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The Death Of Phar Lap Essay

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Historical detective work has delivered a stunning result. Evidence strongly suggests the long-lost Melbourne Cup won by Phar Lap in 1930 is still intact – and has been pressed into service as the trophy for two later Cup races. Neil Clarkson reports.

What became of Phar Lap’s 1930 Melbourne Cup? It has been one of the enduring mysteries in the proud history of the great race.

As celebrations marking this year’s 150th running of the race at Flemington unfold, it is the Timaru-born racing legend that is front-and-centre in celebrations.

His skeleton has even crossed the Tasman from Wellington’s Te Papa Museum to join his mounted hide on display at Melbourne Museum, in a special four-and-a-half-month exhibition expected to attract 350,000 visitors.

Now, a remarkable piece of historical detective work by Dr Andrew Lemon has all but completed the puzzle and most likely identified the gold cup the so-called Red Terror of the Antipodes won 80 years ago.

The historic cup has not emerged from a dusty attic or been found in some long-forgotten vault. The 1930 Melbourne Cup, it seems, resides in the Toorak, Melbourne, home of Australian socialite Lady Susan Renouf, having been pressed into use as a vase.

How did Dr Lemon, an independent historian, manage to trace the trophy back to 1930?

Dr Lemon, whose third volume of The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing has just been released, began his research into Phar Lap’s cup in earnest three years ago, when he helped prove that an engraved gold trophy held by a New South Wales car dealer, and purported to be Phar Lap’s missing prize, was a forgery.

It has been a journey in which Dr Lemon used all his skills as a historian to put together, piece by piece, a puzzle to deliver a compelling argument that Lady Renouf’s rose vase is, indeed, Phar Lap’s cup.

“I would put the likelihood at more than 90 per cent,” Dr Lemon told Horsetalk. “I’m a historian, not a journalist, but the circumstantial evidence is very strong.”

Dr Lemon has extensively researched records, some of which categorically confirm parts of the cup’s history and others which come tantalisingly close to proving beyond doubt that the cup is the real deal.

While that final piece of evidence remains elusive, there can be no doubting the quality of his research and the strength of his findings.

So compelling is the case that Lady Renouf’s cup will at various times be on display during Victoria’s Spring Racing Carnival in the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup early in November.

Lady Renouf’s cup was the spoils of victory in the 1980 Melbourne Cup. She was then Susan Sangster, wife of well-known English thoroughbred owner and breeder Robert Sangster, whose stallion, Beldale Ball, claimed the cup victory.

Dr Lemon had noted an interesting curiosity about the 1980 Melbourne Cup. It was not like other Melbourne Cups of the era.

“After 1930, the Melbourne Cups that were made right up to this year were all similar in terms of dimensions and the amount of gold in them,” he explains.

It was clear that Lady Renouf’s heavier cup did not belong in the 1980s.

The reason for that has been established beyond doubt: the 1980 cup was actually the recycled 1953 Melbourne Cup, which was won by Wodalla.

“There is no doubt about that at all,” Dr Lemon explains. “The people involved in doing that are alive and well. We established that the 1980 cup was definitely the 1953 cup.”

Victoria Racing Club records confirm that.

However, it transpires that the 1953 Melbourne Cup was clearly not a product of the 1950s. It was bigger than the cups of the 1950s by a significant amount – by some 150 to 200 grams.

Too big? That pointed to the possibility that the 1953 Melbourne Cup was also recycled – and at least 23 years old when Wodalla stormed to the win.

Dr Lemon is helped by the fact that not all Melbourne Cups are identical. Those made between 1919 and 1930 – the year Phar Lap won it – were all considerably heavier than the cups which have been manufactured since.

“They are not identical,” Dr Lemon says of the 12 heavier cups, from the era when the distinctive three-handled design came to the fore.

“They all look like what you think of with the Melbourne Cup, but when you get into the details there are differences.”

Dr Lemon was put on to the records of the original goldsmith who made the cups by the maker’s grandson, the material being held in the archives of the University of Melbourne.

The records of Melbourne goldsmith James Steeth gave the weight of the 1930 cup, but not all the dimensions.

Steeth and his son, Maurice, were responsible for making all Melbourne Cups from 1919 to 1970, and their apprentice, Lucky Rocca, continued their work. That meant only three goldsmiths were responsible for the manufacture of the cups over an 80-year period.

Such research got Dr Lemon only so far, but key questions remained. Lady Renouf’s cup was unquestionably a Melbourne Cup – it was won in that capacity in 1980 and in 1953. But was it also a Melbourne Cup from the 1919 to 1930 era?

