06/21/2012 12:53PM

World beater: Black Caviar goes international at Royal Ascot

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Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Arriving in style at Royal Ascot last week, Black Caviar sports a special body suit designed to aid blood circulation during long flights.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the 6-year-old Australian mare Black Caviar crossed from the realm of the great into the land of the legendary. But it might have happened April 9, 2011.

Black Caviar already had won her first 11 starts. Twice she had beaten Hay List, one of the best sprinters in the world according to international ranking systems and a winner of his first eight starts. But in this race, the Group 1 T J Smith Stakes at Randwick, Hay List was out for revenge. The Smith is a six-furlong race run around one turn on a right-handed course, and as Hay List swung off the bend and into the home straight, he suddenly, improbably, opened a lead of a couple of lengths. But just as an onlooker came to this realization, just as the thought, “She’s going to get beat!” popped into play, Black Caviar unleashed a burst of utterly intense speed. In a few strides Hay List had been caught. By the finish, beaten 2 3/4 lengths while five lengths clear of third, Hay List was back in his place, a really good horse who was no match for this freak of an animal.

“When she got up to 12, 13 wins, that’s when she started to look invincible,” said Peter Moody, who picked Black Caviar out of a yearling sale and who trains her. “She has an absolutely unbelievable will to win.”

Black Caviar has won all 21 of her starts, the longest streak among undefeated horses in modern Thoroughbred racing history, and now her show has gone on the road − a long road with a glamorous terminus. On the evening of June 7, after the first flight of her life, Black Caviar arrived in England following a 30-hour journey from Australia. She was scheduled to race Saturday in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes on closing day at Royal Ascot. Among those in attendance were expected to be members of England’s royal family, and there is no more hallowed ground on which to display Black Caviar’s raw talent than Royal Ascot, the world’s most fashionable race meeting.

Black Caviar also has been considered for another English stakes, the July Cup, but is likely to return to Australia immediately after the Diamond Jubilee, her connections concerned about squeezing another race onto the end of a campaign that began in October.

Black Caviar’s trip to England probably makes her the most noteworthy international shipper since Cigar traveled for the inaugural Dubai World Cup. One might have to go back to Phar Lap’s trip from Australia to the Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico, to find a comparable equine journey.

“Most of the great horses have never traveled; they’ve done it all in their own backyard,” said Moody, who has sent horses to Ascot the last two seasons, though Hinchinbrook last year was injured before he could run. “It’s a bit of a groundbreaker that way. She’ll be one of the first to attempt this abroad.”

The idea that a horse from Australia, a former English penal colony, might usurp the locals at Royal Ascot would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago, but the Aussie product has gained international traction. In 2003, Choisir became the first Australian horse to win at Royal Ascot in a century, capturing the King’s Stand at odds of 25-1 and the Golden Jubilee, the race now know as the Diamond Jubilee, five days later at 7-1. Since then, three other Aussies − Takeover Target, Scenic Blast, and Miss Andretti − also won one of the major Royal Ascot sprints.

Few bettors this year will be lining up to beat Black Caviar, an odds-on favorite to win the Diamond Jubilee, in which it’s widely assumed she’ll be competing against lesser opposition than she’s met at home.

“The travelling is the hard part,” Moody said. “We’re probably taking on lesser than she’s faced in Australia. In the international ratings they have now, she’s rated far superior to any horse she’ll meet in England.”

MORE: Black Caviar rated No. 2 in World Thoroughbred Rankings

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Black Caviar was a somewhat pricey yearling, costing 10 owners more than $212,000, but she has earned more than $5.8 million while winning 11 Group 1 races. She traveled to England in a space-age full-body compression suit adorned with her stable name, Nelly, and was accompanied on her flight by a veterinarian, her exercise rider, and an assistant trainer. Black Caviar’s personal gate attendant also has made the trip from Australia to keep her starting-gate routine unchanged.

Moody, who trains a large, successful stable at Caulfield in the state of Victoria, is in personality an Australian version of American trainer Bob Baffert, and he seems to especially relish pricking the English racing establishment. The annual Royal Ascot news conference was held the afternoon of June 14; Moody made a point of arriving in London that night. Earlier in the week, he had proclaimed the ranking of the undefeated English horse Frankel at 138 to Black Caviar’s 130 a farce.

Those rankings, the World Thoroughbred Rankings, are published regularly by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. Greg Carpenter is the official handicapper (in the international sense of ranking horses, not the American sense of picking them) for Racing Victoria in Australia, and also the Australian Racing Board’s representative on the World Thoroughbred Rankings panel. Carpenter wouldn’t wade into the Frankel vs. Black Caviar debate but is happy to provide perspective on Black Caviar’s apparent greatness.

“She’s the highest-rated sprinter there’s ever been in the world during the time the World Thoroughbred Rankings have been around, and by a considerable margin,” Carpenter said. “The previous high mark for a sprinter has been 125. She’s rated at 130. She’s been the vehicle to take sprinting to a new level. She now has put in 15 consecutive performances which the committee has rated 120-plus, and no horse has ever done that. It’s especially amazing that she’s never been challenged.”

