Every nation has its pantheon of thoroughbred champions. In Australia, Bernborough’s name is one that still carries the power of greatness, even though he raced there over half a century ago. Adding to his legendary performance on the turf was the fact that, through no fault of his own, Bernborough was also an enigma…..
Bernborough: as the Daily Telegraph put it, in a 33-page circular they produced about the champion shortly after his retirement: ” … He is one of those extraordinary horses which turn up every now and then and are remembered for a lifetime.” Praise like this is reserved for only the greatest thoroughbreds, making it remarkable that Bernborough (1939) received this kind of accolade from the Australian press. It wasn’t that he lacked the “extraordinary.” It was more that he only got to the big Australian racecourses when he was six — and was retired less than 18 months later. But in that short time, Bernborough started 18 times, chalking up 15 consecutive wins against “all comers.” And it wasn’t just that he won – it was the way he did it.
Bernborough was bred in Queensland by Harry Winten at his Rosalie Plains Stud, although Winten died shortly thereafter. Bernborough was by the imported British stallion, Emborough, out of an Australian-bred mare called Bern Maid (1921) who, like the colt’s sire, also hailed from the Newminster sire line. Bern Maid was a very old lady when she and Bernborough were offered at the dispersal of Winten’s bloodstock, where they were bought by one John (“Jack”) Bach, who reputedly described the youngster as “the lousiest thing” he’d ever seen. The year was 1940 and World War Two was in full swing. A month later, Albert Hadwen paid Jack Bach 140 APS for Bernborough and in April 1941, he was shipped to the stables of trainer Bob Mitchell, in Toowoomba, Queensland to learn how to become a racehorse.
It is impossible to say how tall the “trainee” was at the time of his arrival to Mitchell, although a rare early shot of Bernborough at around the age of two (above) shows an imposing frame. At maturity he stood a full 17.1 h with a girth that measured 72 inches and a galloping stride of 25 feet. (Phar Lap’s girth was 74 inches; his stride also 25 feet.) In other words, Bernborough was a monster of a horse. But like other “gentle giants” of horse racing history, he was sweet-tempered and so docile that a toddler was safe on his back. He was also bomb-proof. Other distinguishing features were a white diamond in the centre of his brow and a mane that fell naturally on the left, rather than on the right, as would be the case in at least 85% of all horses.
Bernborough made his first start on February 7, 1942 as a 2 year-old at Toowoomba racecourse. He won when the winner was disqualified for cutting him off as the colt launched what would become a signature late charge. Unimpressed by the victory, Hadwen leased Bernborough to a Mr. J. Roberts. Losing his next start, the colt went on to win his next three handily. Owner Hadwen and trainer Mitchell were delighted, perhaps even more so given Bernborough’s size. Colts as large as 17.1 h will never be able to boast the manoeuvrability of smaller thoroughbreds and for the same reason, may also take longer to develop. But Bernborough not only showed signs of settling into his big frame, he was also able to win at the comparatively short distances of 5-5 1/2 furlongs. Quite a feat for such a big juvenile.
Until the end of his 5 year-old season, Bernborough was confined to Toowoomba racecourses despite his brilliance. From August 1, 1942-July 28, 1945, the big bay would come home 9 times a winner in 14 starts, winning at distances from 6-9 furlongs for owner Hadwen. And Bernborough won carrying top weight even though he was often condemned to race against inferior horses. His running style was electric. Bernborough was a closer — but he showed that he could shut down the field from as far back as twenty-third going into the final stretch. As his reputation grew, spectators would wait for the inevitable charge and roar their approval as the champ cruised home. Below is a link to a Southern Queensland (AUS) page; please scroll half-way down to the screen that shows a horse race, subtitled ” Australian Diary: Australia’s Richest Horse Race” to view remarkable footage of Bernborough’s typical closing style:
As his reputation grew over his 3, 4 and 5 year-old campaigns, attempts were made to start Bernborough outside Toowoomba, but all failed.
The reason had to do with his original owner, Frank Bach, who was accused by the powers-that-be of swapping two different thoroughbreds, years before Bernborough raced. In January of 1941, Bach was disqualified for life by the Queensland Turf Club (QTC), which meant that any horse he owned would, in turn, be barred from racing outside of Toowoomba. Even when it was shown that Bach no longer owned Bernborough, the vendetta of the QTC continued against the horse, possibly as a way of getting back at him for managing to overturn his disqualification in a subsequent court battle. There seems little doubt that he was guilty, but the evidence was flimsy, leaving the QTC at a decided disadvantage in making their original ruling stick. Going after Bach horses, especially a champion like Bernborough, likely struck them as a perfect way to get revenge. The QTC had the power to bar any horse they wanted from running in Brisbane and the same horse was barred from running on interstate racecourses anywhere in Australia unless sanctioned by them.
