Black Caviar’s first race outside Australia turned into a piece of astonishing drama that thrilled 77,000 people here and millions around the world, leaving only her jockey, Luke Nolen, ashen and full of regret. The 32-year-old brought his mount within inches of a first defeat through a shocking mistake, allowing her to coast unaided through the last 100 yards, so that she was almost caught by two fast-finishing rivals, winning by ahead.
“I didn’t misjudge the winning post,” he said, moments after dismounting, though that was surely what it looked like to the sellout crowd in the stands and to the thousands who packed Melbourne’s Federation Square to watch their local hero on a big screen at 1 am on a winter’s night.
In the weeks leading up to the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, those close to the mare radiated confidence, dismissing many inventive suggestions about what could go wrong, but the unthinkable was nearly brought about by the mundane means of pilot error.
Peter Moody, Black Caviar’s trainer, has a robust approach to life and gave not a hint that he was in the least upset about what had happened.
“You’ve only got to win by a quarter of an inch,” he said, his cheerfulness a counterpoint to the hunted look on his jockey’s face. “We’ve got the job done.”
At the end of a short television interview, there was such a rush of reporters towards Nolen that he was knocked sideways, protesting plaintively. Surrounded by a circle four deep, he accepted responsibility for what happened, struggling at times to express his thoughts.
“I just thought I could coast,” he said. “Because it was gruelling, she stopped. She’s a relaxed mare and that was an error that every apprentice is taught not to do and I got away with it. I just let her idle at the finish and maybe the big engine just shut itself down. I duly shit myself. It’s quite unfortunate because it’s going to overshadow what was a very good win. They’re going to talk more about my brain fade than the horse’s fantastic effort.”
Asked if he would eventually be able to look back on the victory with relish, he replied: “Oh, look, I will. We won. It doesn’t matter does it?”
Even he was not convinced by that. “I should be elated and over the moon but I’m just still kicking myself a bit.”
Had he made such an error in his home country, Nolen would have been relieved of the need to kick himself, as the stewards would happily do it for him. Under the strict rules of Australian racing, a jockey who comes so close to losing a major race through failing to ride out to the line can expect severe punishment. Australian reporters here estimated he would have been fined his share of the prize money and suspended for a week or two, the suspension extending to a number of months if the blunder led to avoidable defeat. It is an approach that any punter would cheer for, though it seems that even a jockey raised under such a regime can still get it wrong.
Nolen can expect a range of reactions, from the unqualified sympathy of Frankie Dettori, who enveloped him in a hug as he was marched by an official towards the post-race press conference, to predictable venom from some of those prepared to bet large amounts at 1-6. But Black Caviar must have won herself a large number of new fans through this display of toughness in unfavourable circumstances.