Pie-eating racegoers develop a taste for Black Caviar
In racing, the term “pie eater” is an old-fashioned, gently derogatory term for hard-bitten punters. Pies are all they can afford after their weekly pay cheque has yet again put Sunday roast on the bookies’ dinner tables.
Well, the pie eaters of Australia have suddenly developed a taste for Black Caviar. That’s Black Caviar, the mighty mare who this week made it 18 wins from 18 starts in her most devastating racetrack outing yet.
Black Caviar attracted 20,000 infatuated racegoers to Caulfield on Saturday, the majority decked out in her salmon-and-black racing colours. Twenty thousand, to a race meeting which would usually attract a quarter that many. With the gates sensibly thrown open for free, they flocked to see the champion, who paraded around as if she knew she was just that.
In his poem “Do They Know?”, Banjo Paterson once poignantly asked whether good horses know they’re good. He answered the question with a definitive “you bet they do” in the last six lines.
They know just as well their success
As the man on their back.
As they walk through a dense human lane
That sways to and fro,
And cheers them again and again,
Do you think they don’t know?
The lines were penned over 100 years ago, but they could just have easily been written on Saturday. The crowd swaying after the race. The horse lapping up the attention, jockey Luke Nolen revelling in it but admitting that his job was pretty much as simple as “not falling off”.
Thunderous isn’t the word for the applause. Rapturous, more like it. The Pope held a mass at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse four years ago for World Youth Day, but that was nothing on the reception for Black Caviar at Caulfield on Saturday.
More and more, racing is a cold, mercenary numbers game these days. The TAB is little more than a poker machine, with races from New Zealand in the morning and the northern hemisphere long into the night. Each race is as unromantic as a spin of the pokie reels. The horses themselves are mere names and numbers, as anonymous and unheroic as the binary zeroes and ones which underpin the computer betting programs.
And then occasionally, a champion comes along and reminds us all that racing is a magnificent endeavour. That it is, in the purest terms, a sport. In the first decade of this century we had two jolting reminders.
One was the sprinter Takeover Target, the broken down old hack bought for $1200 by Queanbeyan cabbie Joe Janiak, who lived in a caravan on Queanbeyan racecourse which was covered in pine needles. Takeover Target won in every mainland state of Australia, blitzed them at Royal Ascot and banked $6 million, which it’s safe to say is more than the cab takings in Queanbeyan on a Saturday night..
And then there was Makybe Diva, the stayer who won an unprecedented three straight Melbourne Cups from 2003 to 2005. After the third, trainer Lee Freedman urged us to “go and find the smallest child on the racecourse”, his inference being that they would never see the mare’s equal no matter how long they lived.
He was right. We’ll never see that again. But in Black Caviar, we have something even more special. In a word, it’s dominance. It the way she wins. The way her victories never, ever look in any shadow of a doubt.
Makybe Diva used to bury herself away in the pack before unleashing that devastating acceleration. Even her staunchest supporters had their hearts in their mouth during the race.
The best place to watch a Black Caviar race is from the bookies’ payout queue. That way, you don’t have to wait long when she inevitably wins. But the point is, she never for a moment looks anything but the winner at any stage of her races. She really is just a class above.
In the ‘90s, my favourite horse was Octagonal. He won a Cox Plate and nine other Group Ones and was a joy to follow. But he was a scrapper. A real street brawler. He always seemed to be involved in warfare with one horse or another until he miraculously stuck his nose in front on the winning post.
Black Caviar always looks in control. That acceleration. There’s something machine-like about it. To the jockey, it must feel like revving a Porsche against a field of Kombi vans, The owners must feel as coldly assured of a win as the bean counters upstairs in the casino.
Some have tried to quantify her greatness with numbers. Others with the clock. Apparently, she strings together sectional times over three consecutive furlongs (200m sections) that other horses can sustain for just a single furlong.
But really, the only number you need to know is that 20,000 who jammed into Caulfield. They came because when Black Caviar lets down at the top of the straight, she is as unstoppable as a tsunami. It really is a thing to see.
Of course, the horse has her knockers. It wouldn’t be an Australian story without them. Poor old Simon O’Donnell nearly fell off his Channel Nine stool in frustration trying to howl them down. I’m with him. There is a time and place for tall poppy syndrome. Then there is a time and place to open your mouth and gawp in awe.
Inevitably, as Phar Lap and Takeover Target and many in between have done, Black Caviar is now overseas bound. She’ll have one or two more runs here, before targeting Royal Ascot in the British summer, possibly via a race date in Dubai.
Whether she wins or not hardly matters. Oh, we’d love her to show those uppity toffs a thing or two, but Black Caviar has already done much for racing here.
Typically, punters only love horses that make them a dollar or two. But no one but the connections have profited from Black Caviar. She is such a pronounced favourite every time she races, you can’t win anything. Her odds were $1.10 on the weekend – again. That means you’d have won just $1 for a $10 bet. This horse is not sustaining us through GFC II the way Phar Lap got a nation through the depression.
Ah, but occasionally, horse racing enriches the sport-loving masses in other ways. Banjo Paterson knew that. And he firmly believed that great horses know it too.
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