MELBOURNE -- Before a major yearling sale here last March, the racing world was buzzing with speculation: What was Floyd Podgornik going to do this time?
A year earlier, the wealthy builder had plunged into the racing game on a scale rarely seen in this country. He had spent $4 million for Symbol Lodge, a posh training complex that included cushioned walkways and a sky-blue exercise pool for horses. Then he went on a spending spree to fill its stalls, buying more than $4 million worth of horses at various auctions.
Yet after this huge investment, Podgornik won a grand total of one race. Many of his young prospects hadn't had a chance to prove themselves yet, but a trainer remarked: "It was pretty much a stable full of dog meat." After such dismal results, would the owner persevere?
Podgornik had been scheduled to attend a Saturday banquet that preceded the yearling sale, but he cancelled his reservation the day before. On that Friday he signed some documents pertaining to the disposal of his assets after his death. He had lunch with his girlfriend. He spent some time with his son.
On Saturday morning, he went to his penthouse office, which offered a sweeping view of the Melbourne skyline that included many of his own buildings, shut himself in a small bathroom, put a wooden-handled Italian revolver to his temple and fired a bullet into his brain.
A self-made millionaire, a man of strength and character, a man who seemingly had an enviable life, Podgornik was dead by his own hand at the age of 47.
Cvetko Florian Podgornik had been 19 when he emigrated to Australia from his native Yugoslavia. Penniless and unable to speak English, he worked as a carpenter, and eventually became a supervisor on construction projects. He married a hairdresser whose father was a racetrack clocker -- the source of his initial interest in the sport.
He eventually undertook building projects himself, and he was not only a bold and astute businessman, he developed a rare relationship with the frequently obstreperous construction trade unions here. His employees respected -- even loved -- a man who also knew what it was like to work with his hands.
Podgornik prospered, and lived a glamorous, fast-paced life. He had separated from his wife and was living with his girlfriend, beautiful and savvy Carolyn Palliardi. Podgornik bought the grandest restaurant in Melbourne and Palliardi ran it for him. They went together regularly to the races, where Podgornik was a formidable punter -- i.e., gambler. He would commonly bet as much as $250,000 on a single race with the legal bookmakers here.
"I love to punt," he had said in his last interview. "Life is a punt. Taking risks makes me feel alive." Yet he was a private man who avoided the limelight, and the average citizen knew little about him until after his death.
Then he became daily fodder for the tabloid press, which was mesmerized by the relationship between Podgornik's "blonde lover" and his "flame-haired widow," for Lorraine Podgornik was not going to be shunted aside now. She took immediate legal action to order Palliardi to quit the restaurant and her $1.8 million apartment.
At the funeral, the widow was in charge, leading the cortege in a Rolls-Royce while Palliardi rode in the rear in a Ford LTD. The funeral, a newspaper reported, turned into "an undignified scrum as frantic TV crews waited for a confrontation between Lorraine and Carolyn."
The papers were filled daily with Podgornik stories: "Tycoon Women Feud." "Carolyn: From Checkout Girl to Magnate's Fiance." "Tycoon Died for Money and Honor." But no one has yet explained convincingly why Podgornik killed himself.
The construction industry was in a severe slump, and one of his friends in the business had recently committed suicide because of financial problems. But Podgornik's own business was surviving (and months later, it still is). Podgornik was facing the prospect of a nasty and expensive divorce, but that would hardly be a justification for suicide.
Some people speculated that his entry into high society had put such strains on him that he couldn't face even a minor downturn in his fortunes. And one newspaper reported "speculation that Podgornik's suicide had been prompted by the abject failure of his large racing stable."
Could that have been a factor? If so, the tragedy of Floyd Podgornik would have a final ironic twist. A week after his death, one of his horses -- now racing for the stable of Lorraine Podgornik -- won a race. His son said afterward: "I hope there are bookmakers in heaven."
And that victory was just the beginning. Soon, the whole stable was winning, and the distinctive Podgornik silks -- all black, with gold seams -- were a regular fixture in the winner's circle at Melbourne tracks. At the recent spring carnival, the highlight of the season here, a Podgornik horse won the prestigious Caulfield Guineas and lost by a nose in the Victoria Derby.
His wife also wondered whether this success might have come too late. "He was such a proud man," she told an interviewer, "and the wins of his horses would have brought him so much happiness. The wins started a week after his death. They might have made a difference."
This possibility saddens and mystifies people in racing here. Ian Baird, an official of the auction company that sold Podgornik many of his horses asked: "In America, don't you have a saying that no man with an unraced 2-year-old ever killed himself?"
Indeed, this is an enduring cliche of the thoroughbred business. The chance that a young horse might become a great one will fill any owner with hope and optimism and a reason to look to the future. And that is why none of his racetrack associates can comprehend why Podgornik gave up on his life.