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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. 

EMBOROUGH, the sire of BERNBOROUGH descended from the powerful GALOPIN sire line.

EMBOROUGH (1932), the sire of BERNBOROUGH, descended from the powerful NEWMINSTER (1848) sire line. More importantly, he was a son of GAINSBOROUGH (1915), the sire of HYPERION (1930).

The Sun News tribute to BERNBOROUGH on his retirement ran for 33 pages.

The Daily Telegraph’s tribute to BERNBOROUGH on his retirement ran for 33 pages.

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.

Young BERNBOROUGH beginning to learn his job.

Young BERNBOROUGH beginning to learn his job, Billy Nielsen up. He was still no beauty as a juvenile, but in the huge chest and powerful neck there seemed a promise of greatness.

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.

The only marking on his otherwise bay coat was the star right in the centre of BERNBOROUGH'S brow.

The only marking on his otherwise bay coat was the star right in the centre of BERNBOROUGH’S brow.

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:

http://www.nfsa.gov.au/blog/2013/05/02/southern-queensland-time-capsule/

This was the sight that electrified race goers in Toowoomba: "BERNBOROUGH first and the rest nowhere" is the phrase that comes to mind.

This was the sight that electrified race goers in Toowoomba. “BERNBOROUGH first and the rest nowhere” is the phrase that comes to mind.

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.

BERNBOROUGH disembarks from a "float" as these conveyances were called. Outfitted accordingly, floats were used to transport race horses at this time.

BERNBOROUGH disembarks from a “float” as these conveyances were called. Outfitted accordingly, floats were used to transport race horses all over Australia at this time.

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.

FLIGHT was one of the greatest mares ever to race in Australia. Although she would succumb to birthing complications in 1953, a daughter produced the champion SKYLINE.

FLIGHT was one of the greatest mares ever to race in Australia. She made 65 starts, with a race record of 24-19-9 and retired at the age of six. Although she would succumb to birthing complications in 1953, her only daughter, FLIGHT’S DAUGHTER (1949), produced the champions SKYLINE (1955) and SKY HIGH (1957).

SHANNON arrives in Brisbane, where he won the 1946 Doomben Cup.

SHANNON in full “travel gear,” circa 1946.

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?

BERNBOROUGH shown winning the Spring Handicap at Toowoomba in 1944, shortly before he began to develop foot problems and before his sale to Romano in 1945.

BERNBOROUGH shown winning the Spring Handicap at Toowoomba in 1944, shortly before he began to develop foot problems, and before his sale to Romano in 1945.

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.

H.T. "HARRY" PLANT

H.T. “HARRY” PLANT

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.

BERNBOROUGH (outside) roars passed MAGNIFICENT

BERNBOROUGH (outside) roars passed MAGNIFICENT to win the Warwick Stakes at Randwick. Photo and copyright, Sun News, Australia

 

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.)

BERNBOROUGH (in the lead) takes a turn with other thoroughbreds on the track at Randwick.

BERNBOROUGH (in the lead) takes a turn with other thoroughbreds on the track at Randwick.

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.

Photo and copyright,

Photo and copyright, Sun News, Australia

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.”

BERNBOROUGH with trainer Harry Plant.

BERNBOROUGH with trainer Harry Plant.

 

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.

BERNBOROUGH DOOMBEN_article22241938-3-001

 

BERNBOROUGH (white headband) shown winning the 1946 Doomben Cup.

BERNBOROUGH (in characteristic white browband) shown winning the 1946 Doomben Cup.

 

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.

BERNBOROUGH being led into the van after his breakdown. In the photo, you can see the swelling in his foreleg.

BERNBOROUGH being led into the van after his breakdown. In the photo, you can see the swelling in the injured foreleg.

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.

BERNBOROUGH "meets" SHANNON II at Spendthrift.

BERNBOROUGH (in barn) “greets” SHANNON II at Spendthrift.

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.

JAY TRUMP is led in after winning the Grand National at Aintree.

JAY TRUMP is led in after winning the 1965 Grand National at Aintree.

HOOK MONEY, champion son of BERNBOROUGH

The gorgeous HOOK MONEY, a champion son of BERNBOROUGH

 

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.

BERNBOROUGH at stud at Spendthrift in Lexington, Kentucky.

BERNBOROUGH at stud at Spendthrift in Lexington, Kentucky.

