She came. She saw. She conquered. But blimey, it was close. Like 77,000 or so others I headed to Royal Ascot on Saturday to see ‘The Wonder from Down Under’ — to get my first glimpse of the horse officially rated the world’s fastest sprinter. I’d seen Black Caviar on YouTube and had read about her exploits at Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley and other tracks across Australia. But now this equine superstar was 10,496 miles from home, in the cool and cloudy UK, to put her reputation and her unbeaten record on the line. Could she make it 22 wins from 22 races? Or were we about to witness the eclipse of an Australian sporting icon, a shock defeat on a par with Eric Hollies bowling Don Bradman out for a second ball duck in his final Test innings at The Oval?
On my journey to Ascot I reflected on how there was still, more than 100 years on from the Constitution Act, a colonial aspect to the day’s events. Here we had an Australian sporting star travelling to the old imperial power, not for the money (four of the races that Black Caviar had already won in Australia were worth more than the Diamond Jubilee Stakes) but because of a feeling that only the old imperial power could bestow true greatness. Trainer Peter Moody had said that he didn’t really see why his horse had to travel halfway around the world to race against ‘inferior opposition for inferior prize money’ in order to prove herself, when no such pressure is applied to UK-trained horses, such as the brilliant Frankel, to travel to Australia in order to achieve sporting immortality. He was right. All the same, it was great, as a British racing fan, to see Black Caviar finally arrive on our shores.
At around five past three, the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes was getting ready to start, but the main focus of attention was in the pre-parade ring. ‘There’s never been more people in there, ever,’ someone standing behind me exclaimed. A posse of around 100 people — owners, press and officials — surrounded Black Caviar. From the steps, hundreds more watched, cameras at the ready, for the moment when the world’s most famous racehorse would pass by. ‘Look at the arse on that!’ an Australian accent declared as ‘Nelly’ finally stood in front of us. ‘God, it’s big!’
As Black Caviar moved off into the parade ring, it was time to find a good position in the grandstands ready for the off. As the stalls opened there was an enormous roar from the crowd and straight away Black Caviar was prominent. Halfway from home, she looked to be travelling well within herself, and as she pulled clear we seemed set for another routine victory and all thoughts of Eric Hollies and Don Bradman fled from my mind. Then something quite unexpected happened. Two horses on the nearside started to make dramatic late progress. Jockey Luke Nolen, perhaps thinking he already had the race in the bag, stopped riding. Finally realising the danger, he rousted his mount in the shadow of the post. A photo finish was declared. Had we just witnessed one of the greatest sporting anticlimaxes of all time?
When it was announced that Black Caviar had just held on, a huge cheer went up. Not everyone was ecstatic, however. ‘I wanted to see her beaten,’ a man standing next to me bemoaned. ‘You’ve got to admit it, your horse wasn’t very impressive,’ a lady who had had rather too much to drink told a man in a top hat who was waving an Australian flag. In the winners’ enclosure, Peter Moody got to meet the Queen, and in an admirably frank interview Luke Nolen told of his ‘brain fade’ in the closing stages of the race.
Many commented that the narrow nature of Black Caviar’s victory had tarnished her reputation. ‘All that hype about Black Caviar and she proves to be just average. Complete and utter anticlimax,’ said ‘Paul’ from Cambridge on the Racing Post website. ‘I see connections of Black Caviar can’t get away fast enough. Shame that Frankel didn’t take her on. Over six furlongs it would have been a bloodbath,’ was the view of ‘Steve’ from Sheffield. Meanwhile motormouth racing pundit John McCririck claimed that Luke Nolen would never get a ride in Britain or Europe again after his blunder.
But was it really such a let-down? The race provided us with great drama, far more than if Black Caviar had won in a routine romp. Credit the mare for getting into the lead so easily in the first place, and then responding to her jockey’s late urgings. We now know that during the race she tore muscles in her back, making her performance all the more heroic. Let’s also laud Luke Nolen for the way he conducted himself: if only our politicians behaved with as much honesty when they make mistakes. Praise to Peter Moody too for refusing to criticise his jockey in post-race interviews.
In a wonderful essay for the AFR, former Labor leader and Spectator Australia columnist Mark Latham compared the popularity of Black Caviar to that of Phar Lap. Latham bemoaned the fact that due to changes in society, and the fragmentation of popular culture, the love Australia once felt for heroes like ‘The Red Terror’ has ended. ‘Black Caviar, by contrast, is an acquired taste,’ Latham wrote. ‘There is no evidence of her achievements drawing a new generation of race-goers to the track. People know about her, of course, but with little sense of excitement or fascination. She is, in effect, an insider’s horse, popular within the ever-shrinking boundaries of the horse racing industry, but not beyond.’
Saturday’s race may have been Black Caviar’s least convincing victory, but paradoxically, the fact that she came so close to defeat only enhances her allure and brings her that little bit closer to Phar Lap. In the unique way of Australian horseracing, where the ‘battler’ is honoured above all others, Ascot will most likely be the making of her legend.
Neil Clark is an Oxford-based writer.