Earlier today I watched as the aptly named Black Caviar won her sixteenth straight race, and her seventh Group One win. Yeah, so what, you might well rhetorically ask, there is always going to be some champion horse/dog/human/whatever popping up and standing out, what makes this so remarkable?
Well it isn't the facts, that's for sure. The facts are rightly impressive, certainly; she's beaten very good horses, consistently, carrying large weights in handicaps, and in pretty much all her recent streak she's won by a very large margin. Even in the notoriously cynical 'there's-always-someone-whining-that-this-horse-isn't-a-patch-on-so-and-so' world of Australian thoroughbred fanciers and punters it's virtually uncontroversial to claim she is very much the best racehorse in the world right now. Today's odds in the Group One Patinack Farm Classic at Flemington were $1.03. Yep, the bookies would only pay you 3 cents for each dollar you risked.
Watching her outwardly unremarkable win today though I had one of those literal visceral feelings. I felt that hollow sensation we associate sometimes with awe, or fear, or anticipation in my solar plexus, spreading out and down throughout my abdomen. Yet it was not an exciting race. It didn't even have a turn, being 1200 metres down the famous Flemington straight. They jumped from the barriers in a nice line, Black Caviar settling easily second, there was no jostle or hustle at any point, and come the 400 metre mark regular jockey Luke Nolen let her proceed at her own pace. Thus, by the 300 metre mark she had cantered out to a 3 length lead. Then she just relaxedly motored home as the horses going flat-out behind all fought it out for the minor placings. I can't remember now who took second and third but they were good horses all. I realised afterwards, as she was winding down to turn around and trot back up to scale, what it was that was missing in the race. She never actually galloped. She seemed to just canter along, and then canter a bit quicker. Amazing.
Commentator and former champion jockey Simon Marshall (whose quip I have lifted for the title of this post, thank you Simon) said something very telling today about her. He related what her trainers and riders have all noted - that when you ride her in work or in a race, you never have to "ask her to go" - referring to that moment when a jockey urges a horse to speed up - it rather being a matter of "letting her go". She knows. She has decided luckily to allow her riders to ask her at times "not to go".
It's not the facts, it's the way she goes about her life and vocation. If you're the sort of person who sees racehorses as simply livestock used by man for competition then you've not even bothered to read this far into what is clearly shaping up to be some sort of ode. I know that horses are just as individual, embodied with personality, smarts, feelings and some......other sense that we humans recognise as sharing too. Maybe you'd call it a spirituality. There's a quality that racing aficionados refer to known as 'class', and that is related as well. It means something akin to gutsiness, the will to strive and get in front, the thing that in humans we think of as 'digging deep' to push ourselves to go further, faster, to respond to pressure with greater effort - to conjure something special. And what we have here in Black Caviar is an outlier in all these ways, not just sheer speed.
She's a large mare at 16.2 hands, and covers a furlong in nine strides, as opposed to the average eleven. They're facts, and yes, impressive, like the weight a bodybuilder can bench-press. But we're talking about something much deeper here. It's not the facts that gather the crowds who throng racecourses to see her run, who make costumes and wear masks in her colours (black spots on a salmon background) or fuel the mad cheering as she runs home first with ease. So many of the bets placed today on track will never be collected, not because it's a bit silly to get your 3 cents from a dollar bet, but so that someone has a souvenir betting ticket; proof they were there on that day. We don't cheer champions because of the facts of their winning - we cheer them because they touch us in some deep way.
And horses like this one reach across the species barrier that much more easily I think by dint of their extreme power of 'person'. I'm not saying she's closer to human, or more intelligent or anything along those lines, I'm saying she's charismatic, like some elite human athletes are (and like some strive to be but aren't, not for want of trying; I'm looking at you for example, Usain Bolt). We feel the resonance within us, if we pay attention.
Most people in modern western society have lost their level of comfort around horse. We don't live with them every day like we used to only a couple of generations ago. Every child at the start of the 20th century, even in a crowded city, would know the basics of safe horse sense, and be able at a glance to understand what a horse is saying to us. That's because they'd have seen horses in the flesh every day, just like you might see a dog or cat for example.
In Black Caviar what we're seeing is a horse whose sheer purity of archetypal horse-ness, almost as if she's a perfect avatar of the ur-horse made flesh, gets through the coldness of that distance. Her animus vibrates that magnificent emotional receptor (and some say transmitter) system we share with equus caballus, the enteric nervous system, in a deeper and more easily noticeable way than other horses, even great ones. Everyone is programmed to respond, biologically, to the sound and feel of a bunch of horses thundering past, it's in our blood, but Black Caviar makes horse felt on a different plane entirely.
I'm comfortable with horse, I have always had a good relationship generally with most horses. I think I was lucky to have had a great horse train me in the way they communicate and what is important in life to them. But I'm not special. Anyone can share this experience, and I hope one day you get to stand in the presence of one such outstanding creature. She's supposedly coming to Perth in a few weeks, and we plan on going down to see her. To see her win, easily, most likely, but mainly to pay our respects. To thank her for incarnating, for choosing to live with us as an exemplar and ambassador of that thing we need, that we constantly seem in danger of losing, one of the most brightly coloured yet ancient connecting threads that bind us with our own natural history and species selves, the thing that is horse. Words will fail to describe or articulate it, I know, and even cross-species communication legends like Monty Roberts or Temple Grandin or Linda Kohanov have not yet fully managed to do it justice. I suppose because it is just one of those things. The spirit kind. That immeasurable energy transaction.
Or what Bruce McAvaney might call, simply - ....."Special."