Still unbeaten, just. Still a heroine, justly
Jockey Nolen admits 'brain-fade' after miracle mare has to pull out all the stops
There are occasions when the result outshines the performance, and this was perhaps one. The Australian sprint sensation Black Caviar, a horse with her own website and marketing machine, an animal whose fans back home packed Federation Square in central Melbourne in the small hours of a freezing winter night to watch her take on Europe's finest in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes here yesterday, duly took her unbeaten record to 22 in the six-furlong dash.
But there was none of the overweening dominance, the solo tour de force, that her reputation had led the Royal Ascot full house in the grandstands, and those who had backed her to 1-6 favourite, to expect. It was by only a matter of inches that she prevailed, hanging on as her rivals, headed by Moonlight Cloud, bore down.
Afterwards her rider, Luke Nolen, who had sent the mare into what appeared to be a comfortable enough lead inside the final quarter-mile, fronted up and took the blame.
"I let her idle through the last 200 [metres]," he said, "and I underestimated just how stiff a track this straight six furlongs is, and also the opposition. And I shit myself duly. And I'm afraid my brain-fade might be talked about more than this mare's fantastic effort."
And a fantastic effort it was, make no mistake. Leaving aside the fact that she is unbeaten – and only one horse in racing history has a better perfect record, the 19th century phenomenon Kincsem with her 54 victories – for any horse to race 22 times over four years at elite levels is laudable. This one has travelled halfway round the world into an unfamiliar time zone and season, her body-clock and biorhythms out of synch without a human athlete's ability to reason why, to put her record on the line.
In the preliminaries, her strength and athleticism was there, but her dark bay hide looked wintry compared with her rivals' summer sleekness. And although she travelled sweetly enough through the first half of the race, there was maybe a spark missing.
"She didn't take her usual tug," said Nolen, "she wasn't taking me to the line, I had to ask her to find it. Yes, I was at fault, but when I relaxed on her – I thought I'd done enough, and that's an error every apprentice is taught not to do, and I got away with it – that big engine seemed to shut right down.
"I tried to get her going again in the last strides and it was only her determination when the other horses came to her that kept her in front. She just didn't bring to the races today what she usually can and I'm just disappointed that you over here didn't get to see just how good she is."
Black Caviar's narrowest victory after her greatest adventure may have been her last appearance in anger on a racecourse. The six-year-old's Melbourne-based trainer, Peter Moody, as relieved as any that the head-bob result did not spell anticlimax, will not go to the well again if she indicates she has had enough.
"Watching the race, I was concerned half a mile out," he said. "She was never travelling as keenly and strongly as she does at home. She seemed in control of the race, but she wasn't upon the bridle, didn't have her ears pricked. She just didn't show zip, and after the race she was out on her feet, so she's done one hell of a job."
No decision will be made about Black Caviar's future until she returns to Melbourne and the start of the Australian spring season. "This was always going to be the greatest risk of her career," said Moody, "as it came at the end of a long season and the end of a long trip.
"She's nearer the end than the beginning and for the last five or six runs we've been prepared to accept each might be her last. She's had niggly injuries and we've had to look after her carefully. If we'd pushed for margins and ratings her career might have been over a long time ago. And whether she wins by a quarter of an inch or a quarter of a furlong it's still a win, and they're not going to give us any more prize money."
Black Caviar may not have ended this week's meeting in the runaway fashion that another who has entered Turf folklore, the local unbeaten champion Frankel, started it. But even if her presence and spark was missing yesterday, she is still a great horse, with a great horse's racing will.
"It was all heart-in-the-mouth stuff today," added Moody, "and she didn't let us down. She's done Australia proud and she's still undefeated." Perhaps, after all, the performance did measure up to the result.
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