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Posted on 24 Oct 2012 in Non-Fiction |

GERARD WHATELEY Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime. Reviewed by Candida Baker

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The champion who won our hearts – and every race she entered.

Black Caviar. Even the name is special, isn’t it?  It rolls around your tongue, like caviar itself – rich, exotic, luxurious.  It reminds me of a vodka and caviar bar that was once all the rage in London, complete with black carpets, vodka on ice, perfectly shaped blinis and tiny pearly serves of caviar in pristine white bowls.  The cleverly thought-out design of Black Caviar’s biography reinforces those themes – it’s an almost tactile book, you can see the sweat on the great mare’s neck as she takes her huge, powerful strides towards the finishing line; feel the drops of water as she indulges in her favourite relaxation with her water-walker.

Of course, this is not really so much a biography of Black Caviar, as a biography of her trainer Peter Moody, and his creation of a horse that has achieved the world’s perfect race score – 22 wins for 22 starts.

I’ve always had a fondness for the great mares of racing – I backed Empire Rose and Makybe Diva throughout their careers, and I still have my winning ticket from the Diva’s third Melbourne Cup win.  It was too special – and too small, to be honest – to cash in.  There’s a theory, in the showjumping world at least, that while mares can be difficult, if they choose to you give their all, then the sky’s the limit.

If you were to believe in some sort of karmic relationship between horse and human, then you might see the Black Caviar story as an extraordinary synchronicity of the right horse at the right time with the right people.  The first-time breeder interested in genetics, who researched his bloodlines with forensic attention to detail, and took a punt on a relatively unproven dam and sire; the trainer clever enough to spot something special in the young horse with the massive frame and calm personality; the owners prepared to dig deep to keep this horse well, no matter what – and the massive Black Caviar entourage that fell in love with the courageous mare (Nellie, as she was prosaically known in the stable) and looked after her throughout her racing career.

And she took some looking after. Moody quickly discovered that the trait that made Black Caviar a star – her will to win – could also be her undoing.  Her size made her vulnerable to injuries, but determined as she was, she would continue to run.  She almost didn’t get past her fourth start, when she cannoned too fast out of the barrier, fell sideways into the next horse, and somehow managed to scramble up to win the race – with torn chest muscles that had come right away from the bone.

The long rest and recreation that followed proved to be a regular occurrence, and reading this book you can’t help but think how lucky Black Caviar was to find in Moody a trainer who had already helped Typhoon Tracy become one of the best racehorses Australia had ever seen, and who understood the importance of time out to a horse.  Unbeknownst to Moody, during the Typhoon Tracy years Black Caviar was being created for him – or were they being created for each other?

Whateley describes how Rick Jamieson, a marquee supplier to racecourses, became interested in breeding.  Jamieson had watched racing from the sidelines for many years, and gradually it dawned on him was that it was all about the pedigree.  Having started a stud farm not far from Melbourne, Jamieson continued to refine his search for foundation mares that might produce ‘the’ horse.  When he and his friend, bloodstock agent Peter Ford, went to the 2005 Inglis Australian Broodmare sale in Sydney, they were initially disappointed, until Ford spotted in the supplementary sale exactly what they were looking for – a mare with undeniable raw talent and speed and a strong pedigree who, due to injury, had never fulfilled her potential.  Bought initially at the Magic Millions for over $300,000, Jamieson paid just $115,000 for the mare, Helsinge, as they called her.

For me, Helsinge’s story rings some warning bells about what seems to be a common occurrence in Australian racing – racing horses too young, before their bones have finished growing, something multiplied when the horse itself is big-framed and anxious to run.

In Black Caviar’s sire, Bel Esprit, Jamieson also took a punt.  A capricious but talented two-year-old, Bel Esprit clocked up some impressive wins, but some less impressive losses, until he assured himself a place as a breeding prospect at the 2003 Brisbane winter carnival in the Doomben 10,000.  When Helsinge’s filly was born on 18 August, 2006 in the early hours of the morning, Jamieson saw almost immediately that they had bred something special.  She was big, with beautiful natural movement, and she was quiet.  There was only one problem: her knees were not quite aligned, and Jamieson knew without the right care she might, like her mother, never see the starting gates.  He almost kept her, but in the end, he stuck to his game-plan, and sent her off to the 2008 Inglis Melbourne premier sale.

