The early years of Australian superstar sprinter Black Caviar
First published on Thursday, October 6, 2011
Move over Kylie Minogue. Australia's got a new golden girl – and she's a racehorse. Every inch a superstar, the flying filly Black Caviar broke box-office records in an all-conquering 2010-11 national tour that ended in May in Brisbane, where she landed her sixth straight Group 1 in the BTC Cup.
She'll be taking her show overseas in 2012 when Royal Ascot is the ultimate destination, but first she kicks off with a hometown gig in Melbourne on Saturday, when she will be long-odds-on to extend her unbeaten sequence to 14 in a Group 2 event at Caulfield.
Mind you, she has already had a couple of outings of a sort. To nobody's immense surprise, Black Caviar was named Australian Horse of the Year, while last month she became the first non-human featured on the ABC's flagship show Australian Story.
She also paraded between races a couple of weeks ago, before trainer Peter Moody declared her stable off limits. "If I had everyone come and pat her and charged $5 for a photo I would be a millionaire in a week," he says.
He wasn't indulging in much hyperbole. Owned by a syndicate put together over a few beers on a houseboat, Black Caviar has quickly become a phenomenon at home, nothing short of a household name after a three-year career so far.
Her fame, though, has spread well beyond native shores, despite her never having appeared on the international stage. Having become world champion sprinter in the global rankings for 2010, the four-year-old earned an even greater accolade in the early months of 2011 when, after a particularly effortless victory in the prestigious Newmarket Handicap at Flemington, she was identified as the best active racehorse in the world bar none in lists compiled by both the Racing Post and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. Only Frankel has surpassed her since.
What's in a name?
Black Caviar's name is derived, with a nod to the filly's pedigree, from the fondness of one of her owners for the pricey seafood delicacy.
Potato farmer Pam Hawkes, the syndicate member responsible for the name, points out that the daughter of Bel Esprit's granddam was called Scandanavia (sic). "Helsinge, the name of Black Caviar's mother, was in Scandinavia and that's where the salmon live, so it made sense," Hawkes explains.
Her stable name, however, is Nelly, according to her official fansite, blackcaviar.net.au – all profits from which are donated to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre.
And what about Black Caviar's distinctive silks? The daughter of another syndicate member, Gary Wilkie, came up with the colours: salmon pink with black spots to represent the caviar roe.
Not only is Black Caviar a world champion, she is the people's champion, taken to the hearts of an adoring Aussie public who are already speaking of her exploits in the same breath as the legendary Phar Lap, the equine hero of the Depression.
"She is racing to the man in the street," suggested the Sydney Morning Herald in the wake of her most recent success in Brisbane in May, her eighth win of the season.
Such is the public's affection for Black Caviar that it took rider Luke Nolen 45 minutes to get back to the jockeys' room after the race, watched by a crowd in excess of 20,000 – the largest at the Brisbane track in at least 38 years.
If Saturday's Schillaci Stakes is unlikely to represent her most testing assignment, it is imbued with sentimental significance, because victory would mean Black Caviar will have equalled the 14-race winning spree of Phar Lap in 1931. Nobody considers there to be much chance of defeat for Black Caviar as she begins her five-year-old campaign.
Few racehorses can ever have captured the imagination like Black Caviar, who possesses every bit of the style and elegance suggested by her name, as well as an abundance of the speed, strength and power demanded of a top-level flying machine. Plus that indefinable X-factor that has turned her into public property.
She has her own official website, Facebook page and YouTube channel, plus a regular blog at the Racing Victoria website, ghost-written by a journalist who portrays her as a caricature Sheila of the type you might expect to find downing a few tinnies at the boozer. Aussie poet Rupert McCall has even penned a five-stanza effort in her honour, entitled Of Caviar In Black.
Racing Victoria's chief handicapper Greg Carpenter, perhaps her biggest fan, describes Black Caviar as a "once-in-a-generation" horse. "She has propelled horseracing back into the mainstream psyche of the general community in Australia," he says. "She has attracted thousands of people to the racetrack for the first time, an equal number who haven't attended for decades.
