The much chronicled death of the great Aussie chestnut racehorse Phar Lap, lightning on the track and sent to America to compete in 1932, should prove to anyone that animals are capable of feeling and can, indeed, suffer through agonizingly painful circumstances before death.
Assassination Attempt on Phar Lap
Many Australians who love the sport of horse racing and its equine heroes still suffer themselves with any thoughts of their amazingly talented Phar Lap dying in California on April 5, 1932 only six years into a brilliant life. Phar Lap was a racing machine with no equal in Australia. He frequently covered two miles of racing like the wind, flying when and as he wished past all rivals in 37 of 51 career competitions.
It is an argued fact that persons conspired to assassinate Phar Lap in Australia before he ran in the country’s most famous Thoroughbred race, the Melbourne Cup, in 1930. The attempt failed, thanks in part to the horse’s constant human companion, Tommy Woodcock, who shielded him from a gun fired from a moving Studebaker approaching the corner of James and Etna Streets in Caulfield. Woodcock, who also served as Phar Lap’s groom and trainer, was riding a gray pony and leading Phar Lap back to his stables at Caulfield racecourse after a track workout.
This first attempt on Phar Lap’s life is why Aussies remain convinced that their Big Red’s death two years later in the United States was the work of criminals.
Phar Lap in America
Harry R. Telford, who initially trained Phar Lap, would not go to the United States to race the phenomenal, 17-hand champion. He told Phar Lap’s owner, American David J. Davis, he would not leave the large stable of horses in training that he had acquired due to Phar Lap’s expansive success to accompany Phar Lap to America. But he did arrange for Woodcock, whom he made his assistant trainer, to go with Phar Lap to race him in Mexico in the $50,000 Agua Caliente Handicap March 20, 1932.
Woodcock and Phar Lap traveled by boat to New Zealand, where Phar Lap had been bred, then to California, arriving in San Francisco on January 15. From there, Woodcock drove Phar Lap’s horse van to Tijuana for Big Red’s first race off Australian shores.
Sixteen days after overcoming hoof problems and carrying top weight in the Agua Caliente and winning by two lengths, Phar Lap died cradled in the arms of his sorrowful groom, trainer, and friend, Woodcock.
What Killed Phar Lap?
Mystery has forever revolved around the death of Phar Lap. In 2000 and 2005, material written by Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson described the assertion that Phar Lap suffered an attack “by an enterotoxin of bacterial origin, a poison, that caused Anterior Enteritis (or more correctly Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis). This disease syndrome was not identified in the veterinary science literature until the early 1980s, so it was never considered as a possible cause of Phar Lap’s death”.
In the July 10, 2010 issue of Thoroughbred Times newsmagazine, an article entitled “Study Concludes Phar Lap Died of Arsenic Poisoning” appeared on page six. The article discusses a finding for the demise of Phar Lap as ingested arsenic. It quotes a report stating, “Phar Lap’s autopsy and pre-death symptoms are consistent with arsenic poisoning and the current study provides strong chemical evidence of a ‘large-quantity arsenic ingestion’ (poisoning).”
This report, the article said, is filed as “Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap” and published in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition on June 7, 2010.
Animals Are Sentient Individuals Who Can Suffer
While the results of testing hairs from Phar Lap’s preserved hide described in the chemistry journal will no doubt meet with continued debate over Phar Lap’s cause of death, the actual painful last agony that Phar Lap suffered cannot be disputed. Woodcock tearfully described it to his own last dying day.
Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, takes the stand that animals are tied to “profound vulnerability” in the hands of man, that when “injured, or abused, animals shriek, squeal, squawk, bark, growl, whinny, and whimper” in their pain and suffering.
The wonder racehorse Phar Lap moaned hour after hour lying beside Woodcock in obvious pain, suffering profoundly until he breathed his last breath two days after the onset of his fatal illness.
/Additional Resources: Phar Lap, by Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson, 2003 Edition, Allen & Unwin; Melbourne Cup 1930, by Geoff Armstrong and Peter Thompson, 2005, A Sue Hines Book, Allen & Unwin; Phar Lap the People’s Champion, DVD, 2001 Raceplay Video (Woodcock-Telford-Davis interviews)/