'I was the talking point - that's my cross to bear'
Nicholas Godfrey speaks to Black Caviar's jockey about that Royal Ascot ride
First published on Thursday, November 8, 2012
It was one of the memorable images of the summer: a shellshocked jockey clutching a tinny for dear life as he fends off a barrage of questions from the media about his role in one of the most extraordinary races ever seen at Royal Ascot.
The rider in question was Luke Nolen. Or, to borrow some of the headlines that were soon to be attached to the three-time Melbourne champion, "Flukey Lukey", the "Blunder from Down Under" who had just offered his own "moment of strewth" on the great Black Caviar, coming within a couple of inches of a lasting place in racing infamy when he suffered his notorious "brainfade" in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
Nolen, 32, had partnered Black Caviar to 18 of her previous 21 victories, and this was by no means the first time he had eased her down well before the line with the aim of letting her coast home. But, to the alarm of the mighty mare's fans on both hemispheres, it was the first time she had downed tools, at the time prompting a colourful turn of phrase from her jockey: "The big engine shut down and I s*** myself duly."
Speaking to Nolen back on his home turf in Melbourne, five months after he so nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, it seems far from reconciled to his own efforts at Royal Ascot. "It's an empty feeling looking back on it because you didn't get to see Black Caviar at her awesome best and my ride took the shine off her performance," says Nolen.
"I never want to do anything to take any attention away from her and I was most disappointed that my ride took the shine away from the performance the mare put up. People should have been talking about Black Caviar winning her 22nd race and doing it on the other side of the world. That should have been the story, but my ride being the story of the day didn't sit well with me. Unfortunately, that's my cross to bear."
Be that as it may, Nolen's name sits alongside Black Caviar on the Royal Ascot roll of honour. Surely that in itself offers some cause to reflect that, if not a job well done, it was at least quite a job to get done? Can he not reflect that, despite the circumstances, it was quite an achievement? "Not really, no I can't," he says quickly and decisively. "Look, that's the thing – we did win but my role was a bigger talking point. If anyone ever writes the Luke Nolen story, the chapter of the trip to England is only going to be a brief chapter. It is a hollow feeling looking back, to be honest."
So what did happen in that near-calamitous final furlong? "Look, it was far from my best ride," he says. "It was probably one of my worst and you've got that sinking feeling, but the fact is that I haven't ridden her any different in any of her 19 starts. I've always let her coast because we always look after her and I thought I had a great enough advantage. I thought the post was coming quick enough but it wasn't and they were coming quicker than I anticipated due to the fact that she had stopped. I gave her that last little rub and she put that graceful head right out, thank God. It should have been a celebration of one of the greatest horses we have ever seen."
Nolen seems genuinely surprised when I tell him he earned respect in Britain for holding his hands up and for the way he dealt with a barrage of post-race inquiries. "I didn't really enjoy it," he says, unsurprisingly. "But we don't know any different here and I tried to give everyone time. They kept grabbing me one after the other and it was hard to say no, so I didn't get back to the jockeys' room for about an hour."
Much to the chagrin of a certain Frankie Dettori, it transpires. "It's the custom to buy the boys a bottle of champagne after a Group 1 win and I hadn't made it back," says Nolen, a smile finally reaching his lips.
"Apparently Frankie was running around saying: 'Where's this Nolen? Why hasn't he got a bottle of champagne for us? "By the time I got back there I got the rest of the boys one and we had a good sip but Frankie had left the course. He missed out – he was shattered. He still hasn't had his champagne!" " It is a relief to hear Nolen speak fondly about some aspects of his visit to Britain and he also enjoyed "dointhe tourist stuff " with his wife and two young children before the Diamond Jubilee.
What is more, even if Nolen's ride will never be hailed as a classic, subsequent events suggest he is being a little hard on himself after it emerged that Black Caviar had suffered muscle injuries during the race, which accounts for why she didn't respond in her usual manner.
Trainer Peter Moody had also revealed that he nearly scratched her on the morning of the race amid concerns she wasn't quite herself - a fact that was not communicated to the press, nor to the jockey.
"Youse were in the dark like me," recalls Nolen. "I didn't know that, but if you plant that seed in a jockey's mind by saying this horse is a little bit sore it will play on their mind, so Peter kept me clear of that.
"She warmed up okay and she got there but won it under trying circumstances. We found out later she had suffered those injuries during the race so the courage she showed was something else. For Black Caviar to win under those circumstances was very special but the experience itself was just a bit hollow."
A country boy at heart, Nolen was apprenticed far away from the bright lights of the city in Dalby, Queensland, before really hitting the big time when El Segundo won the Cox Plate in 2007. His partnership with Black Caviar has been the high point of a career that has blossomed thanks to his role as Moody's stable jockey - a job he got only by accident as the trainer was trying to book Nolen's brother Shaun.
"It was a case of mistaken identity, more or less," says the rider. "Shaun had ridden for Peter in Queensland but Peter didn't know there were two of us and he rang the wrong one for a couple of rides one day at Sale, one of our country tracks. I was the voice on the line and got the rides. One came second, the second one won and I've ridden more than 600 winners for him now, so it was a very rewarding call. I think I took four years with Peter to become an overnight success in Melbourne."
As for Black Caviar, she has been given a long break since her arduous trip to Britain, with Moody eyeing a return to the track in the new year. "She's coming back towards the autumn and we'll see how we go," says Nolen. "If she's in good shape and has desire still there to be a racehorse then we'll see her again, but if there's any hesitation for any of it, that'll be it."
The rider is prepared for the day when Black Caviar's connections say enough is enough; to some extent, it seems he is almost looking forward to it. "I'll miss her but I won't miss some of the pre-race build-up and that sort of thing," he admits. "You do look forward to those days with Black Caviar but in a sense you are happy to see her go to the paddock because the pressure goes with her. She is expected to win every time.
"She is a special horse," he adds. "The best thing about it is not just her ability, it's her laid-back attitude at the race. She's an uncomplicated mare – you can get a little psyched up about it, maybe even psyched out beforehand but as soon as you're on her back that just fades into the background."
And the fact is that so far that's precisely what she has done. It is just a pity that her jockey hasn't always been able to enjoy the ride.
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