Phar Lap: more relics for the reliquary

So it seems that last week, while I was in Western Australia pursuing research that has nothing whatsoever to do with horses, a few extra bits of Phar Lap’s heart were found in storage at the National Museum of Australia.

These pieces are thought to be from the triangular section of the heart that has been cut out, and have been labelled as such on the jars that contain them. While last week’s press reports claim the heart was sent back to Australia to determine what killed Phar Lap, this is not in fact the case. The heart was specifically requested by Dr Stewart McKay, a man with an interest in the physiology of racehorses. His interest lay in Phar Lap’s astonishing performance, and this was why he wished to examine the heart.[1] The cause of the horse’s death, acute colicky inflammation, had already been determined at the necropsy carried out two days after Phar Lap’s death.[2]

This detail shouldn’t matter but it does. It is indicative of the ongoing transformation of Phar Lap from a real horse, into a figure of myth and legend. The pervasive narrative around the ‘mystery’ of Phar Lap’s death continues to imbue all mention of the horse, and, while the exact manner in which he ingested the arsenic that killed him remains unknown*, the physical cause of his death was clear from the time of the necropsy. This error – attributing an investigation into a mystery where there was none – might be a simple misunderstanding, however the fact remains that every time ‘mystery’ is invoked in Phar Lap’s name, the horse is further eclipsed from his own narrative.

Phar Lap was not a god (though by the way many people seem to react to seeing his remains you might be mistaken for thinking otherwise). He was a horse. He ate, and shat, and won races. And yet, he has also come to be a legend, a cultural icon that wields power many decades after his death. His role as something of a local hero during the Depression makes sense, but his continued celebration today has nothing to do with the role he played in 1930s Australia, and everything to do with the process of historification. [3]

It remains to be seen how these new pieces of ‘the most famous racehorse in history’ [4] (or, as one of my friends put it in a comment on Facebook, ‘the greatest hyperbole the world has ever seen’), will contribute to the Cult of Phar Lap. The only thing we can be sure of is that what was previously a ‘Holy Trinity’ of objects, has now expanded!

* The most widely-held theory today is that the overdose was accidental, as arsenic was a common ingredient in the various homemade tonics prepared for racehorses by trainers. See Catalyst, Australian Broadcasting Commission, aired 19 June 2008,


[1] National Museum of Australia file 90/163, Harry Telford collection.

[2] ‘Autopsy findings 9/4/1932’, transcript on National Museum of Australia file 90/163, Harry Telford collection.

[3] Isa Menzies, ‘Phar Lap: from racecourse to reliquary,’ ReCollections vol 8 no. 1

[4] Dr Martha Sear, quoted in ‘Phar Lap: Missing pieces of horse’s heart discovered in National Museum of Australia,’ ABC 666, In the audio from which the article draws this quote from Sear, however, she actually states that he was ‘Australia’s greatest racehorse’.


3 thoughts on “Phar Lap: more relics for the reliquary

  1. Hello Isa, Hasn’t the latest discussion around the heart been fascinating. I think you’ll find that McKay and Welsh were curious about what caused Phar Lap’s death. Contemporary newspaper reports focus on McKay’s view that ‘the great horse certainly did not die of heart disease’ (see for example When I used the phrase ‘Australia’s greatest racehorse’ I had in mind comments McKay himself made several years before Phar Lap’s death: that he was ‘The greatest racer of all time’ (see ‘Phar Lap: Greatest Racehorse of All Time’

    • Thanks for your comments Martha. I didn’t think there was ever any suggestion that Phar Lap died of heart disease, with contemporary news reports fairly consistent in giving causes relating to digestion – from colic to ulcers. Perhaps Walsh & McKay’s comments were more an affirmation of the horse’s strong and healthy heart? And I have no quibble whatsoever with referring to Phar Lap as Australia’s greatest racehorse, an apellation that continues to be used today. My point was regarding the editing of the comment in the news article to omit the qualifier of ‘Australia’.
      I think a future museum historian will have a fascinating job some decades from now, tracking the changing status of the newly discovered bits!

  2. Pingback: ‘Spirited’ away by an engrossing exhibition | horsesfordiscourses

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