"They erupt as one when she takes control at the top of the straight and the applause andcheering continues until she leaves the enclosure after the race."
Such levels of popularity perhaps explain why Black Caviar has earned so many nicknames: this is the Australian Zenyatta, Racing's Bradman and, less poetically, the Queen of the Turf and Mighty Mare.
To her rivals, though, there is one pseudonym that seems peculiarly appropriate. After a string of stunning successes, most of which have barely seen her come off the bridle, Black Caviar is Miss Invincible. Time and again, she makes top-class horses look second-rate with her ability to produce amazing sectional times off a fast or slow pace, sitting prominently just off the pace before destroying them just before the furlong marker.
"She is every jockey's dream," says regular rider Nolen, who won his first Melbourne city premiership in 2009-10 in tandem with the star filly, largely thanks to his association with champion trainer Moody.
"I'm just lucky to be in the right place at the right time," adds Nolen, who has ridden Black Caviar to ten of her 13 wins. "I feel a bit guilty because anyone could do the job – it seems you have got an endless reserve to bank on."
Thirteen times Black Caviar has started favourite and 13 times she has won, sometimes by a clear margin of three or more lengths, and always by more than a length, except for one occasion, in a Group 2 at Flemington in September 2009 when the margin of victory over subsequent Group 1 winner Wanted was a mere three-quarters of a length. There was a reason for that: she stumbled at the start and tore muscles in her chest and was off the track for four months afterwards.
The Sydney Sunday Telegraph's Ray Thomas stands in no doubt of Black Caviar's place in the pantheon. He says: "Black Caviar thoroughly deserves to be rated alongside any of the legends of Australian racing."
Not bad for a filly with the "neck of a duchess and the arse of a cook", according to the pithy Bart Cummings, if Moody's oft-repeated anecdote is accurate.
"She has certainly got that," agrees Black Caviar's trainer Moody, who has a 60-horse string based at Caulfield racecourse. "Her hind-quarters are phenomenal and she is an extremely strong animal – for a four-year-old she's certainly a big, strong girl."
This "big, strong girl", a daughter of the Australian Royal Academy stallion Bel Esprit, was bred by Ric Ferguson, who sold her to Moody for Aus$210,000 at the Inglis Premier yearling sale in Melbourne in 2008.
Moody suggested Sydney-based businessman Neil Werrett, an owner in his yard, put together a syndicate to purchase the filly, which is where the houseboat comes in. A group of friends – among them an estate agent and a potato farmer – who got together every year for a boating holiday were persuaded to club together and spend up to Aus$100,000, "as an excuse to have lunch," according to one syndicate member. They must be glad Werrett went over budget by more than 100 per cent.
Moody, whose efforts with reigning Horse of the Year Typhoon Tracy suggest he is a dab hand with fillies, told the syndicate early on that they had got their hands on something special.
A brief two-year-old campaign consisting of two outings at the backend of the 2008-09 season suggested he wasn't exaggerating. After an eyecatching barrier trial – a full-scale phoney contest under full race conditions, which she won (of course) – Black Caviar won both races by a cumulative total of 11 lengths, beating males on the second occasion in Listed company under apprentice Jarrad Noske.
Yet while hopes were sky-high for Black Caviar the following season, she was to run only three times, scoring in Listed company on her seasonal debut before that (relatively) close thing in the Danehill Stakes. She came back in January as good as new to coast home in another Group 2, only to suffer a leg injury that meant another Black Caviar sets a modern-day weight-carrying record for a female when landing the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington in March enforced layoff, prematurely ending her campaign and leaving her as a horse with a huge reputation but not a huge amount on her cv.
It didn't take long for Black Caviar to start putting that right last season, during which she has more than made up for lost time in the busiest of programmes.
Off for eight months, a return victory in a Group 2 at her home track, Caulfield, showed the time on the sidelines had done nothing to dull her brilliance – an impression amplified when she made short work of Sydney's star mare Hot Danish in the Schweppes Stakes on Cox Plate day at Moonee Valley.