Bonus Footage:

 

Recommended books:

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)

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Where to start is a reasonable question, faced with the numbers of champion thoroughbreds racing in Australia (AUS) and/or New Zealand (NZ) in this time frame. And, by 1960, still another number of great individuals emerge. More, in fact, than in the preceding years.

Today, through the auspices of the mass media, including the online publication of rare documents, it is possible to begin to appreciate a true history of the development of the thoroughbred worldwide. “True” in the sense of achieving a macrocosmic view, beyond the borders and boundaries that we perhaps know best.

(Please note that the classification of thoroughbreds by decade has been determined by their foaling date, e.g. a horse born in 1939 actually raced in the 1940’s.)

ARCHER (1856) was the first thoroughbred to win the Melbourne Cup.

ARCHER (1856) was the first thoroughbred to win the Melbourne Cup in 1861. He then went on to win it again in 1862. The only other horse to accomplish this was PETER PAN (1929). This record stood intact for over 100 years until it was over-turned by the incomparable mare MAKYBE DIVA (1999), who won the Melbourne Cup for a record three consecutive years, from 2003-2005.

 

The twentieth century saw the rise and consolidation of both the sport and the industry. Breeding farms like the historic AUS Widden Stud — the home of individuals like Sir Hercules and his brilliant son, The Barb,as well as the mighty Heroic and his champion son, Ajax — first acquired by John Lee in 1843 and subsequently by the Thompson family, moved powerfully into the new century with a fleet of strong, consistent horses. And other important figures in thoroughbred racing stood in the wings, among them notable AUS trainers like Harry Telford, Fred Davis and HOF James Scobie, as well as Jack Holt and TJ Smith, HOF and father of Gai Waterhouse. In NZ, owner-breeders like Georger Gatonby Stead, Henry Redwood and Sir George Clifford had already made their mark and would continue to do so. Still another owner-breeder, George Currie, would have an influence that continues to the present day, through the descendants of his Koatanui Lodge mare, Eulogy (1911). And trainers like the brilliant Dick Mason and Maurice McCarton would bring their country’s racing acumen to the forefront.

Early in the game breeders in both AUS + NZ settled upon the axiom that it was the mare that was going to make the difference in terms of the quality of individuals a stallion produced. As far back as the 1890’s, breeders were selecting mares with champion bloodlines and, at least initially, seem far less concerned about their racing performance than their sire line. A clear example of this practice is seen in the NZ thoroughbred mare and HOF, Eulogy:

Eulogy’s offspring also underscore the dedication of breeders to producing strong, hardy individuals. Accordingly, the allegiance to sound British bloodstock would continue until the arrival on the scene of Star Kingdom (1946), an Irish thoroughbred who, as a sire, would give Australasia its first flotilla of home-bred thoroughbred champions. As well, the principle of running horses often over challenging courses of up to 3 miles continued, with the result that many champion thoroughbreds who raced in the first six decades of the century ran 50 times or more before their retirement.

1900 – 1929: Signs of Greatness

Arguably, Desert Gold (1914), together with the gelding, Gloaming (1915), and the colt, Eurythmic (1916), were the superstars of this period — as their Hall Of Fame status indicates.

Remembered as the First Lady of the NZ turf, the racing career of Desert Gold was brilliant. She was the first NZ thoroughbred to chalk up a record of 19 consecutive wins while racing against colts, as well as fillies, in both NZ and AUS. Desert Gold ran during the dark days of WWI and her courage lifted the hearts of her racing public. She brought people to the track to forget their worries — and to see a Queen of the Turf.

As Desert Gold’s career was ebbing that of another champion was on the rise: Gloaming.

GLOAMING was destined to become one of the greatest AUS + NZ thoroughbreds of the twentieth century.

GLOAMING was destined to become one of the greatest AUS + NZ thoroughbreds of the twentieth century.

Bred in AUS by E.E.D. Clarke, Gloaming was by the Melton Stud stallion, The Welkin (1904) out of Light (1907), who carried the important bloodlines of British thoroughbreds like Bend Or (1877) and Stockwell (1849) in her pedigree. When he went to auction, Gloaming had only just recovered from strangles and the result was that he went to NZ’s George Stead for under $500 USD, to be trained by one of NZ’s greatest trainers, Richard (Dick) Mason. In many ways, the story of the champion gelding is also Mason’s story. And the two shared a bond reminiscent of Will Harbut and the American thoroughbred legend, Man O’ War. Gloaming would tie Desert Gold’s record of 19 consecutive wins and raced until his retirement, at nine years of age. So emphatic was his race record, that Gloaming was inducted into both the AUS and NZ Hall Of Fame.

