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Forum - Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

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Original Blog Post:

Edited extract from Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime by Gerard Whateley as published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sep 15th, 2012.

The Moody racing float rattled into the freight yard at Melbourne Airport on a bitingly cold winter's night in June. Driver Peter Courtney had shuttled Black Caviar to racecourses around the country throughout her career. Tonight he delivered "Nelly" to a departure point rather than a destination. In the garish yellow glow of the sodium lights, the back of the truck was lowered for assistant trainer Tony Haydon to climb in. He settled the mare, clipped on the lead and offered a word of reassurance.

Black Caviar strode forth clad in her custom-made "bat suit". Unveiled the day before, the figure-hugging compression garment became an instant sensation. Variously described as sexy and racy, it was assessed on national radio as "the biggest sporting fashion statement since Cathy Freeman wore her hooded bodysuit to win gold at the Sydney Olympics".

The black spandex suit mimicked the compression clothing routinely worn by human athletes in and between competition. Trainer Peter Moody figured if it was good enough for Olympic hurdler Sally Pearson, recently dubbed Blonde Caviar, to wear on a flight to London, then he wanted it for the fastest Australian on four legs.

It had seemed unlikely that Black Caviar's departure could match the romance of Phar Lap leaving these shores. Yet here was an image to forever represent the most significant equine expedition in 80 years, as easily called to mind as the Red Terror being winched in a wooden crate aboard the steamer Ulimaroa.

Phar Lap's voyage was a three-parter spanning almost two months. Black Caviar had in store a 30-hour flight from wheels up in Melbourne, with stopovers in Singapore and Sharjah during which she could not leave the plane.

The Airstable stood ready to accept its cargo. The container - 2.4 metres wide and high and a third longer - could snugly transport three thoroughbreds. That was considered economy travel. The walls could be eased to accommodate two in business class. Black Caviar travelled alone. First class.

Black Caviar paced, pausing to look at the mountainous stacks of shipping containers in the distance. Her boarding call came informally, a shout from the tarmac on the other side of the cyclone wire fence. She was marched up the ramp of the Airstable, prompting applause from those present. A hydraulic platform lifted the box to the open nose [of the plane] for loading.

Dozens of Qantas staff had requested the late shift on Wednesday night, knowing who was due. Regulations were such that only the rostered workers could look on. The plane was closed for departure and, as it taxied away, those who spend their days tending aircraft, watching them routinely come and go, were moved to raise their phones to take a photo of this particular plane as a keepsake.

At 23.13, the heavy mechanical drone of flight SQ7297 filled the air. Defying its size, it roared by and heaved into the black sky. Black Caviar was away.

Taking on the world - and never accepting the limitations of geography and population - is an intrinsic part of the Australian character. Domestic success is commendable, but world titles and gold medals are the stuff of sporting folklore.

Of the rivalries Australia fosters, none resonates as strongly as contest with the mother country. England and its former penal colony wage sporting warfare like few other countries. Cricket's Ashes are the constant, but the fervour can take hold wherever an Australian and an Englishman swing a racquet, pedal a bike or kick a ball.

There was natural antagonism embedded in the idea of Black Caviar venturing to Royal Ascot. Moody had felt it since British thoroughbred Frankel supplanted his mare at the top of the world rankings. He regarded the English notion of superiority as "stuck up" and was happy to be the antipodean antagonist.

"I really ridicule the fact we've got to go to England to prove ourselves to be as good as we know we are. You've never seen anything like this horse before." But he did not shirk the challenge. "We are really happy to get up there and smack a bit of European arse."

But he soon found a very different mood among the Brits. The English fawned over Black Caviar from the moment she first trod the Heathrow tarmac. As J. A. McGrath wrote in The Telegraph: "Not since the days when the Francois Boutin-trained Arazi drew crowds of reporters from both sides of the Atlantic, embarking on his three-year-old campaign at Saint-Cloud in 1992, has there been such media interest in a foreign horse."