So, as Bernborough’s brilliance grew, so did the frustration of being denied the opportunity to run the him against the best horses in places like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. He was even transported at least twice to Brisbane and Sydney, only to be denied the right to race in the eleventh hour by the QTC and the Australian Jockey Club, respectively.
Whether Bernborough’s owner Hadwen was moved by financial gain or principle or both, Bernborough appeared in the stables of trainer H.T. Plant of Sydney in 1945, where he was offered for sale. News of the horse’s brilliance had filtered through to the big racing centres and shortly thereafter he was purchased by the flamboyant restauranteur, Azzalin Romano, for a reported 2600 guineas.
Romano, a native of Padua, Italy, arrived in Sydney in 1923 where, four years later, he opened Romano’s restaurant. By the 1940’s, Romano’s was the “place to be seen” in Sydney, catering to the rich and famous. Stars like Maurice Chevalier and Vivien Leigh dined there; during WWII, the future Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs (then a war correspondent), Bob Hope, Gracie Fields and Frank Sinatra frequented Romano’s. Passing into the hands of an influential character like Romano resolved the dilemma of getting Bernborough entered in races beyond Toowoomba for once and for all.
As events in the Pacific theatre of WWII shook the people of Australia and New Zealand, entertainment that distracted became vital. So the arrival of Bernborough at the big racecourses fuelled a surcharge of enthusiasm that rivalled that of Phar Lap. Of course, other great thoroughbreds were racing in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne too.
There was the fabulous mare and Australian HOF, Flight (1940), twice winner of the Cox and Craven Plates, as well as the Mackinnon, Orr, Knox and Colin Stephens Stakes. Flight stood a diminutive 15.2 hands but her girth, a staggering 73.5 inches, was bigger than that of Bernborough’s. Racing fans were dazzled by the talented mare, who would defeat Bernborough as well as the mighty Shannon, another hero of the turf at this time. In fact, one of THE VAULT’S readers has written to say that his grandfather considered Flight the greatest Australian race mare to ever run. Flight might not have gained international attention but she was, without question, one of the greatest Australian thoroughbreds ever.
Another champion, albeit one who never met up with Bernborough, was Shannon (1941). A remarkable thoroughbred described by author Jessica Owers as “peerless,” he was also the fastest horse that Johnny Longden — who had ridden Count Fleet — had ever sat astride. Racing to brilliance in Australia, Shannon was imported to the USA after being bought by Harry Curland. Unlike Ajax, who had also been acquired by American interests, Shannon was bought to race in America, where he became Shannon II. For a summary of this great thoroughbred’s career (who is the subject of Jessica Owers’ latest book) please click on this link: https://www.thoroughbredracing.com/articles/shannon-horse-time-forgot
Now in training at Randwick with H.T. “Harry” Plant, Bernborough’s racing debut was hotly anticipated: could the “TOOWOOMBA TORNADO” really be as good as his record showed racing against Australia’s finest?
In 1945, before shipping to Harry Plant’s stables where he was purchased by Azzalin Romano, Bernborough had been upset when another horse heading to the Toowoomba track behind him had kicked a tin barrier. The champion bolted and fell, injuring a fetlock and sustaining some lameness in one shoulder. Accordingly, he was put away for a bit until his injuries had healed, but when Bernborough returned to competition, carrying crushing weights of between 132-148 lbs., he didn’t seem to have the same sparkle. After a third loss, the 5 year-old came up lame again. Bernborough’s hooves were checked; it was decided that he had soft corns and he was re-shod. However, after only one win and one place in seven starts, Hadwen (who still owned him at this time) switched the big bay to the stables of Ernie Peck. There it was discovered that Bernborough have two in-growing corns in both hooves. Once his hooves were trimmed back and he had time to heal, Bernborough was quick to return to form. On June 30, 1945, he carried 148 lbs, raced twice and won both. These wins were his last appearance in Toowoomba.
In the hands of Harry Plant, the consummate horseman-turned-trainer, Bernborough was readied for the campaign that would transform him into a thoroughbred legend. Like all the greatest of trainers, Plant could “read” his horses and he was intent on doing the best by them and for them. During his time with Bernborough, Plant — who had planned to buy him from Hadwen himself but was outbid by Romano — was instrumental in keeping Romano from over-extending Bernborough … most of the time. A chief concern of the trainer’s was the amount of weight that the champion was assigned; Bernborough was the kind of individual who always tried his best, and a thoroughbred burdened with crushing, “dead” weight, who would perform to his maximum regardless, courted the real possibility of a heart attack or a fatal breakdown. At a time when the sport was harsh on thoroughbreds, Plant was a rare example of a man who understood and respected them.
