Black Caviar Retired. Australia Mourns.
Thursday 18 April 2013
Immeasurable, in that way that valuable things are, like a rare diamond that’s worth so many numbers you don’t even ask. She was more than a thoroughbred, a racehorse or a drawcard. She was the Phar Lap era revisited, greatness turned on its head then turned inside out. Then, moments before 3pm yesterday, she was done. Black Caviar was retired.
She hadn’t left me that quiet since she fell in at Royal Ascot. Her win in Saturday’s TJ Smith had put Sydney in a spin, and I was out and about in it, listening to a city talk about a racehorse. That’s right, a racehorse. Not a politician or a football player, or some fool crying on My Kitchen Rules. A racehorse that had commanded national television, had pulling power like no celebrity in the country. A champion, yes, but a mere horse none the less. So imagine a nation’s struggle at the news that the Caviar gold was no more, that the wonder horse had pulled up for the last time. What could you say? Very little. So I tweeted. ‘A nation not quite ready to let go. Black Caviar retired, Australia mourns. How we’ll miss her.’
I will miss her. In February I sat pinned to my couch to watch the Lightning Stakes. Textbook, about as textbook as it gets in horse racing. Black Caviar pinged from the Flemington gates that afternoon and bounced to a facile two-length victory, her first run since Ascot, chalking 23 for 23, and on rolled the wagon. I felt sorry for journalists, who must have sat at their desks 55.42 seconds later wondering how the hell they were going to write about this one with any originality. Still, their efforts weren’t bad... ‘relentless march towards immortality’, and ‘racing’s immovable object’. After all, how else do you describe a generational legend, a horse that is more the stuff of a Jilly Cooper novel than a living, breathing racehorse here and now? And she followed it up with an almost boring victory in the William Reid, and then onwards to Randwick last Saturday. Except that Saturday was a different race, a different effort. The TJ Smith stretched her legs.
The victory was as arrogant as we’ve come to expect, but Luke Nolen had the sails out on the great mare. She was running, pushed out to get away from the pack. Perhaps she’d had to do more in the early furlongs than she was used to, coming off the rail as she did to avoid later scrimmages. But she wasn’t cruising. A few people close to the horse told me a few interesting things, that they believed she was flat to the boards. They thought she was vulnerable, and would be if she raced on. If that was so, it would explain why retirement has come so suddenly. After all, she is approaching seven years old. The miles will stack up.
Whatever the reason, our minds now shift towards other things... will she go to Vinery or Kitchwin Hills, which stallion will she see first, and what will her progeny fetch? And who is the logical successor now... It’s A Dundeel, who dazzled us in the Derby, or half-brother All Too Hard? Because in the end, we’re not ready to let go. How could we be? Black Caviar was a shot in the arm for Australian racing, an animal that poured tens of thousands of people into racecourses and onto racing websites, newspaper pages. Her betting price was secondary, her winnings an afterthought. The whole show was about her, just her, and her extraordinary ability to gallop so much better than anything else. And like Frankel, I suppose she could have been campaigned a bit more aggressively, perhaps sent to Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps she was softly sent around at times to protect the record. But whatever she did, she did it in such a way that left me speechless, often cross-legged on the floor in disbelief... what was she made of that made her so much better?
So we plunge on into racing days without her, and it feels a little colder, a little more demure with her absence. That’s what champions do when they are gone. And we probably won’t really appreciate her for decades, when sprinters come along and try to do what she has done at that level, and fail again and again and again. And when we’re old, we’ll do what the old timers of today have done... we’ll shake our heads, stare out the window and say, ‘you should have seen Black Caviar’.
Is Roger Federer Like Sea The Stars?!
Tuesday 10 July 2012
Think about it for a moment. The men’s final of the 2012 Wimbledon tournament was like a horse race. There was Andy Murray, snatching an early lead with the first set. As the field settled in running, the seasoned, older horse began to close. Roger Federer drew alongside the front-runner in the second set, drawing away in the third. By the fourth and final set he had kicked clear of Murray, disposing of his rival without too much sweat, his stamina and class prevailing in this elite, Gr1 championship.
