What sport does to us

I love sport for the emotions and reactions it evokes in us.

Like many others, I watched Black Caviar’s heart-stopping win early Sunday morning from my lounge room. It was too cold for Fed Square.

Television is best when you can actually feel the tension coming through the screen. This was definitely the case from Ascot.

Pre-race, Luke Nolen was calm and composed in the jockeys’ room. But when he sat aboard Black Caviar in the barriers, he had the look of a man suddenly slapped in the face with the enormity and responsibility of the occasion. He was like the father of the bride, petrified of public speaking, about to address a room full of guests. The long wait was over; it was time. A nation was looking to him.

The handler was ruffling Black Caviar’s mane, the jockey beside him was offering advice and the next jockey along was falling off the back of his horse. All eyes and smart phones were on Nolen and his wonder horse. He was a man craving calm amidst the chaos.

When they jumped, the field settled around Black Caviar like she was the pied piper. She found her stride and with two furlongs left, they went down the dip and entered the course proper. Nolen shook the reins, something very rarely needed in her previous 21 starts.

With a furlong left and the crowd and commentators in frenzy, Nolen seemed in control. But this is sport and there was always going to be drama. We were too complacent and the sporting gods hate hubris. Will we ever learn there is no such thing as a certainty?

Up the hill towards the line, Nolen dropped his hands. Unused to such an undulating course, the big mare backed off, or perhaps she hit the wall. From the inside two horses loomed, their jockeys swinging like left arm Chinamen. Nolen either saw them or sensed their presence. He flicked the reins again, the champ responded, and got home by a nose from Moonlight Cloud. Callers and the normally staid Ascot crowd were beside themselves, first through fear she had lost, then relief.

Nolen received the fright of his life. Post race, he looked like he’d seen a ghost. Or escaped the gallows. His career had flashed past the corner of his eye and he’d barely avoided his own Shane Kelly moment and entering Australian sporting legend for the wrong reason.

Trainer Peter Moody watched from inside the track and behind protective dark glasses. Humble and understated, Moody is the type of Australian we want the rest of the world to think we all are. He’s like the reliable plumber who arrives on time, shares a coffee and a yarn in the kitchen when the job’s done and doesn’t commit daylight robbery on the way out the door.

Moody didn’t want to bring Black Caviar to Ascot. He knew she had nothing to gain and everything to lose. He did it for the owners and so the world and the Queen could see her.

At the All Clear, his hulking frame slumped into the arms of an owner. A few minutes later, with a slight shake of the head and blow of the cheeks, Moody said with customary modesty, ‘She got the job done’.

The great mare returned to scale, doffed her hat at the Queen and wondered what the fuss was about.

Meanwhile, alone in the lounge, the baby and Linda sleeping in the next room, I was screaming two furlongs from home: ‘Go girl! Go girl!’ When it was all over, shaking and breathless, I sent texts around the world. To Handsome Joe in Hong Kong Airport, enroute to Oz, panicking because the TV call was in Chinese. To Katie Sadler, daughter of trainer John, delirious trackside at Ascot. Like Luke Nolen, we had received the fright of our lives.

That’s what sport does to us.


  1. Pete Anthonisz says

    Well said, a perfect encapsulation! It was a worthy ‘where were you when’ moment that will be recounted for decades to those too young to have experienced it for themselves. But there’s no better finish then a dramatic nailbiter, and that was as good as it gets! For selfish reasons, I hope she runs once more this Spring, so we can give her a champions farewell

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