colitis-X.

"That fatal, stress-related, disease could explain the presence of arsenic," he said.