Eurythmic was by the British stallion, Eudorus (1906), who was imported to AUS sometime before 1914, and out of the mare, Bob Cherry (1910). His sire descended from Hampton (1872) and St. Simon (1881); his dam from the AUS sire, Wallace (1892), a son of the mighty Carbine (1885). So it stood to reason that the Eudorus-Bob Cherry colt would win at both sprint and longer distances, which he did. When Eurythmic retired, he was regarded as the greatest AUS stakes winner of the time, having surpassed Carbine in stakes victories.

EURYTHMIC would overturn the stakes-winning record of the mighty CARBINE, from whom he descended.

EURYTHMIC would overturn the stakes-winning record of the mighty CARBINE, from whom he descended.

Bred by Noel Thompson at the Yarraman Stud in New South Wales, Eurythmic won 7 of 8 starts at three; then under a new trainer, Jack Holt, the colt scorched the turf at four. In October he won the Caulfield Stakes, the Caulfield Cup (defeating a huge field) and the Melbourne Stakes, his 11th consecutive victory. The following week Eurythmic suffered his only defeat as a four year-old when he ran fourth to Poitrel in the Melbourne Cup. The colt then won his next eight races: the CB Fisher Plate (defeating Poitrel), the Essendon Stakes, the VRC Governor’s Plate and the King’s Plate, as well as the AJC Autumn Stakes, the Sydney Cup (carrying 134 lbs.)) and the Cumberland Stakes. He finished the season with a tally of 12 wins from 13 starts. Racing until the age of 7, Eurythmic ended his career with a record of 47- 31-6-4 and the extraordinary earnings of 36,891 (APS) — at a time when a house in AUS typically cost about 200 (APS).

Eurythmic stood at stud for only two seasons before a heart attack ended the life of one of the brightest of stars of the AUS turf.

 

1929 -1939: Legends

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It wasn’t long before AUS + NZ racing saw the birth of individuals who would become thoroughbred legends in their own time, of which Phar Lap arguably became the most famous. For more on the fabulous “Red Terror” who was, in reality, so gentle that a child could ride him, see THE VAULT’S article on Phar Lap, which also includes rare video footage, here: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/bribes-threats-bullets-phar-laps-melbourne-cup-1930/

But Phar Lap was by no means alone, although it must be said that the love and devotion he inspired is rare and it is this that has given Tommy Woodcock’s best boy eternal life.

CHATHAM at work. Although he was beaten by PHAR LAP once, the handsome bay would defeat the champions PETER PAN and ROGILLA before his retirement.

CHATHAM at work. Although he was beaten by PHAR LAP once, the handsome bay would defeat the champions PETER PAN and ROGILLA before his retirement. Photo and copyright, THE SUN, Sydney AUS

Although he never enjoyed anything even remotely close to the feelings evoked by Phar Lap, Chatham (1928) was a superstar. Bred by Percy Miller at his Kia Ora Stud in New South Wales, AUS, Chatham was by the Melbourne Cup winner, Windbag (1921). His dam, Myosotis (1919) was an excellent broodmare and a granddaughter of the British Triple Crown winner, Flying Fox (1896). Racing from 1931-1934 for trainers Ike Foulsham and Fred Williams, the handsome bay colt became one of AUS greatest milers, winning 12 of his 21 starts — lightly raced, by AUS + NZ standards. Chatham was a “whistler: ” as a result of a severe throat infection as a colt, he made a distinct, audible whistle when he ran. Chatham did have a lot to “whistle” about: he won the Epsom Handicap twice, the W.J. Cox Plate twice and the Craven Plate three times during his career on the turf. So accomplished was Angus Blair’s colt that he was inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame in 2005.

Australia's "blond bombshell," the incomparable PETER PAN deserves to be considered as great as PHAR LAP.

Australia’s “blond bombshell,” the incomparable PETER PAN deserves to be considered as PHAR LAP’s successor. Indeed, PETER PAN’S trainer believed his colt could beat the “Red Terror” although the two never met.

The incomparable Peter Pan (1929) and the champion gelding, Rogilla (1927) were also contemporaries of Phar Lap.

Peter Pan was hailed as “another Phar Lap” during a brilliant career which saw him take the prestigious Melbourne Cup not once, but twice. A “horse of a different colour” to be sure, Peter Pan sported a flaxen mane and tail, making him even more enigmatic. The colt’s finest performance was his run in the 1934 Melbourne Cup, carrying a staggering 138 lbs. over a soggy track to take AUS most prestigious race for the second time, joining Archer, the only other horse to have accomplished this feat.