Moody knew as soon as he saw her that he wanted her.  With a reserve of $100,000 on her, Moody won the day at $210,000, but he told author Gerard Whateley:  “She was one I just wanted rain, hail or shine … I reckon I’d have gone further.”

Sports reporter, race-caller and horse-lover Gerard Whateley has written an inspirational account of Black Caviar’s life.  Whateley has been accorded the rare honour of being only the seventh person to call the Melbourne Cup for the ABC, and is something of an ABC institution to sports lovers around Australia.

In the back pages of the book Whateley describes how he had wanted to write a book about a racehorse for some time.  The ABC episode of Australian Story gave him the chance to talk to many of the people involved in the Black Caviar story, and the knowledge that here, at last, was the horse.

He documents the rise of Peter Moody from country trainer to international star with a deft hand, weaving in quotes and anecdotes from the horseracing world into a rich tapestry, in which the majestic Black Caviar stars as the central figure.

To be honest, I have a mixed relationship with racing.  As a horse lover and occasional rescuer of horses, I’ve seen the sad side too often to have any illusions about how racing functions under the less-than-scrupulous.  I’ve seen one horse so traumatised by racing that even once he was rehabilitated into normal horse work, the sight of floats and bunting at his first outing caused him to literally collapse on the ground.  When we got him up he was shaking, terrified and covered in sweat.

But at the elite end of the sport there is no doubt the horses are loved and cared for – and there is also no doubt that they love to run, and champions like Black Caviar love to run the most, equipped apparently with that extra gear to help her accelerate past the pack.  In fact, photographic research into the way she runs proved that when Luke Nolen, her regular jockey, gave her the signal to go, she would do two things – lower her neck, and increase the length of her stride, so that for 15 of another horse’s strides Black Caviar would take 13.  Less movement, less waste – and the huge shoulders, neck and head all powering down and stretched out, rather than held high, gave a physical advantage to her racing which may not be seen again until her progeny take their place on the world stage.

At the height of Black Caviar fever, secrecy had to surround her movements as if she was a rock star, but even so, people would find out or guess if the precious cargo was on the move.  One woman simply wanted to touch the side of the horsefloat she was travelling in, another came in her hospital bed to see Black Caviar race; hundreds of thousands of punters turned out to see her, and she united the Australian public as it seems only champion racehorses can do. By the time she competed in her last race, the Diamond Jubilee stakes at Ascot in England, she was an international superstar.  In front of 80,000 spectators, she was about to attempt to be the first mare in 27 years to win the 1200 metre race.  But what Luke Nolen knew from the second the race started, was that Black Caviar was not in good form.  In fact she had torn her quadricep muscle – and the tear was twice as long as the original injury a few years before. Having got Black Caviar to the front of the field and sure the race was in the bag, for a heart-stopping moment Nolen stopped riding and instead of continuing her big stride the mare almost stopped, spent, exhausted and in pain – but at the very last second she found enough from Nolen’s urging to stretch her head out and lunge for the winning post, winning by just a nose.

It was a day of huge mixed emotions for Nellie’s owners, trainers, minders – and jockey.  They’d just won a major international Group 1 race, in the presence of the Queen, but what was obvious was that their wonderful horse had run her last race.  It was time to retire her, and in due course, after the fuss and furore about the race had died down, that is exactly what they did.

So now the beautiful big black mare that carried so many people’s dreams with her, and managed to achieve the world’s most perfect race score, goes on to fulfil the next part of her destiny, as a broodmare.  Will she give us the sequel to her story?  Only time will tell.

Candida Baker is an author, editor, journalist, photo-journalist and passionate horsewoman. She has bred horses, re-trained horses and rescued horses. Her most recent book is The Wisdom of Women.

Gerard Whateley Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime ABC Books 2012 HB 390pp $45.00

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