Pressure. It’s a funny thing. We’ve all experienced it, in one form or another, in our working lives. Some deal with it better than others. For sportsmen and women, what marks out the best from the rest is their ability to handle pressure on the big stage, when the eyes of the world are on them.
One could point to the performances of Italy’s Mario Balotelli and England’s Ashley Cole in the recent penalty shoot-out between their two teams as examples of how professionals can either sink or swim when the heat is on, however within a racing context, jockeys Joseph O’Brien and Luke Nolen will suffice.
Both had to deliver on showpiece days in June aboard a hot favourite, O’Brien at Epsom and Nolen at Royal Ascot. While O’Brien delivered a mature performance that belied his tender years when guiding Camelot to an admittedly easy success in the Derby, his Australian counterpart almost succumbed to the pressure of trying to preserve Black Caviar’s unbeaten record in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
Quite what went through Nolen’s head as he decided to stop pushing the crack sprinter and let her coast home, just as two French-trained fillies were bearing down in the drive for the line, only he will know. And perhaps he doesn’t know either. There are a number of words that could describe his ride, but ‘inexplicable’ is probably the most printable.
Despite the photo finish going in his favour – owing considerably more to luck than judgement – Nolen had the look of a condemned man about to be sent before a firing squad as he was led into Ascot’s media centre following the Group 1 sprint.
As it turned out, the assembled journalists, snarling and excited like a pack of wolves ready to disembowel a frightened fawn, were not permitted to ask any questions. The diminutive Aussie, who would have preferred to keep shtum, realised his plight and admitted his guilt in the race that stopped nations.
Peter Moody, Black Caviar’s trainer, claimed his mare wasn’t her usual self in the race and that he had concerns about the way she was travelling with fully half a mile to run. “Today you saw her at her lowest ebb,” he said. Although that comment could be construed as somewhat disrespectful by the connections of Moonlight Cloud and Restiadargent, perhaps it’s true.
Yet if his jockey had coped better with the pressure of the situation, the watching masses would have been celebrating a decisive victory, for she was clearly the best horse in the race, rather than been left contemplating the possibility of an unlikely and unforeseen defeat.
Undoubtedly both trainer and jockey will be delighted to jump on a plane back to Australia as soon as possible. Like their four-legged travelling companion, whose winter coat was at odds with her northern hemisphere rivals, neither has thrived in the British climate and the familiarity of home must seem a tempting prospect.
The much-debated match-up with Frankel, whose sublime performance in the Queen Anne Stakes demanded calls for a step up (or down, depending on who you listened to) in trip, so that he could be seriously tested on a racecourse, now seems as far away as ever, although it was perhaps only ever a pipedream.
The other standout moments at this year’s royal meeting were provided by the landlady – Her Majesty to you and me – who saw her famous silks carried to victory in the Queen’s Vase aboard the Aga Khan-bred Estimate, and Frankie Dettori, who threw everything at Colour Vision to get him past fellow Godolphin representative Opinion Poll in the Gold Cup.
At the Gold Cup’s subsequent stewards’ enquiry, which was broadcast live on the BBC, the impeded runner-up’s jockey, Mickael Barzalona, said nothing. As Mr Nolen would no doubt testify, sometimes silence is golden.