The British media flocked to Abington Place, at Newmarket, where an Australian flag hung over the archway leading to the private courtyard where Black Caviar was in residence. They came with a sense of fascination. They found Moody's barbs about English racing endearing rather than cutting. Totally absent was any sense of rivalry. The Brits wanted to see the wonder of Black Caviar for themselves.

The countdown to the Diamond Jubilee Stakes was billed as the most powerful build-up to a race in the rich history of Royal Ascot and the biggest gamble ever undertaken by a foreign horse at the meeting.

Saturday was Australia Day. Racing Post had declared it "G'day Five of Royal Ascot" with the invitation emblazoned on the front page: "Great Britain Welcomes Aussie Phenomenon Black Caviar - Now Dazzle Us Baby".

Hosts for the on-course broadcast rejoiced at the devotion and the sheer number of those who had come to support Black Caviar. In Melbourne's Federation Square, more than 2000 fans braved freezing conditions after midnight, proof that sport is an experience best shared. Almost all were oblivious to the circumstances that had the mission on the brink of collapse.

The preceding Tuesday morning at Newmarket, Moody had enlisted jockey Luke Nolen for the mare's only gallop between the flight and race day. It was a breeze up as much for the trainer's benefit to assess her action. It was not the searching gallop Moody would have prescribed ahead of a group 1 event at home. By design, Black Caviar was as fit as Moody could get her before boarding the plane and 20 kilograms lighter than her usual racing weight. He wanted her to rest rather than work after the arduous trip, given that she had been in training for most of the past 12 months.

Nolen was reassured. Working well within herself, Black Caviar felt strong striding up a hill steeper than that which she would encounter in the concluding stages on Saturday. Moody thought it was sharp but tradesman-like. She did not have her natural bounce and he could not ignore the deterioration in her coat. Acclimatisation was proving difficult. Her long winter coat had come through at the early onset of the Southern hemisphere winter. While the local horses were getting their summer coats, Black Caviar was a horse caught between seasons. Moody saw her lustre was gone.

"You can shampoo and brush them as much as you like but the wellness comes from the inside. They can have a long coat but they can still look well and healthy, but with her it was more like a wire brush than a silk purse. And that told me she was a fair way off her top."

The trainer quietly rounded up the five couples that owned Black Caviar and drew them aside, undetected. He tempered any sense of alarm by assuring them there was not a problem. But Moody did not sugar-coat the message. To his eye, Black Caviar had one good gallop left in her and only just that. If they won on Saturday the job was done and she would not be capable of an encore performance.

The owners had made their bookings to stay on for the July Cup at Newmarket three weeks after Royal Ascot. It had always been mooted that she would run in both. But the group understood what was being conveyed. Black Caviar would be back in Australia by the time that race was run.

The maintenance of Black Caviar was constant. She was always a patch-up job. That was not unusual for a mare of her bulk and ability, size and speed. Her longevity was a credit to her support team. Moody acknowledged she had not been fully sound going to the races since her second start.

He had learnt to make his assessments of what she could overcome, and monitor closely the fluctuations in her physical and mental condition. He understood that Black Caviar had the pain threshold of an elite athlete. Rather than apply the limitations he would for an average galloper, he trusted her and challenged her. She pushed the boundaries and every time she came back a winner.

Rather than topping her off for the race of her life, the track gallop at Newmarket had flattened Black Caviar. Worse, it had exacerbated niggling complaints both old and new. In the space of one morning she had gone from relatively sound to troubled.

The core problem had always been the suspensory ligament she first injured as a three-year-old after her fifth win. It had been active on and off for the past two years. Moody had known when to stop and when to push, and the suspensory had held together, but there was heat in the ligament after track work. She was bumping it when she exercised. That was out of character. Tony Haydon had a special boot made to try to offer her protection. But it was nasty. It was like having a sprained ankle and constantly banging it.

