When Australia was bogged down by economic Depression, Phar Lap the chestnut racehorse became an unlikely symbol of hope.
Born in New Zealand, he started as an awkward, unpromising colt without the grace and beauty typical of most champions. But his handlers saw promise in him, and named him after the Thai word for lightning. This underdog coached by an unheard-of trainer ended up winning 37 of his 51 races from 1928 to 1932, frequently by several lengths, including the coveted Melbourne Cup. Phar Lap’s unlikely success made him a fan favorite, attracting Australians who had never once been to a race to follow the “Wonder Horse’s” rise to the top.
Tragically, Phar Lap died suddenly after his first North American win in 1932. No clear cause of death has ever been decided, though speculations include infections and deliberate poisonings. Australia and New Zealand went into mourning for the horse, and his remains were distributed like relics.
His skeleton went to New Zealand’s national museum, while his hide was mounted for the Melbourne Museum. His massive heart, weighing almost 14 pounds (about twice as big as an average horse’s heart), inspired the phrase “a heart as big as Phar Lap’s.” The organ that powered the incredible horse is preserved in the National Museum of Australia, a fitting place for the relic of a national icon.