Australians to sequence Phar Lap genome

Scientists will map the genome of Australia's greatest racehorse, Phar Lap, hoping to unlock the DNA secrets behind the champion's pace and staying power, a research team said Wednesday.

The giant New Zealand-born chestnut became an icon in Australia during the Great Depression, winning 37 of his 51 races, including one Melbourne Cup in 1930 and two Cox Plates in 1930 and 1931.

Australian scientists were in 2008 able to prove with high-tech testing of Phar Lap's hair that the legendary gelding was poisoned with arsenic in the United States in 1932.

And researchers are again looking to dissect the champion's genetic material, with a University of Sydney team announcing plans to sequence Phar Lap's genome from a tooth fragment.

"We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available," said lead researcher Natasha Hamilton.

"The DNA sequence will tell us if Phar Lap's genetic make-up looks like star racehorses of today, including whether he is a sprinter or a stayer -- genetically better suited to running long distances."

Hamilton said it was believed to be the first time a Southern Hemisphere thoroughbred's entire genome had been sequenced, in contrast to Europe where such research was popular.

"DNA analysis has been performed on notable horses such as Eclipse, racing's first superstar and an ancestor of 95 percent of today's thoroughbreds, and Hyperion, a popular sire from the 1930-50s who is found in numerous pedigrees," she said of the European studies.

The DNA will be extracted from a 60 milligram tooth fragment from Phar Lap's skeleton, which is housed at Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand.

The researchers warned that the boiling of the skeleton in a corrosive solution during the preservation process in the 1930s meant the DNA was likely to have been fragmented -- not an issue for sequencing efforts but a dampener on cloning hopes.

"Sorry punters, there is no hope of Phar Lap II running around a few years from now," Hamilton said.