Power and the GLORY

Black Caviar’s un­par­al­leled courage and the un­flag­ging pa­tience of her trainer are at the heart of this passionate ac­count of the fastest horse in the world, writes Peter Pierce

The Weekend Australian - Review - - News - Black Caviar: The Horse of a Life­time by Ger­ard Whate­ley is pub­lished by ABC Books. Peter Pierce is an aca­demic, au­thor and critic. His many books in­clude From Go to Whoa: A Com­pen­dium of the Aus­tralian Turf.

ONE of the great­est weeks in the his­tory of the Aus­tralian turf oc­curred last June, half a world away, at an English race­course whose name has been bor­rowed here, as have many tra­di­tions from the coun­try where horse rac­ing was in­vented.

At Royal As­cot, the grand Aus­tralian stayer So You Think won the 150th run­ning of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes for his fifth Group 1 vic­tory in Europe, to add to five (in­clud­ing two Cox Plates) in Aus­tralia. His story has been told by He­len Thomas, in The Horse That Bart Built .

A few days later, an even more her­alded gal­loper from the an­tipodes ran its only race overseas, in the Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Stakes. What hap­pened then, and how the horse came to be at As­cot, is the sub­ject of Ger­ard Whate­ley’s fine, au­tho­rised ac­count of ‘‘ the horse of a life­time’’, Black Caviar.

This mare, by sprinter Bel Es­prit out of the un­raced Helsinge, is — ac­cord­ing to Whate­ley and many oth­ers — ‘‘ pow­er­ful rather than beau­ti­ful’’. Bart Cum­mings, who had So You Think sold out from un­der him, said Black Caviar pos­sessed ‘‘ the neck of a duchess and the arse of a cook’’.

The horse with the af­fec­tion­ate and unas­sum­ing nick­name Nelly first raced at Flem­ing­ton on April 18, 2009. The dogs had barked, and Black Caviar started favourite at 2/1, duly saluting by five lengths. In each of her sub­se­quent 21 starts (and wins), she would be odds on. Such fig­ures prompt the ques­tion to which Whate­ley re­turns and that en­rages Peter Moody, trainer of the horse, and its own­ers: ‘‘ Yes, but what did she beat?’’

More of that later. Com­mit­ted to the deep back­ground of the Black Caviar story, Whate­ley be­gins with the ca­reer of Moody, ‘‘ a self-made man in a world where em­pires are in­her­ited’’. He was born in 1969 at Wyan­dra, in far west­ern Queens­land, where the fam­ily ran a 40,000ha sheep and cat­tle prop­erty. In­volved in the lo­cal horse scene since child­hood, Moody took the fairy­tale route from the out­back to the city — to Syd­ney and to Rand­wick, to work for the leg­endary trainer (and former bush bat­tler) Tommy Smith.

Moody also learned his trade with the other mem­bers of the tri­umvi­rate of Aus­tralia’s great­est train­ers: Cum­mings and Colin Hayes. Still in his early 30s, Moody was train­ing in Bris­bane when, in 2001, he brought the colt Amalfi south to win the Vic­to­ria Derby. Eigh­teen months later, he booked Luke Nolen for two rides at Sale in re­gional Vic­to­ria, hav­ing mis­taken him for his brother Shaun. An­other of Aus­tralia’s fa­mous (and of­ten fraught) trainer-jockey part­ner­ships be­gan.

Sev­eral years later, a group of old friends on hol­i­day on a house­boat on the Mur­ray River de­cided to buy a horse. De­spite the filly be­ing ‘‘ off­set in the front legs’’ (the least of the phys­i­cal prob­lems she would sur­mount) Moody went to $210,000 to buy Black Caviar. Her win­ning streak nearly ended at four. She won the Dane­hill Stakes even af­ter ‘‘ the mus­cles in her chest strained and tore off the bone’’.

Two es­sen­tial el­e­ments of this story brought Black Caviar back to the track: her un­par­al­leled courage and the un­flag­ging pa­tience of her trainer. It took un­til her eighth race for Black Caviar to win at Group 1 level. Eleven more have fol­lowed. Soon ex­perts were call­ing her ‘‘ the high­est rated horse in the world’’ (at one point she would have car­ried 135lb or 61.5kg in a myth­i­cal hand­i­cap). And although she would never break a track record, Black Caviar was widely ac­claimed as ‘‘ the fastest horse in the world’’, and usu­ally as the best as well, de­spite only once be­ing tested out to 1400m.

Rightly ig­nor­ing the puerile adu­la­tion of the horse by mul­ti­tudes who know noth­ing of rac­ing, Whate­ley leads us with pas­sion through Black Caviar’s great­est tri­umphs, in­clud­ing the New­mar­ket Hand­i­cap of 2011 and the TJ Smith Stakes at Rand­wick the fol­low­ing month (her first run out­side Mel­bourne: Black Caviar would win at Group 1 level in four states).

Whate­ley de­clares that ‘‘ as surely as Phar Lap had to win the Mel­bourne Cup of 1930, so Black Caviar needed the New­mar­ket Hand­i­cap of 2011’’. She got it, car­ry­ing a record weight for a mare of 58kg and, though eased down, run­ning within a tick of the course record. In Syd­ney she spot­ted the out­stand­ing Hay List five lengths at the top of the Rand­wick rise (300m out) and won by two lengths. Like Phar Lap, Black Caviar some­times beat small fields or weak ones, but al­ways beat the best around. Hay List, who won the New­mar­ket the next year, was one of the lat­ter.

Fi­nally the trip to As­cot was con­firmed. In Moody’s words, ‘‘ we had planned for the fastest horse in the world to win the big­gest sprint race in Europe at the most fa­mous race­course on the planet’’. But on ar­rival the mare was not right in the coat, in her ac­tion, in her at­ti­tude. Black Caviar was coming apart or, in Moody’s words, ‘‘ just dead set rooted’’. The horse still started long odds on, but short of its best and on soft ground, strug­gled to break away. Nolen re­laxed too early (‘‘Blun­der Down Un­der’’, ‘‘ The Moment of Strewth’’, the Bri­tish tabloids trum­peted) and missed the late dash in­side him of the high-class French mare Mid­night Cloud.

But Black Caviar won. Ex­cuses al­ways come eas­ier for win­ners, but the nar­row tri­umph at As­cot ranks as one of the horse’s finest per­for­mances, at odds on, but against the odds. What the cost was will be ev­i­dent next week — as­sum­ing the mighty mare’s re­turn to rac­ing re­mains on sched­ule — in the race at Flem­ing­ton now called the Black Caviar Light­ning Stakes.

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