Australia was in the midst of the Great Depression when an unlikely hero in the form of a horse captured the national spirit. Phar Lap, a New Zealand-born horse, started as an awkward, unpromising colt, and then went on to unrivaled success on the early 20th-century racetracks.
The chestnut red horse was nicknamed “Wonder Horse” and “Red Terror.” His lack of sleek looks or early promise made Phar Lap a beloved hero to both Australia and New Zealand, where dreams were being diminished by economic hardships. This underdog of the races ended up winning 37 of his 51 races from 1928 to 1932, frequently by several lengths, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.
Unfortunately, Phar Lap died suddenly after his first American race win. No clear cause of death has ever been decided, with speculation on both infections and deliberate poisonings. Australia and New Zealand went into mourning for the horse, and his remains were distributed like relics.
His massive heart, weighing 13.6 pounds (about twice as big as an average horse’s heart), inspired the phrase “a heart as big as Phar Lap’s,” and it’s preserved in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. His skeleton was articulated for the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. And as for his distinctive chestnut skin, it was mounted and displayed in a place of honor in the Melbourne Museum, where it remains today.