06/27/2012 3:27PM

Hovdey: Black Caviar's Royal Ascot race a case study

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Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Black Caviar (left), with Luke Nolen riding, wins the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot by a nose.

Luckily for Luke Nolen, Australia is a big country. There are plenty of places to hide, beginning with the Australian Outback, which is about two and a half million square miles of not a whole lot.

Of course, by now even the handful of Outback inhabitants have heard of Luke’s self-described brain cramp aboard Black Caviar in Royal Ascot’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes last Saturday in England. It was bad enough to be the instrument for a proud former colony to be embarrassed in front of Her Majesty the Queen. To sully the reputation of a national treasure in the process is borderline unforgivable.

Nolen was this far (please hold forefingers about eight inches apart) from being branded as the Grinch who ruined Royal Ascot. Never mind the hearts that would have been broken back home in Oz. It’s one thing to lose on the square, no apologies made. It’s quite another for a jockey to call “No mas” when the race looks to be over and won.

At least that’s how the story began. Black Caviar in fact won the race, her 22nd without a loss, by a short head after Nolen stopped riding for half a dozen strides near the end then cranked it up again for a few desperate pumps in the shadow of the wire. The emotional trauma was immediate and severe. Superstars are supposed to dominate, not hang on in desperation. Black Caviar being proved nearly mortal was as unsettling to some as seeing a favorite movie star before hair and makeup (“That can’t be Keira Knightley!”).

Of course, we’ve known all along that racing fans and their bullhorns in the media are among the most cynical romantics on planet Earth. They have to be, or how else could they survive the emotional swings fed on the one hand by the soaring beauty of a beautiful Thoroughbred in action and on the other by the visceral hunger to cash a bet?

To follow her from afar, Black Caviar has been the greatest thing since fish eggs on stale toast. After all, the World Rankings said so, and the World Rankings rule. Her appearance at Royal Ascot was supposed to confirm her status, followed by nothing less than installation in a wing of Buckingham Palace.

Then Nolen tossed the anchor, and the story changed forever. Over the next hours and days it was learned that Black Caviar had suffered muscle strains, that she was running on guts alone in the Diamond Jubilee, and that Nolen was acting out of caution rather than overconfidence when he wrapped up, thinking his brave mare had survived the ordeal but misjudging either the wire or the competition. Or both.

Nolen, one of Australia’s best, either knew Black Cavair was below par going into the race or sensed something amiss during the running and rode her accordingly. He did not misjudge the finish line. In fact, win or lose, his judgment was right on the money.

Being attached to a headline racehorse is a rider’s dream come true, whether it is a fairy tale like the one spun by the unsung Mario Gutierrez with I’ll Have Another, or the valedictory gift of Zenyatta coming into the life of a respected Hall of Famer like Mike Smith nearer the end of his career.

If they are allowed – and wise trainers are so inclined – such lucky jockeys become as close to the horse as any member of the crew. They never know everything (that’s what grooms are for), but they know what they can ask of their horse and what to expect for an answer.

Luke Nolen hemmed and hawed his way around his postrace interviews like a man making it up as he went along. If Black Caviar had lost, at least he would have been able to fall back completely on her physical condition as good reason for his caution. But he won, only it wasn’t as pretty as advertised.

Losing is always easier to explain, even though harder to swallow. Nolen’s near nightmare gave rise to the memories of Cigar’s final starts, both narrow losses, when he fell just short in the 1996 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine. To that point he had won 17 of his last 18 starts dating back two years.

“I never knew how good he was,” said Jerry Bailey, Cigar’s partner, “because during the time I could have found that out I never allowed myself to ask him. I was always saving something because I wanted him to keep going. And the more I thought I could save, I felt the longer I could help to extend the incredible run he had.”

Although he had not studied Nolen’s ride at Royal Ascot, Bailey knew the score no matter how it looked.

“He did his job, and he was probably trying to extend her career by trying to make the race as easy on her as possible,” Bailey said.

Bailey accepted the blame for Cigar’s defeat in the 1996 Pacific Classic when they chased unreasonalby fast fractions. But Cigar’s victory in the Woodward Stakes in his very next race convinced his rider that the horse was on top of his game. He lost those final two starts by a head and a neck, margins that prompt jockeys to wonder what they could have done differently.