Dr Lemon has no doubts. The cup meets every description, is the correct weight, and even carries the mark of W.M. Drummond and Co, the Melbourne-based jewellers who effectively acted as the middle man between the goldsmiths and the Victoria Racing Club.

Unfortunately, Australia did not use the British hallmarks system, which would have seen marks stamped into the cup which would have identified the date of manufacture – and prove once and for all it was Phar Lap’s Cup.

It was highly unlikely the cup could have been a replica, he says. He has never found any records to indicate such a cup was ever made.

“So, if it was made before 1931, whose cup could be it be?” he asks, in outlining the path taken in his research.

“That turned out to be a bit of a detective story in itself.”

Accounting for the 12 cups was no easy task.

He applied two strategies. Firstly, what cups could he actually locate and therefore eliminate? Second, for those he could not locate, were there reliable sightings of them on record after 1953?

If so, he could safely eliminate them as they could not be Lady Renouf’s Cup – which was by that time taking pride of place in the home of the 1953 winner.

In the end, question marks hung over four cups – 1921, 1922, 1925 and 1926.

The 1926 cup was won by Spearfelt. The cup’s owner died in 1972 and left the trophy to his niece, Dr Lemon explains. “It has turned out that when he died the cup had disappeared. His family believe he still had it in 1953.”

He therefore considers it highly doubtful this could be the cup in Lady Renouf’s possession.

The goldsmith’s records studied by Dr Lemon revealed the measurements and weights of the 1921 and 1922 cups. “They are both too light to be the cup that Lady Renouf has,” he says.

That leaves the 1925 cup, won by Windbag, which was stolen from its owner prior to 1953. However, pictures of the cup show it to have distinctive features which rule it out as Lady Renouf’s Cup.

That left only Phar Lap’s 1930 cup.

The evidence was mounting.

“The next part of the detective work was tracing what happened to Phar Lap’s cup,” Dr Lemon says.

The cup was in the possession of trainer Harry Telford, but what did he do with it?

“We do know that Telford owned that trophy and did dispose of it when he was hard up.”

Telford actually owned three gold racing trophies, among them Phar Lap’s Cup.

Speculation surrounds the fate of the trophies after they were sold, including the suggestion they were melted down, but Dr Lemon says there is no evidence of that.

It was, Dr Lemon points out, more profitable to the parties involved to keep the cup, rebadge it, and sell it to the Victoria Racing Club, rather than manufacture a new cup from scratch.

“We know it was done on more than one occasion in the 1950s.”

Three to four cups, in various eras, were recycled, he said.

Dr Lemon says there was no collectibles market for the trophies in the 1950s and the Victoria Racing Club could have bought the recycled trophy for the value of the gold.

And, in the case of the 1953 cup, racing club records prove categorically that the Victoria Racing Club did, in fact, buy a second-hand cup that year from W.M. Drummond and Co. for £440 – coming in £110 under budget.

“They were trying to save money when the price of gold was going up.”

Not only that, but there is no record of Seeth making a Melbourne Cup that year.

It is now a matter of record that the 1980 cup in the possession of Lady Renouf was the recycled 1953 Melbourne Cup.

Dr Lemon has also shown that the 1953 Cup was, in fact, a recycled cup from 1919 to 1930.

Through a process of elimination, the evidence unearthed by Dr Lemon is compelling that the cup owned by Lady Renouf is Phar Lap’s cup.

So, how does Lady Renouf’s cup compare with photographs of Phar Lap’s trophy?

Dr Lemon says several photographs exist of Phar Lap’s cup, among them newspaper pictures at the time of its presentation.

However, the best image is a studio photograph taken of Telford’s three gold cups, now held by the Melbourne Museum.

Dr Lemon suspects Telford commissioned the photograph before he sold them, so he would have some memento to keep.

“That is by far the clearest photo,” he says. “The comparison is very, very strong.”

Dr Lemon said he had some niggling doubts about the size of some of the components, but only so much detail could be extracted from a photograph and there was distortion – however minor – of the camera lens to account for.

“[That said], it is a very, very strong resemblance.”

What of the weight?

Steeth’s records show Phar Lap’s Cup weighed 35 troy ounces (1088 grams). The cup in Lady Renouf’s possession weighs 1045 grams – a weight considered spot on for Phar Lap’s cup, given two lots of engraving, from 1930 and 1952, have been polished off the cup.

Dr Lemon’s remarkable probe has revealed what is almost certainly the startling the truth – the Melbourne Cup held by Lady Renouf is Phar Lap’s Cup – a trophy that is nothing short of an Australian national treasure and potentially worth up to $A1 million.

