Bernborough, a story as intriguing as that of Phar Lap

Towards the end of 1945 Australians were recovering from more than a decade and a half of hardship: first the economic disaster of the Great Depression followed by a world war they had come close to losing.

In the darkest days of the conflict following the entry of Japan into the war, thousands of American service personnel flooded into Australia, commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. The American Caesar asked Prime Minister John Curtin, a MacArthur fan, to ban racing. He refused; a rebuff MacArthur must have found bewildering.

Although Eagle Farm and Doomben racecourses in Brisbane were turned over to the military and Wednesday racing- and some Saturday’s- in Sydney were cancelled, horse racing went on as before, and crowds still flocked to the track.

With the end of the war the Australian public were ready for a sporting champion. They found one in the unlikely form of a controversial huge bay horse from outback Queensland who went by the name of Bernborough.

Already six years old, an age when racehorses have usually run their best races, Bernborough became a household name and hero to a country for whom racing was almost a national pastime. Bernborough was the first cultural icon of the Baby Boom era.

Bernborough’s life was dogged by a series of mysteries and questions, some of which are still yet to be explained. The first concerned his parentage. There are many who believe the horse was sired by Monash Valley, not Emborough.

As a foal he was sold at auction into a family who would later become embroiled in a ring-in saga. A few months later he was on-sold to a friend of the family, yet when he was being made ready to begin his racing career as a two-year-old, this sale was called into question by the stewards of the Queensland Turf Club (QTC). For reasons never made clear, Bernborough was refused permission to race anywhere in the country except Toowoomba.

His first start was missed by a number of reputable publications when his career came to an end. Those that do note this first race all incorrectly mark his finishing position.

When he came to be sold as a six-year-old to Sydney interests, the QTC continued to refuse to issue a clearance for Bernborough to race. It took a few weeks before the stewards relented. Many years later it was claimed the sale had been a ‘fix’ right from the start, with the original owner retaining a percentage share. The question of ownership followed Bernborough to the end of his illustrious racing career.

Three men were most closely associated with the emergence and success of Bernborough. Only one- his trainer Harry Plant- was not widely recognised prior to 1946.

His owner, Azzalin ‘the Dazzlin’ Romano, was a prominent and colourful businessmen in Sydney. Arriving as a poor migrant from Britain in the early 1920s the Italian-born Romano worked hard, exhibited flair and persistence and, flouting arcane laws, made his fortune; living proof Australia was indeed the ‘lucky country’. His eponymous nightclub and restaurant drew the cream of Sydney society through its doors. He loved racing, liked to gamble, and purchased a few racehorses. Until Bernborough, he lacked real success.

His jockey, Athol ‘call me George’ Mulley, was a star in his own right: a combination of youth, verbal dexterity, ability, and enough of the unpredictable wild boy to make him both an angel and demon in the eyes of most racegoers. An acknowledged genius in the saddle, twice the leading apprentice jockey in Sydney and later champion jockey, he was no stranger to fierce and angry demonstrations from racegoers after riding what they perceived a poor race. Equally, he attracted standing ovations from crowds who witnessed some remarkable performances in an action-packed and controversial career. His wedding made the front pages of the national newspapers.

Like Bernborough, Harry Plant originally hailed from Queensland. A dedicated horseman, he was a former buckjump rider and trainer who settled in Sydney with a small but effective team of racehorses. Through his Queensland connections Plant gained an opportunity to purchase Bernborough at auction in late 1945.

The result was a partnership that propelled Plant, Romano, and Mulley into a media and public spotlight for which none was truly prepared. Bernborough changed their lives forever.

In a series of races in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, Bernborough became the most popular racehorse of his time and rose to the status of a legend. The Victorian handicapper allotted Bernborough a massive 67 kilograms for the Melbourne Cup, a weight not even issued to Phar Lap.

All the while, a mystery woman kept attending the races and placing substantial cash wagers with local bookmakers, coming under public scrutiny during Bernborough’s final Melbourne campaign.

Through most of 1946 no one could drink in a pub, eat in a restaurant, go to a nightclub, or talk about racing without Bernborough’s name coming up in conversation. He was more widely talked about than any horse since the great Phar Lap. His every move was studied and commented upon. Wherever he raced he drew huge crowds. People who had never before seen a horse race came just to see Bernborough. People who had never gambled, wagered on Bernborough.

Stories and songs were written about him. Advertisers invoked his name as if it possessed magical selling properties. Churchmen centred sermons on his deeds. At least one Perth baker named his cakes and pastries after the horse.

Crowds would gather for his training workouts. On race days the faithful assembled in front of his stall, people would risk injury to pluck hairs from his tail as souvenirs; others would scramble for his discarded racing plates.

Competing in the 1946 Caulfield Cup, over 108,000 fans crammed into Caulfield, a record for the track and one of the highest attendances ever on an Australian racecourse. This in a nation of around seven and a half million people; the rest of the country listened to the race on the radio. The controversial result shattered the Mulley-Bernborough partnership. Decades later the truth behind Mulley’s performance, and that of Bernborough, has as many questions as answers.

No other horse in the history of Australian racing, including Phar Lap, has ever been surrounded by so many questions and mysterious situations. Each one added flavour to the incredible story of Bernborough.

Off to the United States, and still the crowds gather.

Testimonials:

From Brian Jarratt:  Just finished reading your marvellous book about Bernborough, a great read. I arrived in Sydney (1964) too late to see the great horse but I had a mate who told me plenty about him. I have a couple of film clips of his races and I still can’t believe he is going to get up! Great stuff. Couldn’t write a book about Tulloch could you?