“The biggest thing I think jockeys can suffer from is beginning to think there’s nothing this horse can’t do, because every horse has his limitations,” Bailey said. “That’s the trap I kind of fell into with Cigar thinking there wasn’t anything he couldn’t overcome. I thought as long as I put him in a spot where he could run he’d run as fast as he needed to.

“But when you get close to the end, it’s just not there anymore,” Bailey went on. “You try to convince yourself that it’s not true, but you know. In those last two races he needed a perfect ride and a perfect trip to win, and he didn’t get them. But then, he had never needed them before.”

N Lad More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed alot of things about this piece. However, I find it disturbing that Bailey readily admits that, in his last two narrow defeats, he "never allowed himself to ask him (Cigar)." Perhaps he should show more respect to the betting public who bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on Cigar in those contests and, in addition, helped fuel Bailey's abundant paychecks for many years.
Morris More than 1 year ago
good articule, for what its worth, i watched this finish from every angle that i could find on this computer. ( on screen of computer is good but nothing like watching live ). it is plain to me , that as nolen stopped hand riding, the mare slowed rapidly. way moreso than any other times that i could find & watch. this is a sure sign that the mare was not her self. but it showed just how big her heart really is, by the way she responded, when nolen called on her again this mare is one of the greatest mares of modern day racing. enough said " an ole railbird"
Jade Sword More than 1 year ago
I love horse racing, so I'm not looking for the negative, but let's be real. Millions of dollars were wagered on this horse. What is more likely? Somebody asked Nolan to lose the race, or the jockey of the most popular horse on the planet making this type of rookie error?
ENAMMELD More than 1 year ago
You may love racing but you're obviously a rookie. The mare was running in pain. For anyone who has been around horse racing it was plain to see. I thought midway through he was going to pull her up and would have been justified in doing so. I'm not naive about money equalling graft of some kind but not in this case the mare was telling you that, watch the replay in slow motion maybe you'll see it if not ask some one moe experienced to watch it with you and they can pint it out.
Paul_Tuon More than 1 year ago
"Somebody asked Nolan to lose the race" Are you saying it is more likely somebody paid Nolen millions of dollars to loose the race? Nolen makes a lot of money riding in Australia and I don't think money can buy the races he's on Black Caviar. If you suggest that he takes money for any other races not involving the high profile Black Caviar then I probably say that it is possible but not likely. But for high profile races involving Black Caviar, I have to say that you're crazy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She has done enough, and should be retired. Thank you for the nice article, Jay. One cannot fault the jockey for trying to make it easy on her. She still won. She traveled and took on Eurpoe's best at one of the most prestigeous venues. Who could ask for more?
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Case study of what? You wrote a book about the great Cigar. Why did they not create races for Zenyatta?? 19 and 0 -- and no Citation challenge. My mom actually bought me a copy of your book about Cigar, where in you defend turn downs and methypredisilone. If you inject a horses ankle you do not race him the next day. Stupid.
Kalar Walters More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the article. :) This issue kinda reminds me The Bluegrass Stakes this year when Desormeaux pulled up Dullahan very quickly after the win. There was speculation as to why he didn't let the horse run out. The mention of 'saving the horse' that's in the article, made me think of that race. Dullahan was not injured in that race but he had put in a tremendous stretch run. I never did get an answer to that fast pullup. I guess my point is that it's entirely conceivable to me that Nolen could tell something was off with her and either misjudged the finish line and/or misjudged the speed of the competitors behind him. The fact that she "re-engaged" for a few strides when asked shows that horse is all heart.
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
That's Kent Desormeaux's signature move, much like Deion Sanders high-stepping into the end zone.
Kalar Walters More than 1 year ago
Thanks, GIG.
RP More than 1 year ago
a Win is A Win, nose , head, neck or 20 lenght does not matter you will get the same purse , get the same pay off. so as long as the horse win, and come out ok then there is nothing else to be said.
Jerry More than 1 year ago
i totally agree,but tell that to the people that thought union rags was all out to catch paynter in the belmont........im say chase the pace until its time to go....
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
Union Rags had no where to go. Once he stuck his big nose in there, Johnny V got excited, stopped whipping, and just shook the rein with both hands and told him "Good Boy! Take it." He made up that one length in a matter of strides. That was a spectacular win, but not visually to the less experienced handicappers. Therefore I don't think he will be overbet in his next race. He will be second choice in either the Haskell or the Jim Dandy to an even money Baffert horse. Union Rags will win his next race close but stylishly. Sort of like Blame vs Quality Road 2 years ago in the Whitney when Quality Road opened up at 1-5 and Blame 7-1, eventually went off at 1-2 and 7-2. The exacta was a generous $18.20 for $2 in a 6 horse field.
