Phar Lap stands upright once again

20:12, Mar 12 2012
BACK ON FORM: Te Papa object support preparator Hayden Prujean sizes up Phar Lap's front right leg against a full-sized image of the horse. He has been reassembling and improving the posture, preparing it for re-display.

Eighty years after his death, New Zealand's greatest race horse can hold his head high again.

After a revamp of Phar Lap's skeleton – one of Te Papa's most viewed treasures – his drooping spine has been lifted, his knocked-knees have been straightened, and his sagging head has been raised.

The move was to make sure the skeleton was in the same form as the hide, which lives at Melbourne Museum, Te Papa mount maker Hayden Prujean said.

"It's surprisingly difficult to do when you get into the nitty-gritty of it."

In 2010 the skeleton was reunited with the hide in Australia to celebrate the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup.

It was the first time Phar Lap's bones had been away from New Zealand since they arrived here in 1933, a year after his death.


Small cosmetic improvements were made before the trip but, on its return to New Zealand early last year, work started in earnest to improve the skeleton's posture.

"There's always been quite a bit of criticism about his articulation," Mr Prujean said.

Phar Lap's posture had not been altered since the 1930s, except for some natural sagging.

Late last week, the final touches were being put on artificial cartilage on the top of Phar Lap's leg bone.

The revamped Phar Lap will be unveiled at Te Papa on Saturday.

"It's been just amazing the whole experience. Most of my job is problem solving and this is a real nitty-gritty problem."

The project was done in consultation with retired vet Alex Davies, who still works with Massey University, checking over the finer details of the skeleton's rebuild.

The skeleton was also assembled in front of a life-sized photograph of the hide.

During the 1930s Depression, the Timaru-bred horse won 36 of 41 races. He died in 1932 from a sudden mystery illness, suspected to be accidental arsenic poisoning.