Dou­ble punt cel­e­brates a win­ner

Black Caviar: The Horse of a Life­time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Les Car­lyon

By Ger­ard Whate­ley ABC Books, 390pp, $45 (HB) By An­drew Eddy Fair­fax Books, 128pp, $24.99

BE­ING a sport­ing freak isn’t all sex and drugs. Jour­nal­ists spend sleep­less week­ends writ­ing books about you, whether you want them to or not. The prob­a­bil­ity is you’ll end up smoth­ered in cliches, not so much a hu­man as a ro­bot whose body parts have been as­sem­bled from press cut­tings.

You’ll be por­trayed as a lik­able lar­rikin and a na­tional trea­sure, maybe even a role model — this de­spite the in­ci­dent out­side the night­club and that mis­un­der­stood open-air toi­let break. When the book fi­nally comes to­gether, read­ers won’t know much more about you than what they have al­ready read in the sports pages.

Black Caviar, horse rac­ing’s freak, has been blessed, as be­fits a lady who would never be seen trawl­ing through night­clubs. Ger­ard Whate­ley, an ABC sports com­men­ta­tor, has writ­ten her bi­og­ra­phy, and it is a rare pearl, el­e­vated into a genre of its own by the qual­ity of the prose and the au­thor’s pitch-per­fect con­trol of tone.

One is re­minded of Jimmy Bres­lin’s ver­dict on Bill Nack’s book on Secretariat, Amer­ica’s great­est race­horse of the 20th cen­tury. ‘‘ This book is sup­posed to be about a horse and rac­ing,’’ Bres­lin wrote. ‘‘ It misses the mark en­tirely and ends up, I think, as ma­jor read­ing.’’ Part of Nack’s ge­nius was to re­con­struct events of which we al­ready knew the out­come. He did this so well that, ev­ery now and then, we kid­ded our­selves we were read­ing about them for the first time.

We all know what hap­pened with Black Caviar at Royal As­cot in late June. She went out for the 1200m Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Stakes dull in the coat and tucked up. As Whate­ley writes in Black Caviar, she was al­ways ‘‘ a patch-up job’’. Peter Moody, her trainer, is the mas­ter of those el­e­gant un­der­state­ments one of­ten hears around shear­ing sheds. ‘‘ She was just dead-set rooted,’’ he said af­ter As­cot.

Luke Nolen, Black Caviar’s jockey, knew she wasn’t right af­ter they had gone a cou­ple of fur­longs. He be­gan nig­gling at her. She couldn’t shake off the field as she did so of­ten, so care­lessly, back home. A French filly was track­ing her. Nolen couldn’t see the filly. He was in front, the post was near, and he wanted to be kind to the horse that had been kind to him. He stopped rid­ing her out.

In­stead of coast­ing, Black Caviar shut down. The French filly lunged. Now, a few strides from the post, Nolen saw her on his left. He slid out along Black Caviar’s neck and be­gan push­ing her out again with his hands. The mare, hurt­ing from mus­cle tears, poked out her head and won, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of Aus­tralians watch­ing on tele­vi­sion re­joiced. She was still un­beaten, the win­ner of 22 straight, a true freak.

As I said, we know what hap­pened that day, and some of us have re­played the race un­til di­vorce pa­pers were bran­dished. It is a mark of Whate­ley’s deft­ness as a sto­ry­teller that the whole thing seems fresh. He builds the ten­sion so he has you half-won­der­ing whether Nolen will see the French filly clos­ing, whether he can restart the mo­tor. Part of Whate­ley’s gift is he has an eye: he takes you there. An­other part is that, while he col­lects facts like a good re­porter, he thinks and writes like a nov­el­ist and knows what to leave out. He is in con­trol of the plot and the char­ac­ters, but qui­etly, as with the open­ing line of the book, a ref­er­ence to track work at Caulfield be­fore dawn: ‘‘ There is a still­ness to rac­ing’s crowded hour.’’

Later he writes Moody can be iden­ti­fied in the train­ers’ tower by ‘‘ the red sniper’s spot of his lit cig­a­rette’’. Moody is a rich char­ac­ter. His wise­cracks mask a fine mind that knows when to push a horse and when to back off. He gets up for track work at 3.05 ev­ery morn­ing. Why 3.05? ‘‘ I refuse to get up at three o’clock.’’

Whate­ley takes us through Black Caviar’s 21 wins at home and iden­ti­fies what dis­tin­guishes her from other cham­pion race­horses. Most save their hero­ics for the shad­ows of the win­ning post. They arrive late, the Bern­bor­oughs and the Galilees, as though, like proper thes­pi­ans, they know the de­noue­ment comes at the end, and only af­ter the au­di­ence has sniffed de­spair. These horses win when they shouldn’t. Black Caviar’s hall­mark, Whate­ley writes, was to make vic­tory seem cer­tain. She won her races in the mid­dle, all the time forc­ing the tempo, her body mass sink­ing lower as her stride be­came longer. Be­hind her, there was panic: flail­ing whips, jock­eys scrub­bing their horses’ necks like fran­tic wash­er­women. And, even though there were two fur­longs still to run, you knew Black Caviar was go­ing to win again. The bit at the win­ning post? Just a for­mal­ity.

Whate­ley ar­gues that when faced with per­fec­tion in sport one can be drawn two ways. We can ac­cept it for the beauty and won­der it

Black Caviar en­joys a roll in the sand at Wer­ribee af­ter her suc­cess­ful As­cot so­journ

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