Sport

Close shave a measure of greatness

The Wonder from Down Under: Black Caviar.
The Wonder from Down Under: Black Caviar.

IMAGINE if Bradman's final duck at The Oval in 1948 - the one that left his Test average on 99.94 - was the result not of the ball hitting his stumps, but a rash call from the other end and a run-out. The name of Arthur Morris would have become the most cursed in the history of Australian sport. At Ascot on Saturday, however, Luke Nolen very nearly contrived a parallel infamy.

In the event, his harrowing moment of complacency on Black Caviar - easing her down even as Moonlight Cloud began to pounce in the final stages of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes - was salvaged by a fortune none could begrudge. For what kind of reward might it have seemed, for all the ambition and adventure that brought her here, had the judge's photo failed to extend her unbeaten record to 22?

It turns out that there were unsuspected grounds for Black Caviar's failure to justify Nolen's assumption she could "coast" home. In his initial mortification, the jockey speculated that she had failed to sustain her momentum over a much stiffer track than those they have always cruised round at home. Yesterday, however, it emerged that Black Caviar had torn muscles in her hindquarters, almost certainly during the race. Combined with the vivid folly of her rider, and the hidden attrition of travel, her bruised physique warrants a fresh assessment of a performance that chastened thousands of Australians who had introduced a mood of boisterous confidence to this very formal, very English milieu. Far from being an anticlimax, the first real struggle of her career perhaps represented its greatest triumph.

Whoops and cheers had followed the giant mare around the parade ring, where the salmon pink and black roe spots of Nolen's silks proliferated in ties, scarves and jewellery. Jockeys without a ride in the race stood on chairs in the weighing room, peering above the top hats for a glimpse of the phenomenon. However formidable the mare's physique, they could not have been impressed with a coat that gave ominous physical expression to her physiological dislocation. This corner of the northern hemisphere may not be enjoying much of a summer, but Black Caviar's hirsute aspect stressed that she had been brought here from the depths of her own winter. This was not just Black Caviar against the best of Europe; in a fairly literal sense, this was Black Caviar contra mundum.

In some respects, the denouement would uncomfortably evoke the first and only defeat of another great mare, Zenyatta, in her 20th and final start in the 2010 Breeders' Cup. On that occasion, the post came one stride too late, and Mike Smith faced far more recrimination than was his due. This time, however, it was Moonlight Cloud who needed one more stride, and Nolen duly gained an exoneration he scarcely deserved.

Poor Smith had sobbed in contrition, claiming all the blame. Nolen, in fairness, was ashen and humbled as he sat beside Peter Moody, Black Caviar's trainer, at the press conference. Moody is a big, plain-talking guy, and Nolen must have quailed inwardly, as proceedings came to an end, when the arm of a giant morning coat coiled around his neck. But Moody was merely pulling him close in a gesture at once relieved and disbelieving, affectionate and exasperated. Yesterday the trainer described Black Caviar as "very tired and flat" as she prepared to enter quarantine, but the discovery of bruising at least encouraged him to quell talk that she might be nearing the end of the road.

In repeatedly protesting that his "brain fade" should not be the story, meanwhile, Nolen was not seeking exculpation. Just as Zenyatta's winning streak gained deeper meaning only when it was ended in her finest performance, so Black Caviar needed adversity to remind everyone that there had been nothing remotely perfunctory about the previous 21 wins, either.

And that rebuke is worth extending to the inevitable contrasts being drawn with Frankel. The home champion had begun the meeting with a performance that mocked the sort of latent hazards disclosed by Black Caviar. Both passed the post to gasps of amazement: one, by separating himself from the herd by fully 11 lengths; the other, by scrambling home on hooves of clay. Frankel bounded clear, in an outrageous pomp; Black Caviar finished her race in rank indignity, Nolen realising his error and essaying a panicked, final lunge. But it should be remembered how Frankel himself was so nearly undone at this meeting, last year, when the misjudgement of his rider had been both less brazen and less pardonable.

Talk of a match between the pair had always been fairly fatuous. But it seems safe to add that Sir Henry Cecil, Frankel's trainer, will have observed Black Caviar's travails and been confirmed in his determination never to test Frankel in the same way. Little more seems likely to be learnt of his greatness from a defence of the Qipco Sussex Stakes, at Goodwood next month, and while he will at least try a new trip in the Juddmonte International at York, Frankel will never be exposed to the sort of risks embraced by connections of Black Caviar.

Frankel's performance on Tuesday was so dominant that it seems increasingly difficult to believe Camelot will be campaigned with greater intrepidity. For all its historic resonance, and the edifying consequences for the Ladbrokes St Leger, the idea of going for the Triple Crown contains infinitely less risk to the Derby winner's reputation than the possibility of a spanking by Frankel. In the meantime, Camelot is likely to start at very short odds for his home Derby this weekend.

Even on their solitary paths, however, these different champions are mapping out a vintage season. Frankel and Black Caviar between them suppressed due plaudits for John Gosden and William Buick, who shared a momentous meeting with five winners; or for New Approach, the sensational rookie stallion whose progeny won all three juvenile races beyond the minimum trip. We may well have yet another freak on our hands. Unlike Nolen, however, let nobody take anything for granted.

Topics:  black caviar, horse racing, luke nolen, royal ascot


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