Evidence was recently released stating a pretty strong case for arsenic poisoning to be the cause of death of Phar Lap, Australia’s most famous horse. Immediately after, there were stories all over the Australian press – bad grass, mysterious tonic, or just more speculation. The popular theory is that he was poisoned by American mafia interests because they were scared of his potential effect on their income. He won too much, so was an easy bet.
Why so much speculation over a horse that was born eighty years ago? Because Phar Lap is a hero to Australia. He is on display in the Victorian Museum, standing proud for school kids and old aged pensioners alike. From the museum website:
“He triumphed during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when a hero was most needed by the people of Australia.”
Phar Lap was more than a horse, he was something the people could rally around. Something that brought them happiness when most of their lives were a struggle. Again, from the museum website:
“Days after the death of his horse, trainer Harry Telford said: ‘He was an angel. A human being couldn’t have had more sense. He was almost human; could do anything but talk. I’ve never practised idolatry, but by … I loved that horse.’
Like many Australians, Telford attributed to Phar Lap qualities both human and divine. Among the ‘human’ characteristics described was his bravery. In an age when memories of Gallipoli were still strong, one of the main themes was that Phar Lap was a noble warrior, who persevered and never gave up.
Jockey Jim Pike, who rode Phar Lap in most of his races, summed up his performance in the 1931 Futurity Stakes at Caulfield, where the odds were stacked against him, with the words, ‘I thought his heart would burst.’
In Australia, such attributes are not enough in themselves—it is important that our heroes are also ‘good blokes’, likeable and approachable.
The press emphasised the horse’s peaceable nature, and newspaper images showed Phar Lap carrying Telford’s young son, or rolling playfully in the sand, or taking an apple quietly from his strapper, Tommy Woodcock, whose touching relationship with the horse was also often celebrated.”
So, I ask you, can a horse be a hero?