11/20/2001 1:00AM

Not every legend needs revising


TUCSON, Ariz. - Nothing's sacred anymore.

In a sea of doubt and uncertainty, when people desperately need anchors to steady their course, someone always shows up to rock the boat.

This time, not surprisingly, it's a television station: Channel Ten News in Sydney, Australia.

It says Phar Lap's heart is a fake.

Phar Lap was one of Thoroughbred racing's legendary champions, a huge chestnut, 17 hands, and a thunderous runner and national hero Down Under 70 years ago, when he won 37 of 51 races, including the famed Melbourne Cup of 1930.

He shipped to the West Coast, won his first North American race at Agua Caliente near Tijuana (Santa Anita was still just a gleam in Doc Strub's eye) and then died under mysterious circumstances while turned out at a Menlo Park, Calif., ranch. The Australians believed, and still believe, that he was poisoned.

His death here raised a storm of controversy. A California autopsy failed to reveal the truth of his death, but showed the reason for his phenomenal success: a heart almost twice the size of the normal Thoroughbred's.

It was so remarkable, weighing just under 14 pounds, that it was encased in glass and has rested in the National Museum of Australia for nearly three-quarters of a century.

During all that time, it has been - and continues to be - one of the museum's most popular attractions.

Resurrecting a rumor that has risen from time to time, Channel Ten News now says the heart that supposedly pumped Phar Lap to fame is in fact the heart of a draft horse.

The story is not new. It is taken from a book written 13 years ago by journalist and historian Peter Luck. He claimed that a state veterinarian named Walker Nielson, who conducted a post mortem in Australia when Phar Lap's body was returned there, told the family that there was no way the heart in question belonged to Phar Lap.

Nielson may have done so, but no one in Australia believed him, and crowds still showed up to see the giant heart in the National Museum.

To make sure they continue to, the museum now is turning to science. It has asked veterinary scientists at the University of Sydney if they think it might be possible to use DNA tests to verify that the giant heart belonged to the beloved champion. Eric Archer, the manager of conservation at the National Museum, hopes the scientists can extract a tiny sample of the giant heart and use it as a DNA fingerprint.

There are doubts that such a test can be done, because the heart is in a solution that includes formaldehyde, which destroys DNA, but Archer hopes a way might be found to salvage a sample.

Australia, home to strange beasts like wombats and wallabys, has been producing equally strange stories of Thoroughbreds recently. Phar Lap's heart simply is the latest.

Last spring a young gelding in training named El Diablo stumbled and threw his exercise rider while working on West Beach, near the Gulf of St. Vincent, six miles from Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. The horse galloped headlong into the gulf and swam half a mile straight out to deep water, where he joined a group of porpoises playing in the bay. He swam west with them, heading for the open waters of the Indian Ocean.

There also happen to be sharks in the Gulf of St. Vincent, and quick calls were made to helicopters and patrol boats. El Diablo was tiring and beginning to take on water. The patrol boats caught up with him and herded him back to shore, weary and waterlogged. Pumped out and dried off, he won at Victoria Park by 4 1/2 lengths, and South Australia racing officials think he is a promising prospect with a bright future, despite his water-drenched past.

As for Phar Lap's heart, I wish meddlers would go away and let legends rest in peace. No matter what some Aussie TV yakker says, I prefer to believe what I was told as a boy, that this horse of history crushed all rivals because he was powered by an engine of phenomenal size.

Those of us in racing live in a world of dreams. Let the doubters leave us with our fantasies and tales of the past, true or not. They are the stuff that keeps us going.