THE British press is having a field day in the aftermath of Black Caviar’s close-run win at Ascot on Saturday.
The headlines about “the Wonder from Down Under” — the horse — are now accompanied by sharp criticism of “the Blunder from Down Under”: the way jockey Luke Nolen made a rookie’s mistake and stopped riding close to the finish of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, almost losing it. In one of racing’s most heart-stopping wins, Black Caviar put on a final burst of speed and put down her head in the last few strides after she had been overtaken by her closest rival, Midnight Cloud. The photo showed she won by a nostril.
Nolen later admitted he had lost the plot part-way through. “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.”
But Nolen also said Black Caviar had not raced to her best.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Nolen became the man of the hour for all the wrong reasons. The Times called his misjudgment “calamitous”; the Daily Mail used both “calamitous” and “schoolboy howler”.
The Telegraph suggested the jockey “may well have had to ask for political asylum” had the photo gone the other way. One commentator suggested there might have been a one-off return to the gallows had Australia’s darling been beaten.
There had been great expectations of Black Caviar, who had received an unusually affectionate welcome at Ascot. Many of the estimated 7000 Australians in the 70,000-strong crowd had been issued with “Go Black Caviar” placards and wore ties or caps in her colours.
When Black Caviar first appeared in the pre-parade ring, even trainers not linked to her jostled for positions that would give them a good view and snapped her on their cameras.
While Australia’s national pride might have been dented a little by the fact that she did not sweep grandly to victory, the roar of the crowd at the excitement of the finish — and again at the photo replay — suggested exhilaration rather than disappointment.
Graham Sharpe, of the bookmakers William Hill, told The Independent: “We may have lost a bit on Black Caviar, because at that price [1/6] it is not a horse that many punters would have bet on. [But] it was a great race for horse racing. There may be some people who are keeping their bet slips as souvenirs rather than cashing them in.”
The Independent also had the kindest headline: “Still unbeaten, just. Still a heroine, justly.”
Black Caviar’s trainer, Peter Moody, said the race was always going to be the greatest risk of her career as it came at the end of a long season and a long overseas trip, but “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 prizemoney . . . She didn’t let us down. She’s done Australia proud, and she’s still undefeated.”First published in The Age.