At her previous win in Adelaide she had torn the equivalent of a quadriceps muscle. Her regular chiropractor, Mick Bryant, found the four-centimetre tear and put her through highly sophisticated laser treatment. To avoid stress on the pelvic limb, Nelly was not allowed to swim for almost three weeks. She was given the all-clear only a couple of days before leaving for England. Her first gallop in the UK, however, had revealed it was still a sore spot.

Behind the secure gate of Abington Place, Moody feared Black Caviar was coming apart. Haydon was tending to her morning and afternoon. He strapped the suspensory, lasered the quad and had her feet and legs in buckets of ice water. Few horses would have tolerated such a regimen. Moody's diagnosis was more than the sum of the parts. "She was just dead-set rooted. You could see it in her. She was down and out."

He had seen her like this a year beforehand and it had caused him to abandon plans to run in the Doomben 10,000. But here they were on the other side of the world preparing for the culmination of her career. "In an ideal world maybe I should've pulled the plug before we went but I didn't do that. We were there. The old Aussie have-a-go attitude probably came out in me."

Driving rain fell through Black Caviar's final press appearance keeping it brief and alleviating any need to remove her bodysuit. Moody masked the concern he felt with well-placed and crowd-pleasing humour. And he tried to rein in expectations. "If we wanted to let her rip we'd do it at home. A quarter of an inch will do us. Quarter of an inch will do us." He might have repeated it for his own benefit.

Nolen knew none of this. Moody would never sow the seed of doubt in his jockey's mind. He would be left to put the pieces together that night, after the race, building the case in retrospect from impressions and memory.

Black Caviar passed under the grandstand and merged on to the track to a mighty ovation. Out of the usual routine, Moody walked alongside and held her back for just a brief moment. He fondly slapped her down the neck to send her on her way. "You've done us proud, old girl, now come back in one piece."

Anticipation before the start of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes built like a wave as Black Caviar made her way to the gates in front of almost 80,000 spectators. There had been nothing in this brilliant week to match the suspense that built as the 14 competitors milled in front of the barrier stalls. It gave pause to contemplate the challenge. No mare had won this race, conducted over a testing 1200-metre course, for 27 years. Her backers, impervious to doubt, sent her out at odds of 1/6.

There was an eruption as the field was sent on its way. Black Caviar strode from the outside gate immediately onto a downhill run dictated by the gradient of the track. Nolen allowed her time to find her stride, but even as they reached the plateau before the straight course links to the course proper, Nolen had his concerns. Black Caviar was not up on the bridle, neck arched, ears pricked. Typically, she was eager and strong once the rhythm of the run was established. When the jockey expected to be restraining the power - "not yet, not yet, not yet" - he was asking her to chase. "She'll travel keenly down the straight, she always has. Almost bull at a gate. Very keen to take me where I need to go. At Ascot she was not like that."

From the infield, Moody could see what Nolen felt. "She never charges, but Luke is usually high in the saddle sitting against her. I thought a long way out, 'You'll need to be every bit as good as I know you are to do this.'"

At the halfway mark, Black Caviar looked like she would slip by Soul, ridden by Frankie Dettori for Godolphin Racing, and yet, suddenly, here he was serving it up to the champ. Black Caviar did not reach him until Nolen was firmly urging and the anticipated margin did not open. Nolen was as busy as Dettori at the two-furlong mark.

French jockey Thierry Jarnet was cunningly moving into position. The filly Moonlight Cloud had drawn over on the far side of the track in barrier five and from the moment the field jumped, Jarnet had let her drift across the expanse of Ascot. He did not force her into openings nor wedge her into pockets. He did not rush her progress. When Black Caviar was knuckling down to tackle Soul, Moonlight Cloud was tacking up behind her and Nolen had no prospect of knowing she was there.