(For those wanting to learn more about this great thoroughbred, take a look at Jessica Owers’ book, Peter Pan. Unlike so many thoroughbred biographies that we have read, Owers’ Peter Pan is a lively, entertaining read and the text also includes rare photos of the champion. Peter Pan is also available on Kindle.)

PETER PAN wins his second Melbourne Cup in 1934, carrying a bone crushing 138 lbs.

PETER PAN wins his second Melbourne Cup in 1934, carrying a bone crushing 138 lbs.

 

Rogilla, Chatham and Peter Pan chased each other on the turf for highest honours throughout their careers. But even in the company of champions, Rogilla was no slouch. The gelding took home victories in the King’s, Caulfield, Sydney and AJC Cups, as well as the W. S. Cox, Randwick, AJC and AJC Autumn Plates, among 18 stakes races that he won. Rogilla descended from Carbine and was the first of many AUS champions from the British sire line of Hurry On (1913). Affectionately known as the “Coalfields Champion,” the gutsy gelding made 73 starts, winning 26.

The white-faced ROGILLA (rail) shown here as he narrowly defeats PETER PAN.

The white-faced ROGILLA (rail) shown here as he narrowly defeats PETER PAN in the 1934 King’s Cup.

 

One of the next stars on the horizon was AJAX (1934), another “looker” who would dominant racing in the 1930’s as one of the best sprinter-milers of his day. Bred at the famous Widden Stud, the home of great stallions like his sire, Heroic (1921) and enough champions to take up a full 23 pages in Douglas M. Barrie’s excellent book, Valley of Champions, Ajax would have still another distinction in North America: he was acquired as a stallion prospect at age 14 by Bing Crosby and Lin Howard for their Bing-Lin Stud in California. Ajax’s export to the USA would spark a mini-trend over the next decade as interest in the thoroughbred “down under” began to travel across the Pacific and around the world.

A star of the turf in the 1930's, AJAX is shown here greeting his fans.

A star of the turf in the 1930’s, AJAX is shown here greeting his fans.

 

Trained by Frank Musgrove, Ajax was ridden to 30 of his 36 stakes victories by AUS HOF jockey, Harold Badger. Ajax made 46 starts and was only ever out of the money once, winning 36 before his retirement, at age 6, in 1940. His victories included the Newmarket Handicap, the Futurity Stakes (three times), the Caulfield Guineas and W.S. Cox Plate, the Underwood Stakes (three times), the AJC All-Aged Stakes (three times), the AJC Cropper Stakes (three times) and the Melbourne Stakes (twice).

In the spring of 1937, Ajax began an 18-race winning streak in the kind of races that are Group-classified today, in six of which he smashed either race or course records. And he kept on going, the goal being to equal or surpass the 19-race winning streak first set by the filly, Desert Gold, followed by Gloaming. Sadly, this was not to be. In what should have been his 19th straight win, Ajax was beaten by a 33-1 outsider, Spear Chief (1934) and finished second.

 

AJAX kept the bettors and fans coming to the track: he was simply too good to miss. Photo and copyright Racing Victoria.

AJAX kept the bettors and fans coming to the track: he was simply too good to miss. Photo and copyright Racing Victoria.

Even a champ needs to stay fit: AJAX at swim.

Even a champ needs to stay fit: AJAX enjoying a saltwater treatment at St. Kilda’s.

 

Ajax began his stud career in AUS before leaving for the USA.  An AUS-born son, Magnificent (1942), won the AJC Derby and the VRC Victoria Derby, and numerous other progeny were also stakes winners. In the USA, he sired a few decent horses in Avracado ($71,813), Trebor Yug ($19,420) and A. Jaxson ($11,444) but was nowhere near as successful a sire there as he had been in AUS. Ajax was inducted into the AUS Hall Of Fame in 2004.

As the 1930’s came to a close, still another fine colt Kindergarten (1937) came running. Although his deeds never really spread far and wide, there are many in NZ who still believe he was as good as — or better than — the mighty Phar Lap. Without question, he was the best NZ-bred thoroughbred to grace the turf in his own country and in 2006, Kindergarten was inducted into the New Zealand Racing HOF :

 

NEXT TIME: A look at the 1940’s “down under” and a superstar whose name is still spoken in hushed tones today, so great was his legacy.

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