During my thirty-odd years career in the greyhound media, I have been very fortunate to be ‘up close and personal’ with a number of champions that have graced our tracks – standing just metres away from them while performing my Live Hosting duties for Sky Racing, I have been able to witness first hand just what they are like before they are about to be boxed for a race like the Melbourne Cup, Australian Cup or Golden Easter Egg.
The one thing that remains indelibly printed in my mind about all of these champions is their temperament behind the boxes. You rarely see them jumping around madly or pulling their handler to the boxes on the lead – what you will see is an animal who is focused; an animal who contains all their energies for the job at hand; an animal who knows exactly what is required of them in just a few moments time when the boxes open and they are on their way in their next major assignment.
Flying Amy was a perfect example – Rapid Journey knew exactly when to ‘switch on’ – and so too, did Fernando Bale.
If we wind the clock back to January 3, 2015, Fernando Bale had done nothing to arouse the suspicion of any greyhound follower that he was about to engulf the industry in the next twelve months, re-write and create records, and earn the acclamation of fans around Australia and around the world.
On Group 1 Silver Chief Classic night at The Meadows, all eyes were on multiple Group 1 winner Dyna Villa, Above All, who had just set new track record figures at Hobart when claiming the G1 Hobart Thousand, as well as another promising young pup in the shape of Dyna Double One – these three chasers would fight out the finish of the Silver Chief on what would be a memorable night for trainer Andrea Dailly who prepared no less than five winners on the card, including Allen Deed who set a new track record. Fernando Bale, who recorded a PB of 29.70 when winning race 5 on the night wearing the green and white rug as the first reserve, was one of those five winners for the champion trainer.
This was the first time I had seen Fernando Bale in the flesh and I remember thinking to myself...”geez, that greyhound flew early”. No sooner had that thought entered my head then it went out just as quick – there were other more promising greyhounds on the card to peruse, or so I thought, but he had done enough to be entered into my book of greyhounds to keep an eye on in the future.
At that point in time, Fernando Bale had won three races and been unplaced on two other occasions (his first two race starts) and no one, not even the Wheelers’ or the Daillys’ in their wildest dreams, could ever have imagined the success he would experience in the next ten months.
His racetrack career dominated the headlines – not just in greyhound racing – but in social media where Fernando Bale would often ‘trend’ on Twitter when he was racing, such was his appeal to people from any racing code.
The final career statistics for Fernando Bale stand at 44 starts for 35 wins and 5 minor placings and a world record of $1,299,370 in prizemoney. Two track records; an Australian Greyhound of the Year award; Eight Group 1’s; Two Group 2’s and one Group 3 victory; all this quite simply adds up to what is a record that will take forever and a day to equal, let alone break.
The one thing that will remain forever in my memory was his uncanny ability to be able to time the start to perfection – it’s one thing to ‘nail the jump’ but it’s another thing to be able to lead the best greyhounds in Australia by 5 or 6 lengths by the time he had reached the first turn but that’s what Fernando Bale did time and time again – his sensational early pace gave him the ability to make the next best greyhounds in Australia look like mere 5th grade chasers.
His honour roll included elite level races such as the Golden Easter Egg; the Topgun; the National Derby; the Maturity Classic; the Harrison-Dawson; the Adelaide Cup and the National Sprint Championship; and for any greyhound to have won three of those races would see them being spoken of in revered terms – to win all eight typifies just how good Fernando Bale really was.
To say that the crowds adored him would also be an understatement.
Punters would line the fence surrounding the parade ring five and six deep to get within a few metres of the champion and take photo after photo which would be either be stored as a keepsake or shared immediately with friends (and the rest of the world) as proof they were in the same space as a freak of the race track.
The anticipation going into the Group 1 Adelaide Cup in early October was quite palpable.
If Fernando Bale were to win the race and claim the $75,000 winners cheque, he would become the first greyhound in the history of the sport, anywhere in the world, to eclipse the magical million dollars in prizemoney.
Despite drawing box 6 in the final, punters again rallied to him and sent him out as a $1.35 favourite when he was seeking to win his seventh Group 1 title.
When he mistimed the start just a fraction, there was an alarming gasp from the crowd at Angle Park – akin to someone telling them that Santa Claus wasn’t coming at Christmas – within a mere 75 metres, and still with around 450 metres of the race to be run, the volume of the cheering increased with each bound he took until the crescendo was reached when Fernando swung into the home straight with an unassailable lead.
It was a similar feeling on Group 1 Melbourne Cup night in late November, however, the final result on the semaphore board wasn’t what most fans wanted, but to many, it was the greatest run of Fernando Bale’s career.
This time, Fernando blew the start badly from box 6 and many thought his chances were done and dusted in the first twenty metres. Such was his determination, he exploded after balancing up and by the time they had reached the apex of the first turn, Fernando had worked his way to the front of the field to lead by a clear margin.
Against any other field, and Fernando’s lead as they headed down the back straight would have been enough to see him race to victory but stalking him three lengths adrift was his kennelmate, Dyna Double One. Regarded by many, including myself, as the second best greyhound in the country and one with a devastating finishing burst, the scoresheet at this point in time in head-to-head battles read out at 7-0 in favour of Fernando.
With fans securing every vantage point at the Sandown Park circuit, this would prove to be a race for the ages and the sight of the white and brindle champion being tackled by the black flash as these two superstars entered the home straight only encouraged the 5,000 strong crowd to cheer louder.
And the cheering never abated from the moment they balanced up for the run home – Fernando along the rail straining every sinew of his body, attempting to withstand the grinding finish of a greyhound who had conserved energy in the early stages would stay long in the memory of any one who was privileged enough to witness what could only be described as a titanic struggle.
The fact that it took Dyna Double One the best part of 350 metres to overhaul Fernando Bale is another example of the latter’s champion qualities. Realistically, he was entitled to be beaten three or four lengths after the work he had to do – the fact that the margin was less than half a length had many hardened punters shaking their heads in pure admiration.
Many of my friends and media commentators from the other two racing codes have constantly asked me what was it that made Fernando Bale the champion that he was?
My response has always been that he is no different to the likes of Phar Lap, Sir Donald Bradman and Michael Jordan – he was, ‘one in a million.’
Fernando Bale was a greyhound that had exhilarating pace from the boxes; tremendous mid-race burn; and an undeniable will to win. He had all the ingredients that go towards making what is often desired, but rarely achieved…an absolute champion.
I feel lucky to have witnessed his deeds on the track from such a close distance and one can only wonder what he can achieve at stud. Only time will tell.
Owner, Paul Wheeler, with some of the awards that Fernando Bale accumulated during his career.
By Sky Racing's Greyhound Presenter, Mark Duclos
Images courtesy of Clint Anderson - BlueStream Pictures