Phar Lap, the New Zealand racehorse also lovingly known as “Wonder Horse,” “Red Terror” and “Bobby” was, at the time of his death in 1932, the third highest stakes winner in the world. This internationally famous racehorse died in California under mysterious circumstances of duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, an acute bacterial gastroenteritis. The real cause of his death remained a mystery for decades until tests done in 2007 showed that Phar Lap had been given a massive dose of arsenic about 40 hours before his death. While arsenic was a common tonic for horses in those days, the tests done on his mane hairs proved that death was caused by one large dose of the poison, and not a regular dosing as was the norm back then. Who overdosed him and why has never been determined.
However, while Phar Lap’s untimely death caused an uproar that kept the rumour mill busy for years grinding out theories, lately another answer to a mystery associated with this great horse has surfaced: the whereabouts of the Melbourne Cup he won in 1930 has finally been solved, or at least an answer has emerged with much evidence to support it.
Let’s step back in time to 1930 when Phar Lap and jockey Tommy Woodock won the Melbourne Cup in Australia to legions of cheering fans. While the trophy held pride of place in trainer Harry Telford’s home, over the decades it slipped into obscurity and seemed to have disappeared forever….or did it?
Dr. Andrew Lemon, Victorian Racing Club’s (VRC) historian, has just released his third book titled, “The History of Australian Racing” and three years ago he decided it was time to find out the truth about the whereabouts of the Melbourne Cup. His research finally revealed that this famous trophy was doing duty as a flower vase for socialite Lady Susan Renouf of Toorak, Melbourne, Australia. But, as convinced as he was, he needed to prove his theory which involved more twists and turns than a Vermont road map.
Lady Renouf was Susan Sangster in 1980 and her husband Robert Sangster’s horse Beldale Ball won the Melbourne Cup in that year. Lemon noticed that the 1980 cup was quite different than other trophies of that era; quite simply, it did not belong. More digging showed that this 1980 cup was actually the recycled Melbourne Cup from 1953 won by Woodalla, and The Victoria Racing Club records confirm this.
But, further research showed that this 1953 trophy was heavier than other cups of that era by about 150-200 grams which had researchers thinking that this trophy was also the product of recycling done about 23 years before Woodalla stormed across the finish line. This line of thinking was confirmed by Lemon who noted that cups made between 1919 and 1930 were heavier than those made since while also noting that not all Melbourne Cups are the same and those from that era had the unique three – handled design. They are similar, but all slightly different.
Lemon then went on a gold hunt and found that only three goldsmiths have been responsible for making the trophies over the past 80 years: James Steeth, his son Maurice, and finally apprentice Lucky Rocca. Sadly, as the Australians did not use the British hallmark system, there is no date stamp on the trophy belonging to Lady Susan Renouf which would have proved his theory without a doubt.
Lemon’s next task was to account for 12 other trophies; not an easy task but one which led him to finally question four trophies from 1921, 1922, 1925 and 1926.
• The 1921 and 1922 trophies were, “both too light to be the cup that Lady Renouf has,” he says.
• The cup from 1925, won by Windbag was stolen but photos show that it is in no way similar to Lady Renouf’s cup.
• That left the cup from 1926 which was won by Spearfelt and had disappeared when the owner died in 1972 but was in his possession in 1953.
The answer to the mystery held one last tantalizing piece of evidence, and the question that remained was, “what had happened to the 1930 Melbourne Trophy that Phar Lap had won?”
Harry Telford, the trainer held onto the cup until he sold it when he needed cash. Some think that he might have had it melted down but Lemon disagrees with that from lack of evidence. The more common and profitable solution was to rebadge trophies and sell them back to the Victoria Racing Club instead of the club having all new trophies made; this was to save money and was done on three or four occasions in various eras.
Records do show that the Victoria Racing Club did buy a second-hand cup in 1953 from a Mr. W.M. Drummond who acted as agent between goldsmiths and the Victoria Racing Club. The 1980 cup owned by Renouf was actually the recycled 1953 Melbourne Cup, and this 1953 version was actually recycled from 1919 to 1930.
Old photographs showing the Melbourne Cup from 1930 when Phar Lap won it, and some other photos showing Telford’s three trophies that his horses had won compare favourably even when camera distortion is taken into consideration.
Will we ever know? Lemon is hopeful that one day the final piece of evidence will emerge to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Lady Renouf’s trophy is Phar Lap’s lost Melbourne Cup. Perhaps a sales record will emerge proving that Telford sold the trophy to W.M Drummond before being sold onto The Victoria Racing Club; perhaps the Telford family has documentation showing where the cup was sold.
Phar Lap’s story has been a mystery for decades, and the mystery of the Melbourne Cup adds to the intrigue. Today the value of the Melbourne Trophy is estimated at 1 million Australian dollars, (about par with Canadian dollars) but, more than that, it is a national treasure that should finds its rightful home in the Melbourne Museum alongside the preserved body of Phar Lap, the beloved national icon of New Zealand and Australia.