Courtesy of Fairfax

Bert Lillye

1919-1996    |    NSW    |    Racing Writer

Bert Lillye was Australia’s longest-serving, most prolific and one of the most widely respected racing writers for half a century. He inspired two generations of racing writers with his passion, energy and commitment to accuracy and deep research during an era when newspaper racing journalists were must-reads for anyone interested in thoroughbred horse racing and punting. His copy appeared in Smith’s Weekly, the Daily Mirror, The Sydney Morning Herald, Turf Monthly and the Sun Herald. His devotion to racing was demonstrated when he went AWL during World War Two and travelled from Brisbane to Sydney to see Modulation win the 1944 Epsom, explaining that confinement to barracks was a fair price to pay to see a great race.

An old man, wise in the way of the racecourse, told me once there is at least one good story behind every stable door.

Bert Lillye


Bert Lillye


Neither a disastrous flood nor a recalcitrant sporting editor could put Bert Lillye off the scent of a good story when most of the Richmond district in New South Wales was under water.

"Dozens of valuable racehorses were lost,” Lillye wrote in his final Backstage of Racing column in the Sydney Sun-Herald. He recalled: “Boats were only available to civil rescue authorities. But Jim Walsh, publican and committee man of the Hawkesbury Racing Club, came to the rescue. He rounded up a small boat for me and the photographer to search for horses. We obtained scoop photographs when we found Martello Towers (the 1959 AJC Derby winner) covered in mud but alive ..."

Racing writers once had to write news, comment on form, make selections, compile prices and do a host of other menial tasks since taken over by computers and betting agencies.

Lillye did it all with fervour. Styles have changed and there have been some outstanding writers on matters of the turf, but Lillye was exceptional.

The Sydney Morning Herald staff of the 1950s and 1960s had many proficient writers, with Bert Lillye the star performer. Neville Prendergast of the Daily Telegraph was outstanding and wrote his memoirs, From Press Box and Stable before becoming a racehorse trainer.

Prendergast, later a parliamentary librarian in Canberra, wrote: "Perhaps (Les) Carlyon was a shade cleverer with phraseology but Lillye might just have had an edge in passion.”

For over a half century Lillye churned out thousands of quality racing articles. Nobody produced more because not only did he appear in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun-Herald and The Daily Mirror in Sydney but also countless editions of Turf Monthly before he died in 1996. Lillye did his best work on the ground (rather than the phone), walking around the Hunter Valley and racecourses, always using his eyes.

On his demise, Arnold Rodgers eulogised: "I followed Bert's advice and purchased the title Turf Monthly and restarted the magazine. From the day I took over 44 years ago Bert advised me. Being a perfectionist he would not cut corners. Everything had to be spot on. It was for Turf Monthly that he began writing Backstage Of Racing, a feature he later continued at Fairfax. A collection of the columns was published by Fairfax.

During World War Two, Lillye went AWL, travelling from Queensland to Sydney to see Modulation win the 1944 Epsom. Subsequent fines and confinement to barracks, he figured, were reasonable prices to pay to see a major race. In pursuit of a good yarn, Lillye was just as determined.

“An old man, wise in the way of the racecourse, told me once there is at least one good story behind every stable door,” Lillye recalled. And he must have set a record for peering over the top if not opening them.

Apart from stable doors Lillye gave insights into the greats, trainers, jockeys and breeders, as well as bush dodgers and touts. Even Martin Stainforth who he described as “one of the finest painters of racehorses the world has ever known” was featured by him. “I can never console myself with the platitude that the best meals leave dirty dishes; not after digesting the rare beauty of Martin Stainforth’s paintings,” Lillye wrote.

But champions in action, equine and human, raised Lillye’s pulse and typing fingers.

"I genuinely believe Bernborough was the best racehorse I've seen," Lillye maintained. "What he did under enormous weights as a six-year-old stallion made him a freak ...

Bill Cook was my favourite jockey but Ron Quinton would be a champion in any era. As for trainers, how can anyone go past Thomas John Smith, MBE, who set a record that will never be equalled and one of greatest success stories of our time - and that's not restricted to racing."

There was one story Lillye couldn’t nail down. “It is my belief that one of the shortest priced favourites in the history of the AJC Derby was beaten because he was ‘nobbled’ with heavy plates,” he maintained.

“I was given the facts on reliable authority from at least three separate sources. My search through available AJC records show that months after the race the official calendar listed two farriers who had been warned off.

“No reason was given but not long afterwards a concrete slab was put down near the entrance to the mounting enclosure over which all runners must walk to allow the shoeing inspector to check each horse’s plating.”

Lillye began in newspapers as a copy boy when 15 for Smith’s Weekly before enlisting in the army in August 1940.

After the war, he spent 13 years with John Fairfax. He left for the Daily Mirror but after five years returned to Fairfax where he worked until his retirement in 1984. But this didn’t end his commitment to racing because he contributed even more as a member of the Kembla Grange Race Club committee.

"My greatest disappointment is that the wonderful characters are fast disappearing from the racecourse, the victims of progress," he preached.

Lillye was the subject of a This Is Your Life program on television where tales of his devotion to racing, newspapers and the punt, were screened.

On the rampage in the betting ring, Lillye, chasing top odds, was a sight to behold. It rated with his performance over the typewriter.

Max Presnell has been a racing writer for Fairfax for more than half a century. He has covered more than 40 Melbourne Cups.

Portrait of Bert Lillye, courtesy of Fairfax


Courtesy of Fairfax


Bert Lillye at the Scone Cup, with Frank Bragg, ‘Bim’ Thompson and Bill Howey. Courtesy of Bill Howey and the 'old' Scone Race Club


From left: David Bath; Bill Howey; Robert Thompson (winning jockey); AO Ellison; Antony Thompson; Peter Meehan (Radio Station 2NM); Bert Lilley (Sydney Morning Herald). Courtesy of Bill Howey


Courtesy of Fairfax