They were there yesterday on the Newmarket gallops not long after dawn, two dozen or so fans, the advance guard of the estimated 5,000 faithful heading from Australia to Royal Ascot this week. There was Peter from Dubbo, Len and May from Tarcutta, Don and Wilma from Coleraine, Helen and Peter from Walcha, all of them steeped in and fixated by the thoroughbred. And, right now, one particular thoroughbred.
The object of their fascination, the one who has prompted this reverse barmy army behaviour, is the Australian sprint phenomenon Black Caviar, winner of all 21 of her races back home. The mare will bid to extend her sequence to 22 in the six-furlong Diamond Jubilee Stakes on the final day of the Ascot meeting on Saturday.
Her countrymen and women were rewarded for the 4am set of their alarm clocks by the sight of their heroine limbering up on one of the training tracks, and by a bit of banter with her trainer, Peter Moody. At that time of the morning, with the red-orange disc of the sun barely streaking the high, pale Suffolk summer sky, even on the centuries-old training grounds there were no other horses yet visible.
But even in a herd, you would pick Black Caviar out in a cold minute. As an individual she is imposing: tall, massively strong in her hindquarters, weighing in at 585kg, which is more than the steeplechaser Denman, himself nicknamed The Tank because of his notable size and strength. As an athlete the innate power of her movement is extraordinarily compelling, at whatever speed. At a walk and a trot she has the balanced self-carriage of a trained dressage horse; at the gallop she has been measured at nine strides to the furlong. The second-best sprinter in Australia, Hay List, an even bigger specimen, takes 11.
Black Caviar drew Melbourne-based Moody's eye from the moment he saw her as a yearling, and her looks, and the fact that she was related to another high-class sprinter he trained, Magnus, made her a must-have on his auction shopping list, even at the equivalent of £130,000. "That may look cheap now," he said of the earner of £3.7 million to date, "but I reckon it was about three times more than I should have paid for her.
"But even as a young horse she had unbelievable presence and strength. If I really knew what the secret of knowing for certain what makes a horse a good horse I wouldn't be working for a living. But I was determined to have her."
The dark bay six-year-old's attributes as a runner, which include being the first horse in Australia to clock sub-10 seconds for 200 metres and 11 victories at the highest level, have captured the public imagination outside racing in a way that the sport's promoters in this country can only fantasise about.
The Australian mare has her own range of merchandise and commanded headline news with her departure to Britain and subsequent safe arrival. She has learned to cope with, and even appreciate, the public's interest and scrutiny.
"So have I," added Moody. "It's good for a great horse like her to give the sport such a positive image. Yes, it can be a pain in the backside at times. But I'm glad it's my backside."
These days, top horses compete regularly on a global stage – five years ago the Queensland-born Moody saddled Magnus to finish third in Ascot's shorter Group One sprint, the King's Stand Stakes – and he is gratified with the way Black Caviar has coped with the 12,000-mile, 30-hour journey and her change of environment. During her flight, wearing a specially designed compression suit, she lost only 9kg, a third of what might have been expected, and the current poor weather has worked in her favour.
"She got the same conditions as she had when she left Melbourne, in our winter," said Moody, who arrived in Newmarket a week after his charge, "and that has made her transition easy. She ate and drank on the flight, and has the sort of laid-back temperament that helps her cope with change and different sights and sounds.
"It was a bit of a worry being away from her, but in a way it was good to step back; when you see them every day you get a bit blinded to how they're doing. But when I saw her when I got here, I saw the same horse as the one that left. She's done really well, in fact so well that she may have to have a serious workout before Saturday."
Moody and Black Caviar's owners, a group of seven lifelong friends, are boldly and sportingly putting Black Caviar's unbeaten record on the line in the most difficult of circumstances. "She has this aura of invincibility and there is huge public expectation," the trainer explained. "Facts, figures and ratings tell you she is the best in her division. But most great horses do it all in their own back yards. Very few of her ilk come away from their comfort zones, and right now she's three-quarters of the way round the world in unfamiliar territory."
This week's Royal Ascot extravaganza has much to offer: £4.5 million in prize money, four kilometres of red-white-and-blue bunting, the real chance of a Royal winner in the Queen's colt Carlton House in the Prince of Wales's Stakes on Wednesday, and the equally regal presence of the local hero, the imperious unbeaten miler Frankel, in the opening Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.
But top of the bill is without question the extraordinary mare dubbed the Wonder from Down Under and her bid for glory on the international stage. "We've been here before," said Moody. "But never with a horse this good. We hope the difference this time is the journey home. It's a long way, but longer when you get beat."
Take one: A day at Royal Ascot
Tuesday: Wizz Kid
3.05 King's Stand Stakes
Wednesday: Common Touch
4.25 Royal Hunt Cup
Thursday: Cay Verde
2.30 Norfolk Stakes
Friday: Agent Allison
2.30 Albany Stakes
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