Still, though, Black Caviar had yet to contest a top-level contest – an omission duly rectified on her next outing when she slammed a handful of Group 1 winners in the Patinack Farm Classic in November last year. With Nolen suspended, Ben Melham got the spare ride – andwhat a spare ride it was. Black Caviar toyed with her opponents before cantering to a four-length victory, stopping the clock at an electrifying 1min 07.96sec for the 1,200 metres in a world-class performance.
"I have got the pleasure of being very closely involved but I think that would make the hair stand up on the back of anyone's neck," said Moody after the race. "Most horses with her ability would have won a Group 1 at their third or fourth start but it just hasn't fallen for her with injury and so on."
On the basis of the Patinack Farm win, international handicappers made Black Caviar their champion sprinter for 2010. A gobsmacked Melham won't have argued. "The frightening part was I still wasn't near the bottom of her, I don't think," he reported.
Nolen didn't get anywhere near the bottom after Christmas, either. Back over her favoured straight track at Flemington, she could not have been more impressive in winning the Coolmore Lightning Stakes, Australia's foremost 5f event in January and a race that has a habit of producing Royal Ascot winners. Moody, though, ruled out talk of a trip to Europe last season (the Aussie season ends on July 31), preferring instead to send Black Caviar on a domestic tour taking in Sydney and Brisbane.
First, though, she had history to make in Melbourne, where she set a modern-day weight-carrying record for a female in the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap. Other sprinters couldn't stop her, and neither could the weight. She won by an easy three lengths to complete a Group 1 hat-trick.
By now, Black Caviar had really grabbed the attention of the Australian racing public, a marketing dream made equine flesh for those who promote the sport; in recent decades, only the Melbourne Cup hat-trick heroine Makybe Diva has come close.
"An appearance by Black Caviar is a guaranteed presence for racing on commercial television news programmes locally and nationally whatever the time of year," says Racing Victoria communications manager Shaun Kelly. "She has captured the attention of editors andproducers the breadth of the nation."
A return to Moonee Valley 13 days after the Newmarket procession ended with the usual result in the William Reid Stakes, although this time Nolen reported that he had had to shake her up a bit. "When I did, away she went," he says. "That's where she wins her races – in the middle stages of a race – you ride to your strengths and there aren't many horses who can live with her at this distance at weight-for-age. The only instruction I got was not to hit her."
Public interest was "surreal" he adds. "I suppose Glen Boss knows what it's like with Makybe Diva. I don't know how many people are here but they are here only for one horse and we didn't want to let them down. Just to be part of it, I feel very, very privileged."
In April, Black Caviar travelled away from home for the first time to make her Sydney debut on AJC Derby day at Randwick, when her appearance in the TJ Smith Stakes totally overshadowed the official feature.
She duly handed another defeat to the top-class Hay List – if he's a punchbag, he's a bloomin' good one, probably a champion in other years - prompting even Cummings to admit she had justified the hype. "It's good to see the horse take priority and the crowd appreciate her," he said. "She's pretty good – she's the best in Australia."
Another rapturous reception awaited in Brisbane in May as she bettered poor old Hay List one more time – despite trapping three wide into the straight and allowing her rival first run off a slowish pace.
Doomben officials had never witnessed a crowd of such size. "And they were here to see her rather than party," says Brisbane Racing Club chief executive Stephen Ferguson. "You just had to look at the crowd after the race. They all had their phones and cameras in the air trying to take a photo."
Another Group 1 race in Brisbane was mooted a couple of weeks later, but she was put away for a summer 'spell' in readiness for her five-year old campaign, which is set to end with a visit to Royal Ascot in June next year. "I've been to Ascot and had my bum kicked twice and I do want to go back to beat them," he says.
First, though, comes Saturday's comeback – after a four-furlong barrier trial in which she reportedly "smashed the clock", running the last 200 metres in a sizzling 10.22sec and'winning' by six lengths.
"I'm very pleased with where she is at," Moody says, with perhaps a degree of understatement. "She is getting around the place like a mile horse. We've got to be very mindful of that and the fact we are only running her 1,000 metres first up, to be honest. She is more mature and more laidback than last prep in everything she does."
If that's the case, you'd love to see her when she's wound up.
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