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

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