It was the witching hour in Sydney when all this was going on, well into 3am on a Monday morning. There I was, pretending tennis was like horse racing, the Twitter community feeding me a constant stream of opinions. I decided to contribute. ‘If Roger Federer was a racehorse, he’d be Sea The Stars.’
A river of retweets and replies arrived on my timeline, the strange analogy gathering fans. Dan H (@bonoman7628) responded that Murray needed the tongue tie next up to stop him from choking, that he needed blinkers to block out his steely, straight-faced dam up in the grandstand. To me, however, Andy Murray was Juddmonte sprinter Bated Breath, perennial bridesmaid of the Gr1 class (though in appearance and attitude he was more like a Shetland pony). Murray was always thereabouts, but like Bated Breath he just couldn’t get his nose in front at the winning post.
Federer, on the other hand, was the perfect racehorse, the Sea The Stars of tennis. Seasoned now, he was a 17-times Gr1 (Grand Slam) winner, rated highest on Timeform (world tennis rankings) yet again. Like Sea The Stars, he was neat and graceful, ability simply spilling from his action. He wasn’t flashy or arrogant, just got the job done nicely. And, just as Sea The Stars had been, Federer was famously sound.
The comparison got me thinking about the rest of the tennis battalion.
If Federer was Sea The Stars, Nadal had to be Frankel. Undefeated record aside (it was just foolish to think a tennis player could go unbeaten), Frankel and Nadal were both bullish and flashy. They had action that could stop traffic, and there was little that could go with them when they were traveling at their top. Yes, Nadal had to be Frankel. Even in looks, they were sort of similar.
Djokovich stumped me. Here was a brilliant racehorse that was very forgettable, perhaps a Duke Of Marmalade, a magificent five-time Gr1 winner but not a Frankel or a Sea The Stars. Serena Williams, was she Black Caviar, all that song and story in the rear-end, the motor that took up entire camera shots? And Lleyton Hewitt, surely he was Australian old-timer Mustard, still on the circuit without rhythm or reason.
The Federer-Murray final was dashing enough, but it was even more dashing when my imagination turned it into a match race. The Twitter response to the concept was fascinating, begging the question: what racehorses do you think are kicking around the tennis world? Are we obsessed, us racing boffins? Can we not get enough of our sport without morphing it into another one? Then again, what fun is a blog if you can’t propose the ridiculous.
Black Caviar - Her Finest Win?
Sunday 24 June 2012
Glory. How do you measure it in horse racing? Is it by the winning margin, 11 lascivious lengths of the Ascot straight, or by grit and heart, victory when the chips are down? I found myself asking this question in the wake of Black Caviar’s Diamond Jubilee last night. A win, yes. But glory?
We expected nothing less. The great mare had delivered 21 outstanding wins from 21 career starts. She had beaten the best a sprinting nation could churn out, and beaten them with arrogance. Her victories were lavish, and effortless. Pure brilliance. We, Australians, weren’t just bleating about a great racehorse when we sent her off to Ascot three weeks ago. We were cheering the best we had ever seen.
I stood on my feet when the field jumped away in the 3.45 last night. I saw Black Caviar’s barrier attendant leap off the gates, job done. My hands were drumming rhythms on my chest as the 15 horses cruised into the half mile, and then they were in my hair, frantic. Where was the steam train that tows Luke Nolen deep into the straight, because the cavalry charge was coming? What’s he doing, jesus, what’s he doing. And when the line came I knew she was there, knew the win was hers by the shallowest of margins. But when I should have been cheering I was motionless, muted by shock and withdrawal. When I should have been waking the neighbours I was silent, stunned. I was speechless.
Twitter exploded on the 15” screen in front of me. I read only fragments of the timeline... Luke Nolen had pulled a Steve McQueen... Cool Hand Luke... luckiest escape in racing. Had he really stopped riding in the greatest test of her life? Had he misjudged where the winning post was? Did he think he was home and hosed three lengths out? Glancing between the television and the Macbook, exhausting myself trying to keep up with what everyone was saying, I was silent. Twitter friend Bobby MacDonald brought me to. ‘You still with us? Cmon... up off the floor now...’