Black Caviar toiled to find a break. She was flat out. Nolen had shaken the reins and pulled the whip to beat off Soul. Moody could see her doing it hard. "It was only ever a length. When he went for her, he gave her a squeeze and then a backhander, and she's only a length in front I thought, 'Oh, the tank's empty.' "

She had responded to Nolen's vigour and urgency not emphatically, but sufficiently. He stowed the whip and continued to push at her neck for the next few strides. Nowhere near her best, she had done enough. "I could feel that she was at her top and had done her job. All I was going to do was continue to annoy her if I kept riding her to the line. She's been a special, special horse to me; I've never wanted to annoy her. And that's all it was, just trying to be kind to her."

Nolen held his hands still at the base of her neck and Black Caviar understood that her work was done. She was hurting. In the run she had re-torn the quadricep muscle. With each stride, as her hip flexed and her leg extended, it would have screamed with pain. Bryant would find the tear to be twice as long as the original injury. Nolen dropped his hands. Black Caviar gave into the pain and she stopped.

He had expected her to cruise, as they had done numerous times before. Instead she shut down. He could see the mowed strip on the grass indicating the finishing line. It was half a dozen strides away. Observers would find the image incongruous, almost absurd. Nolen sitting perfectly still on his mare while Jarnet flailed his whip extravagantly, narrowing an ever-diminishing gap.

Finally, Nolen saw Moonlight Cloud for the first time out of the corner of his eye. It was startling. He had not expected a challenger on this angle of attack. "I was surprised when they came on the outside because that horse had drawn inside.

I thought the post was coming quick enough, but it wasn't and they were coming quicker than I anticipated due to the fact she had stopped."
Nolen had only one course of action - a reflex he had been taught as an apprentice. He had to get Black Caviar to flatten and stretch for the line. Such was the ingrained connection between them, as soon as he twitched his mare responded.
"When I felt them coming I gave her that last little rub. She hasn't really lengthened again, she didn't actually pick up because she was completely spent, but she put that graceful head right out. That's all that was required and that's what she did for me, thank God."

As the cheers turned to gasps, Black Caviar lowered her neck and lunged for the post. Nolen knew they had made it. Only one thought flashed through his head: "Oh ******* , they got close."
Quickly Dettori was again by his side. "Lukey, what are you doing? You should know you must ride them out here at Ascot. Must. Must. She win? She win?"

"Yes, she held on, Frankie, she held on."
Dettori leant over and gave Black Caviar a pat. "She's magnificent."

Moody felt numb. Behind his sunglasses and under his top hat, his face was expressionless.
"It wasn't the adulation, jumping up and down, cheering for joy that I've been through before. It was phew. She carried me. She carried Luke. She carried us.

"I had people at me straight away. I was wanting to grab them and throttle them. Here I was having to defend my horse and then defend my jockey. One bloke said to me: 'Is his job in any jeopardy over that?' I just felt like reaching over and punching him. The fastest horse in the world has just won a group 1 and you want to talk about the jockey."

Nolen had about 90 seconds to make sense of it. He knew his mistake and how it would be depicted. He felt bitter disappointment. He feared it would overshadow the bravery of the horse beneath him. He never considered any alternative to falling on his sword. "I was just so critical of myself that I let them back in the race."

There was anguish on his face as he returned to Moody waiting on the track. "Geez, jock, that was a bit close wasn't it?"

Nolen opted for actions rather than words. "Pete's given her a pat and I've just grabbed him and put one on his cheek."

Nolen could have scripted the first question. What happened in the closing stages? For all that had happened this is what he would have liked to take back. "The thing I erred on was calling it a brain fade and I probably shouldn't have. It all seemed to play on from there."

As the British press does best, by the following morning Nolen was "Flukey Lukey", the "Blunder from Down Under" who survived the "Moment of Strewth". Under the barrage, he never flinched.

But had Black Caviar been beaten, Moody would have intervened and accepted the blame. "When she came into the Parade, I looked her in the eye and she was just f...ed. The horse was running on empty. I knew that. Tony, my right-hand man, knew that. We knew. But we got it right."

