CULT Bendigo pacer Bernie Winkle capped a homecoming of sorts to Lord's Raceway by scoring a thrilling and popular win in the Keith Pratt and Paul James - Dual Gordon Rothacker Medal Claiming Pace on Bendigo Pacing Cup night.
Trained at Strathfieldsaye by Julie Douglas, the now nine-year-old pacing gelding was having his first start on his home track in 634 days and duly saluted with Bendigo's Ellen Tormey on board.
The son of Rock N Roll Heaven and Dolly McD had not raced at Bendigo since his seventh-place finish behind Hashtag on April 15, 2020, in the opening weeks of the regional racing period.
Remarkably, for a horse who notched his 55th career win on Saturday night, from 241 starts, and is trained a mere 10 minutes away, Bernie Winkle had not won a race in 11 previous attempts at Lord's Raceway.
But while he has not raced at Bendigo in 17 months, as has been well documented, the gelding has been doing plenty of winning elsewhere, mainly at Mildura.
Sent north to be trained by Geoff Lucas early in the regional racing period last year, Bernie racked up 10 straight Mildura wins and 11 from 13 starts before making his return to Strathfieldsaye and back under the care of Julie and Glenn Douglas.
He has continued to be a more than regular feature at Mildura, racing at the City Oval Paceway 36 more times for 20 wins.
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The third favourite at $4.40 behind last start Echuca New Year's Cup winner Yorkshire ($3) and Jilliby Bandit ($3.10), Bernie Winkle came from one out and three back on the bell to put himself into contention on entering the straight, before sweeping to the lead on the outside and going on to score a 1.4m win over a pair of Emma Stewart-trained runners Ample Power and Always Fast.
Tormey admitted to a few anxious moments during the running.
"I was probably a little bit concerned during the middle because I ended up in front of the two (Always Fast and Ample Power) that were going to give me a trail forward," she said.
"So when they went at the 800m and I was three back, I thought that was a little bit too far back for me.
"But on the home turn, to his credit, he was just travelling so well and the inside horses weren't going backwards, so I knew I had a really good chance."
Tormey, who took over the reins as Bernie Winkle's regular driver in December of 2020, has since notched up 20 wins aboard the $542,812 lifetime stakes winner.
It goes without saying the 31-year-old trainer-driver is enjoying every moment of the ride aboard the horse, who has developed a serious cult following, even beyond harness racing circles.
"He's an awesome horse to drive and he's just got an aura about him I guess. His speed is good to watch," Tormey said.
"We know he's not at the top, but the amount of races he's won and the job he's done since he's come over (from New Zealand) has been amazing.
"He's just the loveliest to drive - he just does what he wants to.
"I often say, I don't really deserve the credit, he just does it all himself. He is one of the easiest horses I have ever driven. He sits on the bit perfectly.
"He's famous out at the stables, everybody loves him and everything is known as Bernie's paddock, or Bernie's this. He has a home for life for sure.'
Bernie Winkle and Tormey will again be chasing history when they next head to Mildura together.
A 36th win at the City Oval Paceway would give the Douglas-trained gelding the outright record of the most wins by a harness racing horse at a single Victorian venue.
He currently shares the record with the former champion True Roman, who won 35 races at Moonee Valley during a star-studded career in the 1980s and 90s.
Saturday night's claiming pace was named in honour of last year's joint Gordon Rothacker Medal winners, including Junortoun-based owner, breeder, trainer and driver Keith Pratt.
With last year's Rothacker Medal presentation held online due to COVID, Pratt was awarded his medal in a special presentation after the race.
Read more: Record beckons for Bernie Winkle
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