t More than 1 year ago
I prefer Charlestown type racing news over anything International. I mean c'mon we all America is the only place that has great horsemen and racing
mike More than 1 year ago
Even as someone who goes to Charlestown a lot-- I think that has to be one of the most ridiculous, outright stupid statements I have ever seen............I suppose you must be one of those unruly West Virginian hayseeds that everyone tells me to stay away from when I cross the border from MD to WV to watch some horse racing.
t More than 1 year ago
Wow, Eight People thought I was serious,,, Maybe there is still hope for educated well rounded American horse racing fans on these boards. Usually everyone gets all up in arms over the reality of international horse racing trumping american horse racing in the 21st century
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The 8 negatives is why i usually no longer comment. Many of the people who read this blog really have a hard time determining what someone says. it was clear that your comment was tongue in cheek.
Marian Martinello More than 1 year ago
Prior to the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, Black Caviar traveled 10,500 miles, a 30-hour journey during which she could not be removed from her traveling crate, arriving at a strange environment and a much wetter climate than in her homeland. She experienced 24 days of quarantine, followed by unceasing media attention and a security breech at her barn by some who wanted a photo with her. Then she suffered injury during the race on a course considerably different from those she had run in Australia. How much more of a test of racing talent and heart must be endured for a performance to be respected? After all, she won.
david More than 1 year ago
I think you make valid points as to why her performance should be applauded instead of questioned. Anyone who thinks she wasn't "off" after the race doesn't know anything about horses. Before the race she galloped beautifully down to the start while afterwards as she was being jogged in front of the grandstand she was moving like a box of rocks. I don't know anything about the jockey, trainer, owners or their possible motives or agendas but I do know when a horse is in discomfort and this mare showed signs of that after the race.
peter said More than 1 year ago
I am from oz and have followed racing my whole life. Both trainer and jockey always put this horse first. Trainer Moody did not even want to take her over for the race the owners wanted to, she missedout on 2 1000000 races by going. Totally agree with what you said, the margin means nothing. If her competitors were put what she went through and race her over here the margin would have been a lot greater torn muscle and all
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
I totally agree with you, Marian. Black Caviar emphasized what an incredible champion horse she is last Saturday when she triumphed over every obstacle that was thrown her way and still won the race. She is fabulous! I will always remember her bravery in this race. She is the very definition of champion.
Chantal Smithless More than 1 year ago
The great ones are always able to admit it when they make mistakes, regardless of the magnitude of the error. If the great Bill Shoemaker was still among us I would love to hear HIS comments on Luke's ride as he compared it to his unbelievable Kentucky Derby blunder when he misjudged the finish line. Jerry Bailey is ALL CLASS to blame himself and NOT Cigar in the cases where blame is to be appropriately given. Luke has admitted his mistake so I have to be suspect of the "timing" of the injury report on Black Caviar. It's not that I don't believe that she could have sustained this injury during the running of the Diamond Jubilee.....I only question why Peter Moody felt it necessary to use it as part of the reason why her margin of victory was small. Probably because after seeing Frankel's blow out race earlier in the week he was quoted as saying that they might "take off the brakes" on Black Caviar in HER race and her competition was so underrated that when Luke hit the "gas pedal" the engine wasn't as powerful as hoped or hyped. BUT she is STILL the best sprinter in the world and the Diamond Jubilee should only be elevating her status, not being a vehicle to cause questioning of it. She is pure heart and guts and those are the types of horses who become champions because they can overcome even the untimeliest human error. All that being said, I personally think it's time for the great mare to be retired. She has nothing left to prove and it's time to give her a chance to pass those incredible genes on to future generations for us to be in awe of.
OwenJ More than 1 year ago
Why is Black Caviar "the best sprinter in the world?" If her oners think she is, then sne d her to the Breeders Cup sprint later this year. In my book she is a great filly but certainly not the "best sprinter in the world." Why do some engage in such hyperbolic comments without hard facts?
Brian Grills More than 1 year ago
Because the Timeform ratings are evidence that she is the fastest and greatest sprinter in the world. Her 136 Timeform rating makes her the greatest sprinting mare of all time.