No one had worked harder than Tony Haydon. It was his honour to stretch the Royal Ascot victory rug over Black Caviar's visibly heaving body. "It was chaos in the enclosure. With all those people it felt like they were sucking all the air out. I've never seen her that buggered after a run."
Nolen and Moody were pulled from press conference to television interview. The trainer's anxiety over Black Caviar's well-being stretched his tolerance to breaking point. Asked if the victory had sunk in, he snapped: "I haven't had time because no bastard will let me go and see my horse."

Later, he headed for the saddling enclosure full of trepidation. "I was amazed. I went from thinking I was going to find her lying in the corner of the box and instead here's this horse standing with her ears pricked, whinnying, watching the other horses walk in and out. This is the thing about this horse, she has unbelievable recuperative powers."

In the crowded confines post race, the owners had all clambered in for a photograph around their treasured mare. They were mindful not to make her pose for long: Black Caviar had to meet one more group of admirers and, central among them, was the Queen. Horse and monarch stood barely two paces apart, each seeming to regard the other. Every observer would recount the story precisely. The gentle giant of a horse stepped forward and lowered her head. The Queen reached out with her gloved right hand and patted Black Caviar tenderly on the nose. At the end of a gruelling odyssey here was her commendation for gallantry. Longtime Ascot observers and Royal watchers could not recall an encounter like it.

Only Moody knew how precarious it was. "We walked her up in front of the Queen. I asked, 'Would you like to give her a pat, ma'am?' She was quite keen to. Black Caviar was standing there stuffed, saying, 'I don't know whether I've got another step in me.' The Queen is standing back wondering if she should give her a pat. We coaxed the mare to take one more step and she nearly collapsed. I thought she was going to lay down, she was that tired, and put her head in the Queen's lap."

It was drizzling when Black Caviar arrived back at Newmarket. Haydon let her mosey around a field picking at the grass, pushing him wherever she chose to go. Her stable companion, the English gelding Saloon, was brought to join them. Haydon joked that Nelly had fallen in love on her first overseas trip. The pair had been inseparable.

When she was done, Haydon led her back to the box and patched her up with bandages and ice. Too battle weary to object, she nuzzled in close to Haydon while he tidied her up. "She's a sweetie. You have to be with her to understand. She's nearly human sometimes, the way she is with her eye. She's just different."

Haydon gave her some carrots and let her be.

Author: Gary Still
Subject: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 5/3/2019 11:46:05 PM
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Author: Gary Still
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 10/3/2019 1:15:04 PM

Blog Reply:

"Gary, Coming from someone that took over two years to provide a list of total no hopers, I think that is a bit rich, don't you?"


You had already been provided lists by others. After which, Khap would shift the goal posts and seek a more filtered list. I applied no filters and gave you what you already had. Your reaction was so predictable and confirmed that it was pointless providing such a list.

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Author: gladys
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 10/3/2019 12:51:06 PM

Blog Reply:

Gary, Coming from someone that took over two years to provide a list of total no hopers, I think that is a bit rich, don't you?

It will be forthcoming though. I imagine upon its receipt it will be subjected to some rigorous scrutiny and analysis by Theklown.

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Author: Gary Still
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 10/3/2019 12:07:31 PM

Blog Reply:


Regarding your claim that BC and W's victims were "duds".

You assured me (in a different thread) that you'd provide a basis of measurment to verify your claims and compare field strengths from different eras.

Where is it?

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Author: gladys
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 10/3/2019 9:59:15 AM

Blog Reply:

For those that either fell asleep trying to wade through this tome or just got so bored that they gave up, let me paraphrase it for you.

After beating up the local duds, connections took her over to the UK to take on the northern hemisphere no hopers. The horse fell in, just beating a horse that had struggled to win a weak Group Three and had never won over the distance.

The PR Department of the Mutual Admiration Society then swung in to action and a lucky win became the greatest sporting victory in the history of the universe.

