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Why Black Caviar will stand alone with Phar Lap

Black Caviar - when you didn't need the form guide. (Image: Bronwen Healy / Bronwen Healy Photography)
Expert
14th February, 2013
55
1979 Reads

At the moment, in racing circles, it seems almost remiss to discuss our great sport without talking about the wonder mare Black Caviar.

I’ve pondered for days how to approach Black Caviar without repeating what has already been written. It is perhaps a task that is impossible these days, for so much has already been said. There is hardly an original angle left.

Trust me – as a lover of horse racing, I’d much rather be in a position where everything has been covered as opposed to one where no one cares.

This got me thinking about the unprecedented media coverage surrounding every bit player in the Black Caviar story.

How will history tell the story of Nelly, the mare who took on all comers and – to date anyway – defeated them all?

On her racetrack feats alone, Black Caviar must rank amongst the legends of the sport. But it is impossible to compare gallopers from different eras and arguments or theoretical match ups are futile.

But what can be compared is the public reaction to different racehorses. It is for this reason alone that I think Black Caviar will occupy a place alongside Phar Lap in Australian folklore.

To be fair, it is almost impossible to make such a bold statement confidently until her racing career is over. Take a look at American mare Zenyatta: unbeaten in her first 19 starts, she was defeated by the aptly named Blame at her 20th and final start in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. That final race changed everything that would have been written about her.

However, it hasn’t stopped scribes from trying. There are already a number of books that have been written, including the official account penned by Gerard Whateley. There are tributes galore on Youtube.

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In years from now, I don’t think it is her ability which will be the talking point of racing fans. She’s obviously freakishly talented, an unbeaten record says it all.

What has been unique throughout her career is the level of fascination amongst the public at large, not just racing fans.

Racing has had many champions over the years. Many have had extraordinary ability, but what has made the very best stand out is the place they have occupied amongst the collective heart of the nation.

Phar Lap is a primary example. His racing record was freakish, but I doubt he was a better horse than the likes of Carbine and Tulloch. Perhaps even a horse like Kingston Town could be mentioned in the same breath when it comes to ability.

But what makes Phar Lap such an intrinsic part of Australian folklore was the manner in which he captured the public’s attention. He was truly a horse of the people.

There are a number of reasons why he was so dear to the public. Racing in the midst of the Great Depression, he provided hope when optimism was scant. He, like the ordinary worker, was a battler.

He’d looked hopeless at his first few starts, before slowly developing into one of the greatest gallopers this country had seen.

He took on the world in Mexico’s Agua Caliente Handicap and beat them. And then, in a shocking twist more suited to a Shakespearean tragedy, he was dead.

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It is a moot point to suggest Phar Lap’s legend would not be as strong had he not died in California, for we’ll never know that answer.

However, Phar Lap had already won the hearts of a nation. Whatever happened, he goes down in the history books as the best galloper Australia has ever seen.

The Phar Lap story has plenty of pointers to suggest how Black Caviar’s career will be remembered once her racing days are finished.

It suggests she will forever remain among the ranks of our greatest horses. And it will be because of the incredible public reaction, in addition to her superb racetrack feats, that she will gain such high respect.

The fact she has garnered such publicity is extraordinary and – in recent times anyway – quite rare.

Look at Makybe Diva, for instance. It wasn’t until very late in her career that she became a race club’s dream – bringing extra people through the gates, gaining day after day of back page coverage.

At the very least, it wasn’t until she had won her second Melbourne Cup that she gained the recognition she deserved.

It took until her final preparation – after she had won two Melbourne Cups, been beaten so narrowly in a Caulfield Cup, and won an Australian Cup, The BMW and a Sydney Cup in breathtaking fashion – for her to become the media darling for which she is remembered.

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Black Caviar achieved that feat far quicker. Perhaps she was fortunate to have the early part of her career staggered, due to injury more than the patience of her owners. Indeed, in the first 18 months of her career, she only had six starts.

She already had the attention of the racing world – most keen observers knew she was good after her first start and believed she was destined for Group 1 class after her second start.

But by her 10th win, her Newmarket Handicap victory in March 2011, she was already bringing in crowds beyond those who would generally go racing. She was bringing in those who would only be interested in racing come the Melbourne Cup each year.

By the time she came to Sydney a month later, her place in the annals of racing folklore was secure. Wins in Brisbane and Adelaide added to the mystique, while feats like winning the Lightning Stakes a week after winning the C F Orr Stakes saw her gain even more credibility.

And yet, like Phar Lap, she almost had her Shakespearean tragedy when she was almost beaten in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

I will never forget the funereal atmosphere trackside at Royal Ascot. Estimates were that at least a tenth of the crowd were Australian, which in itself is a large statement of her widespread popularity.

I’ve told my mates many times it was like Ascot Racecourse was the seventh Australian state that day.

She may have won by a nose, but as she came back into the parade ring, you would have thought she’d lost given the glum faces of every Australian.

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We knew how good she was. We wanted to Brits to see it on their turf.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back now, it ranks as one of her finest performances. So much was against her, and yet, she still managed to hold off some of the world’s best sprinters.

What a horse.

And so, history will remember Black Caviar as one of the finest racehorses we have ever seen. And while her career needs no glorification, it seems that the public’s love affair with the great mare will lead to the story being romanticised – just as Phar Lap’s story has been over the years.

Take the chance to see her in the flesh while you can. It will be something to brag about one day, I assure you.