Death of Phar Lap

Australian Conservatives Release

On 5 April 1932, legendary Australian race horse Phar Lap (aka “Red Terror”, “Big Red” and “Bobby”) died in the US of arsenic poisoning.

Phar Lap’s death ended a phenomenal racing career spanning the depths of the Great Depression – a period when a proud sporting and betting nation like Australia was desperate for some hope, inspiration, heroism and a good rags-to-riches story.

After inauspicious beginnings, Phar Lap bagged 37 wins from his 51 races over four years, including 32 wins from his last 35 starts. This included the 1930 Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates (1930-31), the AJC and Victoria Derbies (both in 1929) and the Agua Caliente Handicap in north-western Mexico (the then richest race on the North American continent). The latter was the first race in his North American campaign and the last race before he died, in the bay area of San Francisco, California.

Controversy surrounds Phar Lap’s death. It was initially thought that he had been the victim of foul play – poisoned by US gangsters wanting to protect their lucrative bet-fixing rings. Some speculated that the champion had succumbed to an illness of the digestive system abroad.

Accounts from Phar Lap’s dedicated strapper, Tommy Woodcock, suggested the horse was accidentally poisoned during his usual preparation for races by being administered too much performance-enhancing “tonic” (aka ‘Fowler’s solution’) on tour. This ‘tonic’ was allegedly common in the industry and included arsenic and strychnine – highly toxic over time and easily lethal – which may help explain a grossly-enlarged heart and the saying, “A heart the size of Phar Lap”.

In the mid-late noughties, the most detailed and recent forensic analysis concluded that Phar Lap ingested a lethal dose of arsenic hours before his death. Whether this was deliberate or accidental is still in dispute.

Celebrate the life of this iconic Aussie race horse of the Depression era this week by:

  • watching these documentaries (or this film) on the amazing story of Phar Lap
  • viewing these clips of races Big Red had famously won
  • checking out the display of Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum (or his massive heart on display in the National Museum in Canberra)
  • reading further about the origin and achievements of this Aussie legend
  • sharing your thoughts on Phar Lap’s career and death by commenting on our Facebook post of this Action Plan
  • visiting the races this weekend in honour of this great horse, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, other Aussies and sporting enthusiasts.

/Public Release. View in full here.