By Hamish TownsendApril 13, 2012
When — nobody thinks if — Black Caviar breaks the record of race wins in Australia, she’ll likely be packed up to race before the Queen. What then?
The effort to get to Brisbane's Doomben racetrack was immense, but worth every half-panicked moment for a kid and her mug-punter dad witnessing history. The girl would have a story to carry inside her that no one can take away.
She was going to see Black Caviar and place her first bet on a horse considered to be the best sprinter in the world. History would not be distant cannon fire on this day, it would have a smell, a feel and colour. It would have, too, a betting ticket to prove it. The racehorse had transcended its sport and industry, with not just her celebrity but her greatness.
Fast-forward nine months, and in February 2012 Black Caviar storms down the Flemington straight in a drag-em-out prize-fight with her rival, Hay List, to win the Lightning Stakes and a world-record-equalling 19th race in a row. She was backed at $1.04 to win when the gates opened, the closest a punter could get to a sure thing. The only surprise from the race was that there was such a great contest at all.
My three-year-old now rides anything resembling a horse with a little square of paper in her hand yelling, "I'm riding Black Caviar, Daddy."
The Lightning Stakes was the kind of win that lifts a champion into a legend, the kind of win that creates mega value for owners. It was a perfect run against a genuine challenger, rare for Black Caviar.
Once the record is broken, the filly's connections insist the next move is to the UK and the Diamond Jubilee at Ascot in front of the Queen.
At the time of writing, the gold price was $51 a gram. When a foal is born it weighs about 50 kilograms; depending on the market, Black Caviar's offspring might be worth more than their weight in gold. If she was sent to pasture now, she could be expected to produce five or six foals in her breeding years. That is serious money in a serious business. Black Caviar's yearling half-sister sold in April 2012 for $2.6 million, equalling the highest paid for a filly at public auction in Australia.
The punters don't cheer her on to win money, other trainers don't wear ties in her colours in the hope of snaring her to their stable. People don't even show up for the contest, as there rarely is one. They all turn out and cheer to see something perfect and to say they were there. Naturally there is a fair amount of public protectiveness of "their" Nelly (her stable name).
The kinds of men (and they're mostly men) who mutter about odds and count distance in furlongs know history and are travel-shy. What many in racing circles are wondering is, why go abroad at all?
Considering the strength of Australian racing, few of our horses have won the really big international races — the exception being Better Loosen Up's Japan Cup victory in 1990. In Europe, staying races (more than 2,500 meters) and hurdles are the glamour events — and where the bloodstock money is. Australian racing, as sports writer John Harms is fond of saying, "is short races, for quick bucks — a bit like the country".
What worries many in the industry is that few horses return with any of the form they had when they left. Even supposing a victorious tour of Blighty, Black Caviar's breeding value is unlikely to rise; international money is mainly in other kinds of horses, and there's less of it around these days.
Racing, more than any other sport, is an industry first and sport second. In 2007 the Australian Racing Board claimed the industry engaged more than 230,000 people as owners, volunteers, employees and hobbyists contributing more than $5 billion to the national economy.
The colour, smells, rituals, beauty, optimism and misery of the track combine in a culture that either seeps into your veins or leaves you cold.
For the crowd it's strictly about punting. Kids don't have posters of Octagonal on their wall or So You Think pencil cases. Black Caviar has her own website and blog, which, like most blogs, she began in a flurry and hasn't updated for a year. She didn't answer enquiries from The Global Mail.
For the owners it's about the trade of bloodstock and, for the more vainglorious, the chance to show off their wealth. But it's also full of chancers, bounders, hopeless romantics and odd syndicates with either too much cash or too much hope.
Their talisman is a former taxi driver from Queanbeyan called Joe Janiak who spent $1,250 on a horse named Takeover Target. He trained the gelding up himself and hoped he could get it to run in a few country races and make his money back. It became one of Australia's great sprinters, raking in over $6 million, winning group one races in the UK, Japan and Singapore. It also ran at Ascot, in what was then the Golden Jubilee, finishing second.
He reckons there is a question mark over the merits of Black Caviar's international travel. He doesn't see much competition once she arrives. Still, he says, "There's just so much can go wrong."
For trainers and handlers everything is about the care of horses and the racing of them. As serious illness or injury often results in a horse being put down, these horse professionals are extremely cautious and will pull a horse out of a race at the slightest concern. Takeover Target was scratched the night before his second attempt at the Golden Jubilee because of a rising temperature, not unusual.