Upon posting this tripe, The Parrot seized the opportunity and then proceeded to name drop and big note himself until he was on the verge of collapse.

A Star Post was awarded. I think the only star that should have been implemented is a star picket. It should have been used to skewer the article and take it out to the nearest incinerator or rubbish bin and promptly disposed of.

If you have now mastered the ban button Gary, why don't you do us all a favour and instead of posting this tripe, give yourself your own medicine.

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Author: Richard III
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 6/3/2019 5:34:19 PM

Blog Reply:

I remember the night pretty well. I was at the mother in law's and everyone else had gone to bed, so I sat up having couple more quiet ones, while Ascot was on tv (probably after watching the footy). It was a month or so after I got to see her in the Goodwood at Morphettville, where Luke sat on her like he was sitting on a couch in front of the tv himself – he didn’t need to move.

I remember thinking how excited the English were to see her, how they were not jingoistic or parochial towards her, but genuinely in awe of what she had achieved so far (in line with the article). That and an interview they did with a “Lord Autumnbum” in the top hat that really highlighted the difference between English and Australian racing. I also remember how confident everyone was regarding how easily she would do it.

As far as the race goes, hell it was a near thing. I had a few more quiet ones afterwards to calm the nerves, before I went to bed. And then to hear about how she was injured and you start to wonder about the pressure and if she should have raced.

It was awesome that she came back in once piece and then got well and put in some blistering performances to finish of her career.

She was awesome and a champion. We were blessed and have been since.

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Author: Gary Still
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 6/3/2019 2:56:54 PM

Blog Reply:

To give some perspective to the greatness of Black Caviar, our own local hero Hay List, was denied four Group 1 victories by Black Caviar and was a champion in his own right.

An RIP tribute to Hay List can be seen in this video:-


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Author: Hands N Heels
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 6/3/2019 1:28:10 PM

Blog Reply:

Great story, well written...

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Author: Todman
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 6/3/2019 8:58:38 AM

Blog Reply:

A great read - it emphasizes the perils of international travels, for horses. The almost obligation to start even though there were issues - had the race been in Oz, she would not have started.

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Author: Rex
Subject: Re: Black Caviar and unforgettable Ascot

Time: 6/3/2019 8:23:44 AM

Blog Reply:

I remember the day so well Gary. I was standing there watching her parade having never seen her in the flesh and the two things that stood out were her wooly coat (ok, could accept that) and the fact there was absolutely no core to her. She was tucked up but she looked like a horse who had a already had a tough run without the sweating, frankly I was shocked.

I remember going back into the Royal Ascot press room, having 'bigged' her up all week, and thinking, "jesus I hope this lass runs 100% better than she looks".

I for one was relieved when she fell in as I really thought on the day having seen her in the paddock she wasnt going to go a yard, and to be fair to her, she practically didn't but still won. Incredible really.

Like everyone I went out to watch her come back into the paddock, Luke and Peter didn't look like two lads who had just won one of the most famous sprint races at perhaps the most famous meeting of them all, they looked relieved and somewhat devastated.

The bit about the Queen patting her is exactly how I recall it. I had to go back on air pretty much straight after I saw that and I said, (exact words) ' the champion mare looks absolutely awful, when the dust has settled this may come to be known as her greatest triumph as all is not well with that horse".

I had done a half hour interview with Luke before he came over, so although we had never met we were on speaking terms. So after the races Luke, his wife and I went and had a couple of beers at one of the concerts they had on. It was just the three of us and Im not going to go into our conversations, but it was a sombre mood all round. Probably a bit to do with Luke dropping his hands, but I get the feeling they were just disappointed that the world hadn't seen her at her best that day. (ex Aust horse Soul was less than 2L behind her, she was beating horses at home by 6L that had beaten him by 6L).

I will always maintain that that year's Royal Ascot will be the greatest race meeting I'll ever attend. Frankel into So You Think (back to his best) into Black Caviar winning purely on heart.

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