Double punt celebrates a winner
Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime
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