The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but not one piece of evidence proves with complete certainty it is Phar Lap’s cup.

Dr Lemon is not sure evidence will ever emerge to prove the case beyond a shadow of doubt.

Perhaps a document might emerge showing that W.M. Drummond and Co. had purchased the cup from Telford, ultimately to sell it on to the Victoria Racing Club. However, existing W.M. Drummond records from the 1950s are not precise, he says.

Perhaps the Telford family may uncover a record showing where and how he sold the cup.

Phar Lap’s life was one of drama and intrigue, and Andrew Lemon has played the central part in a detective story worthy of a Dick Francis novel – a page-turner with twists and turns aplenty, but in which the final page cannot yet be written.

Dr Lemon knows how the story should end, but he is a historian, not a novelist, and can deal only in the facts.

“If there is another story, another explanation, I can’t quite think of one.”

Article first published on Horsetalk.co.nz in October, 2010.

 

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Dear Australia,

We’re genuinely pleased you’re going to be looking after Phar Lap’s skeleton for a few months.

How proud were our nations when the so-called “Red Terror of the Antipodes” travelled to the United States and, with limited training and carrying a hoof injury, strode clear to win the richest race in North America?He was a magnificent racehorse and we know how much you admire what he stood for as he won race after race during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The euphoria could only have been matched by the despair that followed a fortnight later, when he died in mysterious circumstances.

It is fair to say that our shared story of Phar Lap tends to part company somewhat at this point.

It is all a matter of history now that Phar Lap’s hide went to the Melbourne Museum, where he still stands proud as a fine testament to the taxidermist’s art.

His now-delicate heart is held at the National Museum in Canberra, on display under special lighting to limit its deterioration.

Phar Lap is an Australian national treasure.

It appears that New Zealand in the 1930s did not share the same love of the Phar Lap story.

His unassembled bones were shipped to Wellington but lay in packing cases in the basement of the Dominion Museum for nearly five years.

Racing writer S. V. McEwen, then editor of the New Zealand Referee, asked about the bones and was told the museum did not have enough money to prepare the skeleton for display.

He opened an appeal in the Referee and within two weeks enough money had been subscribed to allow the bones to be articulated. They were put on display in 1938.

Phar Lap occupied a glass and mahogany case at the Dominion Museum until it closed in the early 1990s. Phar Lap’s bones were partly dismantled and taken to Trentham Racecourse where they were reassembled for temporary display in a cabinet specially built for the purpose.

A new glass cabinet was erected at Te Papa after the $300 million building’s completion and Phar Lap’s skeleton was, again, partly dismantled for the return journey to central Wellington, where he now remains.

The two reassemblies since the early 1990s have seen Phar Lap retain his same pose, and all original mounts and struts were used.

Phar Lap’s skeleton overlaid with a 1930s photo.

Sadly, his skeleton-mounting is far from impressive. He is standing sickle-hocked and the vertebrae in his back have virtually no space between them, where the disks would normally reside, meaning he is up to 20 centimetres short in the back.

Anyone who knows horses can see he’s not right.

He was a huge, long-striding thoroughbred. Instead, we’ve had him on display in New Zealand more in the pose of a laminitic pony.

Many horse lovers believe Phar Lap needs to be re-mounted; placed in a more dynamic pose.

Te Papa is not having a bar of it, suggesting Phar Lap is a historical exhibit and seemingly suggesting we should be in love with the story of how a public fund-raising campaign led to his display.

I fully understand the concept of a historic exhibit, but I cannot be convinced that Phar Lap’s poorly mounted bones fit in this category.

Surely, visitors who see him do so to see Phar Lap, not to view a shoddy example of skeleton-mounting from the 1930s.

I imagine there are hundreds of dinosaur skeletons in museums around the world that are older than Phar Lap which have been re-articulated to reflect our growing knowledge of how dinosaurs actually walked.

I also don’t imagine that those who raised the money to have Phar Lap’s bones assembled all those decades ago would be concerned if he was re-articulated, either.

Most would have been horse lovers – and loved Phar Lap – and would surely have been delighted by the prospect of Phar Lap stretching out in full stride.

So Australia, we hope you enjoy Phar Lap and do, please, look after him. We want him back.

I hope Te Papa puts up large signage to explain that the “laminitic pony” is, indeed, the great horse.

I suspect they’ll have to employ some pretty sharp spin doctors to sell the story of how our most famous racehorse remains in such a dire pose.

Personally, I’m not convinced your average Australian will buy it.

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