Cool Hand Luke

Star pair: Luke Nolen and Black Caviar race to victory at the Patinack Farm Classic in November last year.
Star pair: Luke Nolen and Black Caviar race to victory at the Patinack Farm Classic in November last year.
Luke Nolen with son Dane, 3, and daughter Kailey, nine months.

Luke Nolen with son Dane, 3, and daughter Kailey, nine months.

GERALD EGAN is a horse whisperer from Mansfield and a jockey whisperer too. He tames both human and beast. Back in 1982, he trained the horses and rode them as a stunt double in The Man From Snowy River. Yet when he met Luke Nolen 15 years later, he had his work cut out. Nolen is one of Australia's premier jockeys. Good money says he's top six. He was the one who rode Black Caviar to 19 of her remarkable 22 consecutive wins, including the last at Ascot in England in June when he infamously eased the horse up before her narrow win. It was later revealed the magnificent mare was injured; she is now resting at Murchison.

This spring Nolen is the No. 1 rider for Black Caviar's trainer, Peter Moody, at Victoria's foremost racing stable, Moody Racing. He leads a fiercely disciplined life akin to being in the military - such are the rigours and restrictions of an elite jockey - and makes a lot of money. Competition is intense in Melbourne and he is among the best. But it wasn't always this way.

Nolen, 31, was a raw country kid, born in tiny Manangatang in the Mallee and raised a nomad between nearby Swan Hill and the Queensland bush towns of Jandowae and Dalby on the Darling Downs. His people were horse people and still are. His father, Vincent Nolen, known as ''Tal'' for his middle name of Talbot, is a trainer, former jockey and former rodeo bull-rider; brother Shaun has also been a jockey.

The family moved around a lot. ''Luke's father has a bit of gypsy in him, I reckon,'' says his mother, Margaret. Tal Nolen was forever chasing rural work interstate around horses or feedlots.

Nolen returned from Queensland to Egan's set-up on the outskirts of Mansfield as a teenager. He had first been on a pony at six months of age and because of his father had little choice but to make them his life.

He left St Mary's College in Dalby at 15 and started work around horses, gravitating towards riding. He was a desperately shy and skinny bush teenager when Egan met him after Tal Nolen phoned him and asked him to knock young Luke into shape.

Egan's job, as Nolen's ''master'', was to not only teach him horsemanship but how to speak up and communicate with people, an essential part of a jockey's work. A master is usually an experienced horse trainer who takes on apprentice jockeys and pays them to work but also gets a cut of their race winnings.

''His father brought him down with his bike and a swag on the back of a ute,'' recalls Egan, ''and we went inside and had a cuppa, and Luke wouldn't make eye contact for about a week. He was shy like a timid pup. That was the main thing he had to work on, to come out of his shell.''

On a horse, Egan says, Nolen was more than a natural in that he had an almost supernatural ability to calm a nervy mount, even as a teenager. Nolen duly set his young apprentice to work on his ''breakers'' - horses that had never been ridden. Nolen had some experience of this already, from his father.

After about nine months with Egan - living with him at first, then shifting into a flat in Mansfield with another jockey, and where Egan admits he sometimes used a battery-powered cattle prod to wake him up - Nolen began to race, just around the north-east of the state at first. As his master, Egan got 25 per cent of the winnings. Nolen was 16.

''Because of his laid-back nature, horses would go for him, they would never play up and buck. Just his relaxed way,'' says Egan. Even now and even when racing Black Caviar at her peak, Nolen could sleep well the night before, where other jockeys might be anxious.

ABC racecaller and Black Caviar's biographer Gerard Whateley, says Nolen is ''archetypal salt of the earth, no pretence, no bullshit'', who rides like he is, without fanfare or flourish. And also without flashy home-straight miracles because he never needs one.

Some of the other top jockeys getting around Flemington, Moonee Valley and Caulfield this spring are the rock-star types who drive European cars, have extravagant haircuts and play up to the crowd by saluting or pumping the air as they pass the winning post. Not Nolen. He is so humble that he is meek about his own abilities. He would rather withhold information than give it if that information gave the impression of him being anything other than just like everybody else.