Over the next three hours I followed the feeds and broadcast coverage. Everyone was stumped, but shock slowly unfurled into analysis. Was Black Caviar lame trotting back to scale? She looked exhausted. On her physical condition, I agreed with most folk. She did look battered from the run. Rumours swept that she was retired. That didn’t seem wild or unrealistic to me given the way she had won. We had expected a trouncing, and she had delivered a scraping.
The post-race interviews with Nolen and Moody were humbling. Moody especially looked stressed and tired. Where were his sunglasses, his smiles, the Peter Moody we all loved? He knew, and freely admitted, that something had gone wrong. And I could see what he was doing. He was telling himself that they didn’t have to convince anyone of Caviar’s greatness, and by everyone he meant Europe. I could see he just wanted to go home, get his champion on a plane as fast as he could. I remembered right at that moment what John Singleton had said weeks ago - he would never take another horse overseas again.
Australia will wake up to some gruesome headlines from the UK. The Racing Post has already gone there: ‘The blunder from Down Under’. It was nice to see the ABC had spun out something positive within hours of the race: ‘Black Caviar rules supreme at Royal Ascot’ (though that may have something to do with the Whateley biography due later this year). But when it’s all said and written, argued and bantered about until it’s a well and truly tired issue, we have only opinion left, and mine is in a spin tonight.
Black Caviar faced a mountain in lining up for the Diamond Jubilee. Sending a horse across the world is an enormous effort, a huge question of their constitution. She was crossing seasons, racing in a winter coat when her competitors were at the peak of summer condition. She was facing a new track, an undulating track absolutely foreign to Australian runners. She is also six years old. And, if it is true that she was off her game and never comfortable in running, then her victory, whatever the margin, was an outstanding display of grit, determination and heart. I raise my hat to that. However...
The question asked of our great mare wasn’t one that had not been asked of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast, Starspangledbanner, and even Star Witness last year. Each of these horses had made the trip to Royal Ascot, charged down the same track and won (Star Witness aside) more convincingly than Black Caviar tonight. Each of them had traveled in confined, claustrophobic boxes, faced the same acclimatisation challenges, the same undulating surface, and the hazards of unpredictable weather. Little Bridge, winner of the King’s Stand on Tuesday, had come from Hong Kong. Treasure Beach, Wrote, St Nicholas Abbey, Daddy Long Legs - these are seasoned Ballydoyle globe trotters that prove travel can be done without ruin. So I was left asking myself, can we really blame Black Caviar’s below-par win on the travel?
What was left then? An off day? She’d never had one before. The Moody camp had spent three weeks telling the world’s press that she was fit, fitter than at any stage of her life, and that she was largely unaffected by her journey to England. They said she had settled into Newmarket like it had always been home, that she had lost only nine kilos when they had expected 30 - 40. Pre-race stress then? I thought she was tossing her head in the paddock a lot more than she had done at home, but she wasn’t hot as had been Ortensia on Tuesday night. There were few physical pointers that anything was amiss.
My uneasiness came down to a single silly question. Was it possible that Australian racing just couldn’t tow the line with European form? So You Think had been devastating in Australia, but a rung below that in Europe last year. I had lived in Ireland long enough to know the calibre of product in English/Irish racing. It was good, the best in the world one might say, but not when it came to sprinters. The Australian record in the sprinting division has been too strong at Ascot, too dominant. I couldn’t settle on the idea that Black Caviar’s narrow win against an average field was a reflection on Australian racing.
So what was it then? Was it that our champion mare wasn’t as brilliant as we had trumpeted? Was it weakness on the day? Was it the uphill climb of the track, or the gluey surface that brought her undone? As racing sage Danny Power tweeted, you never know until the button is pressed.
