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.”