23 October 2006

Scientists solve Phar Lap death mystery

Agençe France-Presse
Legendary Australian racehorse Phar Lap may have been poisoned by arsenic, new analysis reveals.
Scientists solve Phar Lap death mystery

Phar Lap was an Australian legend, as evidenced by this souvenir poster released after his death. A new study suggests he died of arsenic poisoning in 1932. Credit: Museum Victoria

SYDNEY: Legendary Australian racehorse Phar Lap may have been poisoned by arsenic, a report in the Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper said today.

The newspaper revealed that new scientific tests have uncovered evidence the iconic horse received a large dose of arsenic just hours before he collapsed and died in 1932.

The Telegraph said the revelation adds credence to the theory that Phar Lap was killed on the orders of U.S. gangsters, who feared the Melbourne Cup-winning champion would inflict big losses on their illegal bookmakers.

Phar Lap was one of the most successful racehorses in Australian racing history, winning 37 of his 51 starts including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

The giant five-year-old New Zealand-bred chestnut died an agonising death in mysterious circumstances in California after winning an international race at Agua Caliente in Mexico only days before.

On the morning of Phar Lap’s death, trainer Harry Telford found him in severe pain and with a high temperature. A few hours later Phar Lap died, blood spurting from his lungs as he haemorrhaged to death.

Scientists used a U.S. synchrotron, or particle accelerator, to unlock the riddle, the newspaper said. The ring-shaped accelerator bombarded the sample of Phar Lap’s hair with light roughly one million times as intense as the sun, allowing scientists to determine accurately its chemical make-up.

The results show a large dose of arsenic was ingested by ‘Big Red’ about 35 hours before his death on 5 April 1932, the newspaper said.

“The arsenic in the hair structure is consistent with … a single large dose of arsenic between one to two days prior to death,” the report said. The results of the test were similar to those performed on a pig that had been poisoned with arsenic.

The cause of Phar Lap’s death has been unknown up to now, and speculation has ranged from have ranged from accidental lead poisoning to acute bacterial gastroenteritis.

“We’ve made observations which could be explained by poison. We can’t explain it by any other way,” Australian Synchrotron Research Program scientist Ivan Kempson told the newspaper.

Synchrotrons have been used before to identify poisons in forensic investigations. In 2000 researchers analysed a strand of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair and determined he had died as a result of lead poisoning.

Phar Lap’s 6.4-kilogram heart lies in the National Museum in Canberra, while his hide, preserved by taxidermists, is on display inside a glass case in the Melbourne Museum.

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