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
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.