Donn's Articles » Christmas in June

Christmas in June

Black Caviar arrived at Heathrow Airport late on Thursday afternoon, her progress from Melbourne to Singapore to Sharjah to London charted by the racing media as a child on Christmas Eve charts progress on That’s Black Caviar for you: Santa Claus in the middle of June.

It is difficult for us mere Northern Hemisphereans to appreciate the enormity of the phenomenon that Black Caviar is Down Under. She has her own official fansite, with over 20,000 Likes on Facebook and 11,000 followers on Twitter.

When she races in Australia, fans flock to see her like they flock to see football teams in this part of the world. When she won the Australia Stakes at Moonee Valley last January, the queues at the gates were so long that the decision was taken to open them up and allow an estimated 15,000 people in free of charge. When she won the Goodwood at Morphettville last month, 30,000 patrons packed into enclosures that usually cater for 5,000.

Black Caviar has raced 21 times and she has won 21 times, 11 times in Group 1 company, seven times in Group 2. Not only has she never been beaten, but she has never looked in danger, justifying odds of 1/10 or shorter in each of her last eight races (1/20 in four of her last five). She has won over all trips from five furlongs to seven furlongs, under three different riders, 12 times by three lengths or more, and always without appearing to exert herself unduly. She is the best sprinter in the world, and she is set to make her European debut in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot on 23rd June.

The jettisoning of Black Caviar into the European fray only serves to put the cherry on top of the icing that tops the flat racing cake this season. In Frankel, there was already an incumbent superstar. Prince Khalid Abdullah’s horse is not unbeaten in 21 races, but that is only because he hasn’t run in 21 races. He has run in 10, though, and he has won all 10.

Winner of the Dewhurst as a juvenile, winner of the 2000 Guineas and the St James’s Palace Stakes last year against his fellow three-year-olds before he took on his elders in the Sussex Stakes and the QEII and beat them, Frankel looked as good as ever in winning the Lockinge Stakes on his debut this term. Actually, he looked better than ever.

He may have put just another two or three thousand on the gate at Newbury on Lockinge Stakes day – positively pauperish in comparison to Black Caviar-mania – but in beating Excelebration by five lengths, unextended, he probably put up the best performance of his career.

Ominously, both before and after the race, his trainer Sir Henry Cecil said that the Galileo colt would improve for the run. He could find another two or three lengths, Cecil said during the week, and – assuming the master of Warren Place wasn’t toying with us – that is a scary prospect.

Talk of a match between Black Caviar and Frankel gathered pace last month, such was their pre-eminence in their respective hemispheres. The original plan was for Black Caviar to run in the Diamond Jubilee, then stick around for the July Cup at Newmarket. Qipco, sponsors of, among other ventures, the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on 1st August, dangled a £1 million carrot in front of their race in the event that Frankel and Black Caviar both lined up.

It was never a realistic possibility, however. Neither Goodwood’s undulations nor the one-mile distance of the Sussex Stakes were ever going to be in Black Caviar’s favour nor on trainer Peter Moody’s radar, and now the plan is apparently for the mare to high-tail it back to Oz at the end of this month with the Diamond Jubilee in her swag bag and her flag unfurled on top of the European summit.

There is no telling how high Camelot’s flag can fly. The fact that the Ballydoyle colt was sent off at 1/3 for his maiden on his racecourse debut at Leopardstown last July provides an indication of how highly he was regarded at home before he was ever unveiled to the public. Sent off at odds-on for the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy with just that maiden win under his belt, his backers that day at Doncaster never had a moment’s worry.

Two runs this year, two wins. A 2000 Guineas and last Saturday’s historic Epsom Derby, just the second horse since Nashwan in 1989 to complete the Guineas/Derby double and now on track to bid to become the first horse since Nijinsky in 1970 to complete the Triple Crown by adding the St Leger on 15th September.

Just like Frankel and Black Caviar, there is no knowing how deeply Camelot’s talent runs. Of course, he hasn’t achieved as much as his two elders yet, but that is due to a lack of time, a lack of opportunity, not a lack of talent. The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt has had time to win just four races, but three of those were Group 1 contests and two of them were Classics. Also, just as importantly, he has lost none, and that means that you can’t put a marker yet on the limit of his ability.

Any one of this triumvirate would light up any season, but to have the three of them around at the same time makes this an unusual year. It means that would-be headline acts like So You Think, St Nicholas Abbey, Cirrus Des Aigles and Fame And Glory, top class performers, multiple Group 1 winners all, may have to occupy the sub-headings this term, and that gives a depth to the 2012 season that is unprecedented in recent times.

The unfailing fashion that was the retirement of the top racehorses to the breeding shed at the end of the season is no more. Of course, it still happens. Sea The Stars hung up his racing shoes after he won the 2009 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Dream Ahead was retired to stand at Ballylinch Stud after he beat Goldikova in the Prix de la Foret last October, but it is not now the accepted norm that it was until very recently.

Of the top five Timeform-rated three-year-olds from last year, four are racing this year. Only Dream Ahead has been retired. Of the top five Timeform-rated older horses in 2011, three are racing this year (admittedly including Cirrus Des Aigles, who is a gelding), one (Rewilding) was unfortunately killed, and just one (Canford Cliffs) has been retired to stud.

It would have been easy for Prince Khalid Abdullah to have retired Frankel to Banstead Manor at the end of last season under the nothing-left-to-prove clause. John Magnier could have retired Excelebration, or taken St Nicholas Abbey down the road from Ballydoyle to Coolmore, or he could have already sent So You Think to the Hunter Valley in Australia. Sheikh Fahad could have decided to draw racing stumps with Strong Suit after the Breeders’ Cup Mile last November. But he didn’t.

The desire to race among some of the top owners appears to be stronger in the face of the fear of defeat than it has been for years, and that is to the huge benefit of racing in the medium term. In the shorter term, it means that we are just one-third of the way through what promises to be an intriguing 2012 season.

Christmas time for racing fans.

© The Sunday Times, 10th June 2012