From Steve Williams: The book is fascinating. I have read about Bernborough before but the level of detail you describe is incredible…The author really captures the moment and seamlessly weaves the social issues and fabric of the time in what is a truly remarkable story. The level of detail is outstanding. Every Australian should read this.

From Keith Mulley: I must say it is well written, and the best book on my father and Bernborough I have read.

Now available as an e-book as well as paperback: Visit the website for more information: http://www.bernborough.net

What Could Zoom Top Have Earned Today?

In February 2011 the appropriately-named High Earner broke the 12-year-old record of the great Rapid Journey and became highest Australian prize money winner in history. His $553,795 eclipsed Rapid Journey’s mark of $530,995.

Back in 1970 a greyhound claimed by many as the best of any era, Zoom Top, broke down at her last start. She was retired with a then-record $59,032 in prize money, a mark not surpassed for nearly four years. What could she have earned in the modern era of inflated prize money?

Zoom Top raced 136 times between 1967 and 1970 for a-then Australian record of 68 wins. She also ran 25 seconds and 14 thirds.

Her owner-trainer Hec Watt gave a lot of chances away at making even more money with the great fawn bitch by racing her at a host of country tracks in New South Wales, at the request of many racing secretaries.

Zoom Top’s presence usually drew record crowds to tracks such as Taree, Bathurst, Lismore, and Muswellbrook. In all, she raced on 27 tracks and won on 24 from distances of 292 metres to 795 metres.

When Zoom Top raced, the Group system of racing was unknown, and greyhound racing was restricted to the eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, with night racing yet to take place in Queensland. The number of major races with big prize money on offer was therefore restricted.

Zoom Top made 17 major finals and won 11, was second in two, third in two and fourth and fifth in the other pair.

In 74 races on city tracks (that is, Wentworth Park, Harold Park, Sandown Park, Olympic Park and Hobart) she registered 38 wins, 17 seconds, and six thirds. As this is a substantial number, certainly more than most greyhounds race in a career, I will use only these races as the yardstick to measure how much prize money Zoom Top might have earned if she were racing in the modern era.

Her first city start came at the old Harold Park track in a 457 metres (500 yards) Fourth Grade event. She ran a fast-finishing fourth. These days that would have earned her $50.

She then ran second in a 732-metre Third Grade race; this would now be worth about $650. She won her third race, again over 732 metres at Harold Park, and would have collected $3,000 today.

By the time of her 10th city start she had registered three wins and would have accrued $11,650 in prize money.

Four races, and three wins, later this would have rocketed to $43,300 after winning the Wentworth Park Gold Cup.

Her 18th city start saw Zoom Top annex the Association Cup, these days worth $50,000 for first. This would have propelled her to $99,950. In 1968, her overall record was 40 starts for 16 wins at this time, with $11,800 in the bank.

She was beaten at her next six city outings with five seconds and one third, including the final of the Winter Stake.

After being injured in one of these, she resumed and added the Sydney Cup to her list of victories. In 1968, the Sydney Cup win was her 57th race and gave her a new Australian record prize money tally of $17,798. For our purposes, the Sydney Cup win was her 26th city outing and meant she has earned $137,100.

Her 31st city race saw her become the only greyhound ever to complete the set of the four Sydney city staying cups when she snared the Summer Cup at Harold Park and collected another $25,000 (on current figures) to take her earnings to $171,200.

Towards the end of 1968, Zoom Top put together a sequence of eight successive wins and included among these was the NSW St Leger -now called the Paws of Thunder- and worth $100,000 to the victor. Thus, at city start number 33 Zoom Top’s prize money would have rocketed to $274,200.

Her early form in 1969 was below her best. She did run second in the Hobart Thousand, but failed to make the National Futurity final. After running third in the inaugural National Distance Championship she would have passed the $300,000 mark when winning a heat of the Wentworth Park Gold Cup at her 47th city contest.

Zoom Top won the Wentworth Park Gold Cup final to take her then prize money to $37,448. In city races alone, by today she would have accrued $327,750.

After snaring the Olympic Park Distance Championship she returned to win her second Association Cup and this, her 55th city race, propelled her to $409,800. In 1969, the event was her 96th start and 50th win and took her earnings to $46,433.

Sadly, her form fell away a little and injury did little to help matters. A six-week respite saw Zoom Top bounce back and make it into a second Sydney Cup final, but was desperately unlucky to finish fourth. She then won the NCA Cup at Sandown Park, her last win for 1969.

In 1970 she raced for the 70th time at a city track, in an Invitation Stake at Olympic Park, and won, thereby reaching $450,050 in prize money in modern terms.

Sadly, her final four city races were defeats, the last seeing the end of her great career when she broke down at Wentworth Park in a heat of the Gold Cup.

By my calculations, Zoom Top’s 74 city races alone would be worth at least $451,450 in prize money in current standards. Considering she won another 30 races elsewhere, including two Queensland Distance Championships, a Dapto Silver Collar, and Richmond Oaks among others, her career prize money would easily have topped the half million mark, proof yet again of her greatness.

Of the top 10 greyhounds in prize money winnings in Australia as of the beginning of 2012, most have won under the half-million dollar mark and, more importantly, all were sprinters. Only the smart Queenslander Dashing Corsair and the Victorian Mantra Lad were also all-distance stars. Sprint racing is where the big money happens to be; for stayers the rewards have always been less.