The “bush champ” ran fourth in his first race for owner Romano and then kicked off a succession of 15 consecutive victories on racecourses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane against top thoroughbreds like the aforementioned Flight (who was beaten a head by Bernborough in the 1946 Chipping Norton Stakes and lost to him another three times), the Sydney and AJC Plate winner, Craigie (1940) and the AJC Derby and Sires Produce Stakes winner, Magnificent (1942). Accolades rained down from horsemen and journalists alike, while fans made the big, dark horse, whose finishing style left them speechless and whose courage lifted their hearts, a turf hero.
In fact, Australian race goers in the big race centres took to the “Toowoomb Tornado” from his very first victory for the Plant-Romano connections, where he unleashed a withering drive in the 1 mile 19 yds. Villiers at Randwick to finish just slightly off the track record. Jockey Mulley had trouble pulling him up and decided to let Bernborough run on before putting on the brakes. As though he knew the roar from the grandstand was for him, on his way back to the winner’s circle Bernborough stopped in front of the grandstand and acknowledged the cheers with a bow.
Of course, even a great horse doesn’t win all on his own. Together with the ministrations of his trainer, Bernborough also had the services of the 101 lb. jockey, Athol George Mulley. Mulley was noted for being a great horseman, as well as for his vivid personality. Although accused by various and anon for his occasional poor judgement when riding Bernborough, he won his first of two Sydney Jockey Premierships in 1945-1946 for his important contribution to the horse’s consecutive winning streak. His behaviour prior to the Chipping Norton Stakes captured some of what made Mulley tick: for days prior to the running, he received substantial bribes, as well as a number of threatening phone calls, but refused to bend to those who wanted Bernborough to lose. (As it turned out, the horse could have lost without all this underworld action, since the brilliant Flight refused to be headed and the two horses hit the wire in a dead heat with Bernborough prevailing by a short head.)
Mulley and his big horse quickly became an indomitable pair. Mulley believed that Bernborough had his own game plan before a race and he may have, although the formula, with rare exceptions, followed pretty much the same formula: break slowly and relax near the back of the pack, hit second gear and move up to the leaders and then roar home. And it worked — 15 times in a row. Bernborough was clocked in one race covering the final 4 furlongs in 46 records — not since 1921 had an Australian thoroughbred run faster.
If you’d asked Harry Plant to name Bernborough’s best race, he would have picked the Doomben Cup, run at just under 11 furlongs on June 8, 1946, when the horse was seven years-old. The handicappers had assigned “Bernie” (as he was called by his owner, trainer and stable lads) the crushing weight of 151 lbs. but Romano, swollen with delight at his horse’s repeated victories, couldn’t think of pulling out of such a prestigious race. Romano wasn’t a cruel man, but he was a wheeler-dealer and knew little about thoroughbreds, relying on Plant to guide him. But despite advice to the contrary, Plant lost this round. The trainer was heard to say to his big, courageous horse as Bernborough was saddled, ” You wouldn’t run if I owned you, old fella.”
Trailing the field by 14 lengths, Bernborough began to pick up speed with urging from Mulley at about the 5 furlong mark. It was a large field and there was a lot of crowding, causing Bernborough to clip heels with the filly Tea Cake and almost go down in the process. Mulley righted his mount, only to have Bernie run into by another horse, who was beginning to falter, 4 furlongs from the wire. Mulley shot for the rail, mindful of the weight Bernborough was carrying and hoping to save him ground at the finish, but quickly found himself locked in by Scobie Breasley on Tea Cake. Jim Duncan swung Craigie to the outside of Tea Cake, hoping to close any gaps that Bernborough might get through. The only way out was to pull Bernie up and to get around the other horses to the extreme outside. Going five-wide, the mighty horse overtook the leaders, to win by a length going away. The time of 2:14 3/4 was a new track record — and the horse was going easy. It was, as Trevor Denman famously called when the great Zenyatta crossed the wire to win the 2009 BC Classic, a “simply un-bee-lievable” performance.
The inevitable, given the weights, Bernborough’s popularity and Romano’s largely ignorant enthusiasm, happened on November 2, 1946 in the LKS MacKinnon Stakes as Bernborough challenged for the lead. It was the only time that the superb mare, Flight, would beat him home. Under jockey Bill Briscoe (Mulley having been taken off Bernie when the horse failed to place in the 1946 Caulfield Cup) Bernborough was drawing close to Flight when his foreleg seemed to crumple under him: he had fractured the sesamoid in his right foreleg. Briscoe reported that he heard what sounded like a gun shot and quickly dismounted, fearing that the horse had actually been shot.
