Champs and dream chasersBooks Entertainment
Outstanding ... Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime by Gerard Whateley.
I must confess that I wasn't eager to read this book. I have a horse-racing library of more than 100 books, but many are not worth reading - worth keeping and looking into, yes, but the writing in them is slapdash and utterly predictable.
I get from such books mere facts, when I would much prefer to read about that cliche they call the romance of the turf.
I borrowed the last nine words of the previous sentence from one of the best sports writers I've read. I've never met Les Carlyon, although we once exchanged brief letters. He doesn't know it, but during the years when we both went to the races every week, I would follow him at a distance for a few minutes if I saw him in the saddling paddock or near the mounting yard. I wasn't stalking him; I was just curious to learn whether he had some special way of observing horses, or people, or even scenery.
In his newspaper columns, he reported details that few people seemed to notice and feelings that many might have felt, but could not express.
I may seem to be wandering, but my mentioning Carlyon is relevant. I noticed when I first handled the book Black Caviar that it contained nearly 20 pages of notes and acknowledgments. Impressed, I began to read that section before I began the book proper. From the first paragraph I learnt that Carlyon was one of Gerard Whateley's boyhood heroes and that Whateley still cherishes an autographed copy of Carlyon's book Chasing a Dream, from which I quoted earlier.
The symmetry of this delighted me: the man who had once been inspired by a book about dream-chasers - that man had made his own dream come true by writing a book about a horse that was a dream come true for its owners.
But there was still more to please me in that first paragraph. ''Each year,'' Whateley writes, ''once the Melbourne Cup was run, I would turn to the next day's front page of The Age newspaper that would feature a photograph of the winner above the fold and the words of Les Carlyon below.
''Only then would I truly know how to feel and what it meant.''
I learnt from this that the author of the book in my hands not only loved racing as I loved it, but also got from good writing the sort of enhanced experience that I got from it. Until I read that paragraph, I had supposed I might struggle to write this review.
After I had read it, I put the whip away and prepared to coast to the line like Luke Nolen on Black Caviar.
As I write this paragraph I'm barely halfway through the book, but I've decided that Black Caviar is an outstanding book of its kind. And if anyone needs to be reminded, the book is not just about a racehorse but about people and their plans and dreams and fears.
I saw Black Caviar win her first four races before I left Melbourne to live elsewhere. She impressed me, but not overly so. I'm not a good judge of horses, but I've lived long enough to have seen many good horses hailed as champions for a season or two but no longer. After she had won the Newmarket Handicap in March 2011, I decided that Black Caviar was one of the few truly great horses of my lifetime. The greatest of those, so I've long believed, was Bernborough.
Black Caviar, carrying 58 kilos on a good track, beat 10 others in record time in the Newmarket of 2011. In the Newmarket of 1946, Bernborough carried nearly 63 kilos on a slow track against 26 others. His overall time was much slower than Black Caviar's, but with 300 metres to go he was in 17th place, and he was timed to run the last furlong (200 metres) in 10 seconds.
Few people take me seriously when I say that I've got more out of horse racing than from Shakespeare or Beethoven. Even fewer believe me when I argue for the existence of an afterlife on the grounds that we must, simply must, be able one day to properly compare the champions of different eras.
Surely, on some vast green racecourse in the Elysian Fields, on one of those incomparable autumn afternoons that settle over Melbourne in early March, we will one day watch the Newmarket of Newmarkets; we will rise to our feet as the field approaches the grandstands; and while Black Caviar is about to break clear, Bernborough, far back in the ruck, is about to make his move.
Gerald Murnane's most recent book is A History of Books (Giramondo).
BLACK CAVIAR: THE HORSE OF A LIFETIME