Michael Bailey Deputy editor

Michael has been a business journalist for 12 years. He has extensive experience editing magazines covering funds management, commercial property and the travel industry. In 2011 he won a Citi Excellence in Financial Journalism award for a BRW cover story on economic indicators.

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Book review: Black Caviar, the horse of a lifetime

Published 06 December 2012 05:15, Updated 07 December 2012 19:10

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Horse racing still stops the nation for three minutes once a year but it’s remarkable how few racehorses are household names today.

Only two can safely be said to have outlasted the 15 minutes of fame that accompanies a big Spring Carnival win. One is Phar Lap, which raced between 1929 and 1932 and won 32 of his last 35 starts. The other is Black Caviar, who astoundingly has won all 22 of her races – the last at Royal Ascot. She will be back for the 2013 season to see if she can continue the streak and continue drawing record crowds. She has even inspired an unlikely first for a racehorse – a commemorative edition of Vogue magazine.

In the meantime, those who know the name but not what all the fuss is about can catch up by reading a biography by Australian Broadcasting Corp journalist and race caller Gerard Whateley.

This biography is about as “authorised” as it can get. Whateley, who has been behind the microphone for 15 of Black Caviar’s 22 wins, was granted exclusive in-depth interviews with trainer Peter Moody, usual jockey Luke Nolen, and Black Caviar’s syndicate of owners.

Too often, “authorised” biographies should more correctly be called “airbrushed” biographies but Black Caviar is a horse, not a rock star or some hypocrisy-hiding politician, so it seems to matter less.

Whateley tells this story clearly and often beautifully, along the way giving those who aren’t big racing fans a real sense of the magnitude of Black Caviar’s achievement.

For the layman, Black Caviar’s greatness is most easily understood by reference to her winning streak and Whateley does a good job explaining how difficult it has been to come by.

Yes, Black Caviar is fast. The thouroughbred is the first in racing history to run a 200 metre section of a race in less than 10 seconds. Yet it is 22 from 22 that can really make one gawp.

Black Caviar’s unblemished record is actually only the second best in history. Top honour belongs to Kincsem, a Hungarian horse which won all 54 of her races across Europe in the 1870s, including majors such as the Austrian Derby and England’s Goodwood Cup.

Sensibly, however, Whateley concludes those events “were so difficult to fathom and so long in the past as to be set aside as a record that could never be challenged”.

The longest streak in modern times had belonged to Pepper’s Pride, a New Mexico filly that won all 19 of her career races in the early 2000s but had raced only in her home state and only against horses bred there.

The magical day this past April where Black Caviar eclipsed that record is the subject of a memorable passage. The Morphettville track in Adelaide will never see the like again.

For aspiring race horse owners there is another memorable chapter making this book worth the price of admission. The chapter is entitled “An Excuse to Have Lunch”, because that’s the precise reason a bunch of professional and farming couples who went on water-skiing holidays together – the Wilkies, the Werrets, the Maddens, the Taylors and the Hawkes – bought the racehorse.

“How that collective came to be was endearing for how unremarkable it was,” Whateley writes. “It was not the million-to-one, luck-defying, rags-to-riches tale you could marvel at but never quite relate to. Nor was it the production line of an international breeding operation or an oil-rich sheikh with an obsession for global racing dominance. It can instead be explained by the bonds of decades old friendships forged through family, school and business. It was entrenched in the norms of suburban and rural life.”

The syndicate entrusted trainer Moody with the purchase of the horse and the story of the Melbourne auction at which a yearling Black Caviar was bought is a valuable lesson in following one’s passion and sticking with one’s instinct.

Moody was given false optimism when the bidding for Black Caviar, sired by champion Bel Esprit, started at just $30,000. He knew the syndicate had an “official” budget of $100,000 and unofficially there was room to go 40 per cent beyond that. Yet when the bidding reached $200,000, Moody found his hand rising one last time.

“You get a rush of blood and every now and again you go overboard,” he told Whateley. “She was one I just wanted rain, hail or shine.”

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