We beg for answers because that is what horse racing is all about. When Zenyatta lost to Blame in her final start, her sole inglorious defeat, the jockey was hung out to dry. When Man O’War lost in his sole defeat, a phrase was coined - an upset, after Upset who toppled him. In Caviar’s case, we beg for answers because there was no logical way she could win by a nostril. She was rated 136 on Timeform, behind only Frankel. She had 21 annihilating victories on the clock, wins as perfect as any racing fairytale, that flung her into the far reaches of legendry. On paper, she was lengths and lengths and lengths ahead of the Jubilee field.
It has been awful questioning her greatness, and my heart springs to her defense. It is foreign to read about her vulnerabilty, to learn that she is ‘only human’. If Black Caviar races again in Australia, she will tottle home like she always has here, but it won’t repair the international doubt now. A part of me was crying out for her to run in the July Cup, allow her that second chance to find her feet and unleash the demon within. Perhaps one run was not enough. We’ll never know.
A win is a win, yes, even if it is in less than satisfactory style. Though there are lingering, stubborn questions about the Diamond Jubilee, it is impossible to shake also this stunning realisation - if Black Caviar wasn’t right, if she was running on just a suggestion of her very best, her gutting it out and fighting for that winning line may well make it her finest win yet.
Monday 18 June 2012
There is an interesting pattern emerging in UK racing, or at least it seems that way from down here in Australia. Any good horse that takes a different tack to that of Frankel, any horse that nominates for a non-Frankel race or opts for the road less Frankelised, is being slapped with a startling tag - ‘dodged Frankel’. First Caviar, today So You Think. Interesting, and frustrating.
Black Caviar was the flag bearer for this unfortunate title. Not only did people want to see her meet the king colt Frankel; people (mainly UK people) expected her to meet him. Her camp never did say she would run a mile. They said she probably could run a mile, but they wouldn’t be trying it during the biggest racing test of her life. Of 21 races, 20 of them had been at 6f or under, a single start over 7f. She is bred for speed, speed, speed. Nevertheless, when she failed to nominate for the Sussex Stakes, the headlines and taglines began... ‘Black Caviar dodges date with Frankel’. It went on and on and on, from the newspaper inches to the timelines of Twitter. It’s still going on. Yawn.
This afternoon I was staggered to see that So You Think had also been tarred and feathered. Ballydoyle failed to pay up for the Queen Anne, sending him instead to the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. It meant he would not meet the star of Europe next week. Cue the critics... ‘So You Think joins Black Caviar in avoiding Frankel and does not accept in the Queen Anne’. Extraordinary, given that his stable have never, ever shirked opposition (think Sea The Stars in 2009 and the battalion of horses they threw at him).
My frustration was going off like cheap popcorn, and it got me thinking. Had such negativity ever flowed in the wake of Black Caviar? Had she ever been so outstandingly brilliant down here that Australian racegoers had knocked her very competition? Had there ever been headlines lambasting her opposition for dodging her? Honestly, I couldn’t think of any.
When Caviar met Hay List in the Lightning Stakes back in February (pictured above, Hay List off the rails), she beat him convincingly. Hay List chased the relentless, brilliant Caviar quarters for the fifth time in his life, enough to break any horse’s heart. When he returned to scale, beaten and softly humiliated, his star was brighter than ever. A month later he stepped out and won the Newmarket, and the Melbourne crowd cheered and hollered him that day like he was number one in the world. I remember watching it from Sydney, overwhelmed. Hay List’s greatness was undoubtedly greater for the mare he had been chasing his whole life.
I see Excelebration the way I see Hay List, a horse of rare brilliance born into the wrong time. But unlike Hay List, I can’t ever see Excelebration winning a major prize without the sling of that glutinous Frankel strap - ‘yes he won, but he only won because Frankel wasn’t there’. I expect when Ballydoyle send their smart miler on the non-Frankel path, the tag will come (inevitably) like spring rains... ‘dodged Frankel’.