Greg Carpenter isn't having any of the "not really a sport" malarky. Being the chief handicapper with Racing Victoria and on the board of the World Thoroughbred Rankings Panel, Carpenter is all about times, weights, turfs, distance and competition. He knows exactly why the owners are risking Australia's most successful mare for a tilt at overseas glory.
"As a nation, Australians have always wanted to prove to the world how good we are: Laver, Hoad, Court, Goolagong, Thorpe, Hackett, Fraser, Gould, Famechon, Rose, Phar Lap. It is part of the national psyche to want to see Australians take on the world on the sporting field and triumph. As a nation of spectators, we love cheering for an Australian and seeing them do well," he says.
But even Carpenter's list contains the dark story that makes every Black Caviar fan wince at the thought of overseas travel. The tale of Phar Lap's overseas tilt and demise is known to most every Australian. Having become the greatest racehorse since Carbine, and a national hero (despite being a New Zealander) during the Depression of the 1930s, Phar Lap was sent to the US for a crack at the big time. After a win in Mexico, Phar Lap died in California with a massive arsenic dose in his system. Australians presumed the Yanks had done him in, and racing fans carry superstition like a stone in their shoe.
To add greater intrigue is the possibility of the ultimate match race. In the Old Dart they have a horse called Frankel, also unbeaten, the highest-ranked sprinter in the world. It's the contest the racing world wants to see. However both Black Caviar's and Frankel's trainers — Peter Moody and Sir Henry Cecil — appear wary of a meeting. Or they're foxing. Frankel races at around 2,000 meters, Black Caviar has never gone longer than 1,400.
"I'm certainly not bringing him back to seven furlongs (1,400m)," said Sir Henry recently on Sky Sports.
"If I wanted to at some stage keep him to a mile (1,600m) and she wants to up it to a mile and come over, it would be lovely."
For his part Moody said in February, "I'm not sure if it (meeting Frankel) will come off, but I'm quite bullish about it… I'm sure there will be plenty of overtures once we get to England, and we'll look at them then."
The race speculated is the 1,600-meter Sussex Stakes on August 1, at "Glorious" Goodwood race track, 100 kilomtres south of London. Together the Jubilee and Goodwood comprise the pinnacle of British sprinting, but this scenario would leave Black Caviar hanging around in the UK for a month, perhaps denting her Spring Racing Carnival chances back in Melbourne.
Thoroughbred horses are notoriously delicate; only 50 per cent pass a barrier trial (a test run to see if they're worth any more training) and as few as 20 per cent of these animals will make any money. Overseas travel is a common but risky activity, especially for mares. As well as exposing the horse to myriad bugs and diseases not known in Australia, the travel to unfamiliar tracks leaves hooves less sure. Moreover long travel time can leave horses susceptible to a condition known as travel sickness, or pleuropneumonia.
Travel sickness can result from horses travelling long distances in tight spaces, with their heads up, leaving them vulnerable to fluid flowing back into the lungs and causing infection. The risk becomes pronounced on aeroplanes or places without natural ventilation. Horses over five years of age are especially vulnerable. If not treated quickly and effectively, the horse can die within three to five days.
Joe Janiak didn't want to be quoted in this article but he did express regret he'd sent Takeover Target on so many international adventures, believing it took too much out of the horse.
It wasn't the risk of illness, quarantine regulations or injuries that finally stopped Takeover Target from travelling. It was a single plane ride, which became delayed because of weather. What was supposed to be a 25-hour trip from London turned into 45 hours. When the plane landed, it skidded a little on the runway the horse dropped from exhaustion, picked up some bad bruising on his legs and badly bashed his nose.
Brian Stewart is a vet with nearly 20 years experience with the Singapore Turf Club and Hong Kong Jockey Club. He was bitten by the racing bug growing up near Hamilton, where his family was involved in harness racing. He acknowledges travel sickness is a risk, but believes the improved professionalism in the sport would make it unlikely.
"In Hong Kong we'd turn around maybe 30 or 40 horses a year and only one or two would get travel sickness," he says.
"A horse like Black Caviar would be given more space in the plane, and they fly with very experienced grooms who can handle just about anything."
As the plane lifts off from Tullamarine, breath will be drawn through teeth all over Australia. Still, most observers contacted by The Global Mail believe she'll have little competition once she makes the track.
Australians enjoy plundering the world like sporting conquistadores, however Nelly's owners need to remember she's not just theirs anymore. Millions of Australians have taken her to their hearts, including a very unforgiving three-year-old with a special white ticket in Brisbane.