The injury proved non-lifethreatening, but it would be weeks before Bernborough was out of danger. In fact, many thought that their turf hero had been euthanized, until the news came that he was safe in trainer Plant’s care. During the whole time his leg was being bandaged up, Bernie laid his head on Harry Plant’s shoulder and whickered his distress. The trainer was so moved that he spent that first night with Bernie in the barn.
In the footage below, Bernborough’s breakdown is caught, as well as the reaction of his fans and some rare footage of Flight crossing the finish line. It speaks loud of the esteem in which Bernborough was held and the uncertainty as to whether or not he would survive his injuries. (Note: Unlike some coverage of breakdowns, this footage is respectful. There are no close-ups of the actual breakdown itself. No need to worry about being confronted with something distasteful, even though it seems a very sad ending for a “wonder horse,” as the reporter’s tone reflects.)
Full recovery would depend on Bernborough not doing any further damage to himself. Being a sensible and calm individual, the champion helped those caring for him by doing everything in his power to expedite a full recovery. It was reported that he would walk on three legs, as though he knew that he needed to keep his foreleg safe, stand on all-fours a bit and then carefully lie down. Plant and Bernie’s lads hovered close and owner Romano brought his champ assorted treats. A month after the accident, the veterinarians attending him declared that Bernborough had made incredible progress. He was finally out of danger, but the mighty Bernborough would never race again.
The news of Bernborough’s breakdown went viral (by standards of the day!) and in the USA, the reaction was mixed. There had been rumours that Romano was going to ship the horse to the USA to take on Citation and other American champions. After only recently sustaining the blow of having Phar Lap die on its shores, some turf writers expressed relief that Bernborough had broken down at home and not in America. However, not long after Bernborough’s recovery was assured, Azzalin Romano arrived in California, armed with film reels of Bernie’s victories, seeking to sell him to American breeders. A deal was secured with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who then contacted Leslie Coombs II to stand Bernborough at Spendthrift in Kentucky. Mayer bought the stallion for the equivalent of $310,000 USD — an astronomical price in those days that eclipsed the record amount that had been paid for the stallion Tracery by $51,000 USD.
The news hit Australians very, very hard. When Bernborough left Melbourne in early February of 1947, two hundred well-wishers gathered. In Sydney, a police guard was needed to keep ardent fans from crowding the stallion and nicking hair from his tail as a keepsake. Bernborough travelled to America with his usual relaxed attitude, arriving at Spendthrift in the company of the stud farm manager, Louis Doherty, who had met the ship in San Francisco. There Bernborough and Harry Plant, who had accompanied him on the voyage across the Pacific, said their final goodbyes. They would never see one another again.
There was, however, another Aussie to arrive at Spendthrift — the great Shannon.
In America, Bernborough did very well as a stallion, with progeny being sold and sent all over the world. Among his best were Hook Money (1951), winner of the 1955 Ayr Gold Cup, Berseem, who set a 6-furlong track record at Santa Anita, Brush Burn (1949), winner of 15 races, Parading Lady (1949), winner of the Acorn and the Vosburgh (against the colts), Bernburgoo (1953) who defeated Round Table (1954) in the Warren Wright Memorial Stakes and Bernwood (1948), who set a one-mile track record at Washington Park. All in all, the stallion had 21 stakes winners that are known (records from countries like Peru, the West Indies, Mexico and Panama being scarce). As well, Bernborough was the BM sire of the great Jay Trump (1957), who won the Grand National in 1965; and Getting Closer (1978), a great-great grandson, won the Doomben Ten Thousand/Rothman’s Hundred Thousand in 1984.
Below is rare footage of another son of Bernborough, the champion First Aid (1950), winning the 1955 Whitney at The Spa (please note there is no sound):
Bernborough lived until 1960, when he died of a heart attack in his paddock as Clem Brooks cradled the great horse’s head in his arms.
Bernborough was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2001.
Sometime after the publication of Jessica Owers’ book about Shannon, Spendthrift Farm erected two brass plaques to honour both Bernborough and Shannon II.
Duncan Stearn’s fabulous book, Bernborough: Australia’s Greatest Racehorse. (ISBN: 9780987090218)
Zeb Armstrong’s e-book, The Bernborough Phenomenon
Jessica Owers’ equally fabulous tale of Bernborough’s contemporary, Shannon: Before Black Caviar, So You Think Or Takeover Target, There Was Shannon (ISBN: 9781742750248)