Black Caviar is part of the discussion concerning the greatest Australian racehorse ever, Carpenter said, her chief rival for the crown being Makybe Diva, a three-time winner of the Melbourne Cup. As a 6-year-old, like Black Caviar, Makybe Diva made her only starts outside Australia, finishing seventh in two prestigious Japanese races. During the late 1970’s and early 80’s, another Australian sprinter, Manikato, won 29 of 47 starts, 20 of them Group 1’s.

Black Caviar is said by her connections to run even faster during morning workouts than in races, but she is plenty fast with money on the line. Winning her 19th race earlier this year, she was timed in 9.98 seconds between the 400 and 600 meter marks, the only sub-10-second 200-meter fractional time ever recorded in Australia. And with that kind of speed, Black Caviar toys with her opponents. Her average winning margin through her career is 3.1 lengths, but jockey Luke Nolen, who has ridden her 18 times, typically can be found sitting nearly stock-still during her race’s closing stages. Only once has a horse gotten within one length of Black Caviar, when she beat the Moody-trained Wanted by three-quarters of a length in the fourth start of her career, and there were extenuating circumstances that day.

“She injured herself when she stumbled coming out of the barriers [gates],” Moody said. “She tore all the muscles through her chest.”

Last month, when it became clear Black Caviar actually would make the trip to England, there was talk of an epic match-up with Frankel, who on Tuesday won the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot by 11 lengths, improving to 11-0. Distance issues, however, have precluded their meeting: Frankel will stick to races at a mile or longer, and Black Caviar, who has only once raced as far as seven furlongs, will not do more than sprint. One close look at the mare and her immense hindquarters, and the desire to keep her in short races seems entirely justified.

“She’s a massive horse, especially for a mare,” Moody said. “She looks like she has an ass six-feet wide, and when she’s off racing conditions she weighs in at about 600 kilos [1,320 pounds]. She looks big, but she doesn’t stand as tall as a horse like Zenyatta.”

Still, a resemblance between the two super-mares hasn’t escaped John Shirreffs, the trainer of Zenyatta, who won 19 races to start her career before losing the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic by a head.

“She reminds me of Zenyatta,” said Shirreffs, who has watched Black Caviar’s last several races. “She’s a big, dark mare, and she’s got this gigantic stride. She looks a little uncomfortable in the gate, too, a little reluctant to load, like Zenyatta.”

That’s an astute observation. A special security blanket is affixed to Black Caviar before she is loaded into the starting gate. Australian race fans have grown accustomed to her breaking a half or full step behind the quickest horses. It was Zenyatta’s sheer heft, Shirreffs said, that made her uncomfortable in the gate, and similarly, Black Caviar barely can squeeze into a gate stall.

Like Zenyatta, Black Caviar has developed a fan base that transcends the typical limitations of a racehorse. The Diamond Jubilee will be run at about midnight in Melbourne, but the race will be broadcast to a party atmosphere on a huge video screen in the city center, Moody said. Newspaper stories about the mare appear on Page 1, not in the sports section; television features often lead news broadcasts.

“I’ve been doing interviews with people like The Financial News,” Moody said.

Both mares’ widespread popularity and intensely chronicled winning streaks have taken their human connections into celebrity territory rarely reached by an equine athlete.

“The way she’s changed my life, it makes it hard for me to do anything now,” Moody said. “I was notable in sporting circles before, but now you go anywhere and people say, ‘Oh that’s the bloke that trains Black Caviar.’ ”

And while no one would trade an undefeated horse for one with wins in half its races, perfection carries particular burdens.

“When there’s a record that was close and we had an opportunity to break it, that’s when you start to feel the added pressure,” Shirreffs said.

“She’s created this aura of invincibility, and I’ve felt the pressure a little more because if she loses, that gets taken away,” Moody said.

While Zenyatta stepped outside the filly-and-mare ranks only twice in her career, Black Caviar has run against males in 20 of her races and will do so again in England. Still, Black Caviar has her chorus of skeptics, their main quarrel being the quality of opposition the mare has faced. Her career, these voices say, has been stage-managed to avoid defeat, not to test the outer limits of her ability.

“The naysayers will be saying, ‘She only beat We’re Gonna Rock by a length and a quarter,’ ” Moody said following Black Caviar’s 21st win, referring to the race’s unheralded runner-up. “But no one has ever given us any more [money] for winning by big spaces. It’s never been about margins.”

Immense size and brilliant speed meet uneasily in a Thoroughbred; Black Caviar has dealt with her share of physical problems. Potential fragility, her connections say, is one reason Black Caviar’s wins have been so measured. Maybe in the Diamond Jubilee, when the horse known in Australia as The Queen will race in England before an actual Queen, all the stops will be pulled. If Black Caviar truly is great, win number 22 should be something special.


Undefeated

Thoroughbred horses from around the world who never lost a race (since 1900):

Horse Born Country Wins
Black Caviar* 2006 Australia 21
Peppers Pride 2003 United States 19
Karayel 1970 Turkey 18
Prestige 1903 France 16
Ribot 1952 Great Britain 16
Colin 1905 United States 15
Macon 1922 Argentina 15
Nearco 1935 Italy 14
Personal Ensign 1984 United States 13
Braque 1954 Italy 12
Frankel* 2008 Great Britain 11
Kurifuji (Toshifuji) 1940 Japan 11
Handsomchamp 2002 United States 10
Nereide 1933 Germany 10
Tokino Minoru 1948 Japan 10