The Night Two Giants Clashed In A Memorable Hobart Thousand

She was the darling of the media and greyhound fans across the country. He was the one chaser who had already tested her and would later go down as the one who seemed to have her measure. When the mighty all-distance champion Zoom Top came to Hobart to try and annex the prestigious Hobart Thousand in 1969, her nemesis Benjamin John, one of the finest sprinters Australia has ever seen was there to throw down his challenge.

Owned and trained by Hec and Leah Watt, Zoom Top had carried all before her through much of 1968, winning 31 of her 61 starts, including her last eight in a row. It was no surprise when she was named NSW Greyhound of the Year.

Benjamin John, trained by the master mentor Stan Cleverley, had begun racing in late July 1968 and had won 10 of his 18 starts that year.

He had already clashed with Zoom Top on two occasions, with the score at one win apiece. On the first occasion, in a race over 555 yards at Dapto, Zoom Top found trouble at the first corner and had to be content with fourth place, beaten just over a length by Benjamin John. On the second occasion, the final of the 1968 NSW St Leger, run over 580 yards at Wentworth Park, Zoom Top exploded out of box six and gave nothing else a chance, racing away to score by three lengths in 31.0, a new race record. Benjamin John finished third, beaten six lengths.

In the lead-up to the Hobart Thousand heats, run in late January 1969, Zoom Top and Benjamin John were in contrasting form.

Zoom Top had commenced the new year with defeats at Richmond and Harold Park (twice). Despite her apparent loss of form, Hec Watt took Zoom Top south to Tasmania, to contest the prestigious Hobart Thousand series, run over 540 yards.

In order to give Zoom Top a look at the Hobart track she was given a solo trial at the circuit. A record crowd of almost 1,000 turned out to watch the trial. After the hit-out Hec Watt found Zoom Top was bleeding from a front paw, the result of a torn stopper.

Benjamin John had begun the year with victories at Wentworth Park and Olympic Park in Melbourne, split by a second placing over the middle-distance 675 yards trip at Bulli.

In his heat on 27 January, Benjamin John blitzed his field, overcoming box six to score by 14 lengths and set a new track record of 28.9. This eclipsed the previous mark of 29.3, set in November 1968 by Future Tanist and equalled by Mounthall King in taking out the 1969 Hobart Maiden Thousand early in the same month.

For Zoom Top, Hec Watt had managed to patch up he injured paw and she started a prohibitive 1/5 ($1.20) favourite against moderate opposition in her heat. Zoom Top began well and quickly led but although nicely clear in the back straight she suddenly faltered and allowed the trailing Twinkling Lin to close to within a length of her. The champion got going again and went on to score by four lengths in a fast 29.3, equalling the previous track record.

After the race the reason for Zoom Top’s mid-race baulking became clear. She had torn the same stopper and was bleeding from the front paw yet again. Fortunately, there was a nine-day gap to the semi-finals and Zoom Top was able to take her place in her run-off on 5 February. Starting at 1/3 ($1.30) from box three, Zoom Top jumped clear at the start and led all the way to win by six lengths from Gold Brig in a best of the night 29.1.

Benjamin John also won his semi-final, but only recorded 29.4 after being slowly away and coming from well back early. He was almost certainly tired after Cleverley had returned to Sydney with him after his heat victory and raced Benjamin John at Wentworth Park on 1 February. Despite the advantage of box one, Benjamin John was beaten half a length by the brilliant Sammie Sparrow.

The Hobart Thousand final took place just three days after the semi-finals, on 8 February. Benjamin John drew perfectly in box one for the $3,000-to-the-winner final, with Zoom Top alongside him in box two. It looked a virtual match race and that’s how it panned out.

Benjamin John began best but Zoom Top showed great early speed to lead two lengths into the first turn. Zoom Top held the lead into the back straight from Benjamin John but coming to the back bend she was tackled by her fellow NSW rival. Benjamin John went around Zoom Top and, to the cheers of the record crowd, raced away to score by three lengths from Zoom Top. Queensland sprinter Michael Craig was a well-beaten four and a half lengths away third. Benjamin John recorded a sensational 29.0, the second-fastest ever run at the course.

The Hobart Thousand was the first time Zoom Top had ever been run down in a sprint. Her only real excuse was that her torn stopper had not had sufficient time to heal and she might well have been feeling some discomfort in her front paw while racing.

Benjamin John and Zoom Top clashed on three more occasions. Benjamin John won one of these, relegating Zoom Top into second place, but in the other two races they were both beaten, although Benjamin John had the better of the placings, running second both times while Zoom Top was third and fourth.