It is a great shame that in order to idolise one horse, others must be humiliated at his altar. Australian racing, though it has its critics, is surely applauded for avoiding this. I have never heard it said that Hay List is a lesser horse for running after Black Caviar, or that More Joyous has shamelessly dodged the Caviar camp. John McNair, Hay List’s trainer, received a slap on the back and all round chuckles when he declared he would go wherever Caviar didn’t. Men nodded and thought to themselves, ‘I’d probably do the same thing’. I don’t even remember much of a peep out of anyone when Peter Snowden elected not to run Sepoy against the great mare (even though Sepoy was probably the closest thing to beating her). In other words, Australian racing fans are very patient with their champions.
Royal Ascot is but days away, and it is the most impressive carnival in the world. There are lessons to be learned from this meeting, about the gathering of the world’s best horse flesh, about pageantry and history and magnificent competition. Nowhere in the world is racing done like this week at Ascot. But the 2012 renewal is not the Frankel show, wonderful, invincible as that boy is. So You Think has his own rainbow to chase, and as for Black Caviar... I suspect that at the bottom of that long 6f Ascot track next Saturday, Frankel will be a long, long way from her mind.
The Caviar Gold
Friday 15 June 2012
It’s the picture that every horse that has ever raced against Black Caviar has seen... the tight, finely lined, merciless arrogance of her hindquarters. A rear engine that has yet been fully wound up, an engine that needs do only half the work it’s supposed to. 21 starts, 21 seamless wins. Bart Cummings wasn’t far off. ‘The neck of a duchess and the arse of a cook’, he said of her.
Australians, like myself, knew of the Black Caviar gold before this week. We had seen her bring Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide to a standstill, seen football games interrupted on a Friday night to broadcast her efforts. She was a quickly creeping force around the nation, a horse whose non-racing appeal could only be compared to that of Phar Lap 80 years before. Yes, the comparison was tiring and overcooked, but it was true. Black Caviar was white gold, a marketing sledgehammer, a brand. Last week, the entire package arrived in England.
The local fascination for the mare has been outstanding. Gathered on the Newmarket grass outside her stable, below a brazenly pitched Australian flag, are film crews representing TVN, Channel 9, BBC, CNN. I mean, CNN. The wonder from Down Under was doing her thing in America, and she’d never set foot in the place. UK journalists are wearing Caviar ties, US trainers are wearing Caviar jackets and posting their loyalty on Twitter. Name me a horse that has ever done this to racing, or for racing, ever.
In the few days Black Caviar has been in England, the onset of egos has been fascinating. Her international knockers (most of them UK-based) had an unspoiled run the past year saying she would never travel, that she would dodge Frankel or find some excuse to stay at home. Now that she has traveled, has not dodged Frankel (she’s a sprinter guys) nor found an excuse to stay at home, I was amused, and largely irritated actually, to read a certain Twitter post this afternoon (from a UK resident). It touted that Caviar’s connections were fools to say she would handle a soft Ascot track. And here was I thinking the trainer that had brought her to 21 pitch-perfect wins would know her best.
Peter Moody, really, is a marvel. Recently I watched footage of him in the Royal Ascot enclosure last year, chatting with TVN about Caviar’s journey to 2012. He said she would be sitting at 20 or 21 wins when they planned to arrive in England, and he was spot on. He said she would be unbeaten, all going well. She is. The straight-shooting, Queensland-born Melbourne trainer is the best thing about Australian racing - a man who does it off his own bat, gets his horses to do it off their own bat. He will answer the questions you ask of him, with responses that can be startlingly honest and wonderfully straight-laced. He is also unfailingly patriotic. I get the sense that the Australian identity is strong in the Caviar brand.
So, ridiculously proud of the sprinting queen and her team, I will be following the story every step of its high-rolling way. Like most Australians, I know the stakes involved in her winning the Diamond Jubilee - integrity, national pride, the weight of an entire country watching back home. She is fortunate to be a horse, because these pressures are not lost on Peter Moody. When the time comes to cheer and holler Black Caviar up that stiff straight, to scream for the Australian superstar like there’s no tomorrow, I’ll be right there in the thick of it, burning my lungs. It will be one of the greatest racing moments of all time.