''I might fall off if I pump my fist too much,'' he says. ''My first group 1 winner, I done it. Done it for the one and only winner for me dad, just a little pump. Did it for the third and fourth group 1 winners, too. That's all. The stars of the show are the things we are riding, not the blokes on top.''

Egan describe's Nolen's hands as his secret weapon. A jockey's hands hold the reins and the reins are attached to the bit in the mouth: the best of them, wrote Les Carlyon of old-school Sydney rider Peter Cook, steer their horses with ''gossamer threads''.

Nolen's hands are ''very soft'', says Egan, because he worked young horses and farm horses as a kid. Nolen got on his first pony at six months. He and his brother, wherever they lived, broke in the neighbours' errant horses.

''He is very balanced,'' says Egan. ''He can sit for hours on a two-inch rail like a bird.''

LUKE NOLEN has two nicknames. One is ''Cool Hand Luke'' and it refers to those hands of his. It was coined by veteran Sydney racecaller Johnny Tapp around 2006 when Nolen started winning group 1 races and it was becoming clear how good he was. The other is older - ''Trumby''. For a time it was also his car number plate. This one was given when he won a rodeo while with Egan in Mansfield, after the Slim Dusty song of the same name: ''he could rake and ride a twister, throw a rope and fancy plait …''

Egan says Nolen ''had his chest poked out all weekend'' after the rodeo but then he listened to the song and realised Trumby couldn't read or write. Yet it endured and has even been played over the Moonee Valley public address system when Nolen has won.

He lives in Frankston South with his wife, Alicia, and two young children, Dane, 3, and Kailey, 9 months. They are looking to move on to a hobby farm on the outskirts of Melbourne. His parents and brother now live in Benalla.

Nolen has now been a jockey for 15 years, a little more than half his life. After learning so much from Egan, he was apprenticed briefly at Flemington with trainer Brian Mayfield-Smith and then went out on his own, but struggled. Mentally, he wasn't up to it.

Former top jockey Simon Marshall says it took time for Nolen to get used to the great discipline required. ''He was a boy from the bush with his own ideas as a young lad before he understood the work ethic.''

He had won the Victoria Racing Club's apprentice of the year award and had begun to do well but then it got the better of him. He admitted later he was catching up on his youth and that he had begun to plan his rides around his social calendar - waterskiing and snowboarding - rather than vice versa.

In 2003, however, while he was living between northern Victoria and Melbourne, and often sleeping in his ute, he met both his future wife and Peter Moody, the trainer. Moody hired Nolen for two rides on a country track believing he was his brother Shaun. They have stuck together ever since, starting an extraordinary run in the 2009-10 season, when Nolen rode more than 130 winners and won his first Melbourne jockeys' premiership, awarded for the most city winners.

In 2011-12, he won the same premiership for the third year running, as well as the state's top riding medal for the second time. Nolen and Moody had nine group 1 wins, including five with Black Caviar, the mare he now describes as ''career-defining'' for him regardless of which horses the future brings.

''She makes the complex and the hard seem very simple and uncomplicated.'' he says. ''She has such a wonderful racing style. Great attitude. So uncomplicated. To be a small part of it has been remarkable.''

Marshall says Nolen's turnaround has also been remarkable. ''He came to realise this is a seven-days-a-week game. Riding for the most powerful stable in Victoria is a lot of pressure and tension. His mindset has to be 110 per cent on the job to perform at his best.''

American writer Damon Runyon called jockeys ''seven stone of larceny'', but while Nolen is rough and ready and smokes and swears, and has two tattoos, he's honest and true to a sport that attracts many who are not.

''His record will suggest he's arguably the best of his decade, '' says Marshall. ''If you are a punter and Luke Nolen is on the horse you like, you'll have no worries.''

HE CALLS it a lifestyle rather than a job and he's not wrong. Nolen gets up at 3.15am twice a week for trackwork at Moody's Caulfield stables. He'll race all weekend plus Christmas Day and New Year's Day, as well as during the week in Melbourne and regional Victorian racetracks.

If it's a night meeting at Moonee Valley, he might still be racing at 10pm. Horse racing has no understanding of things like public holidays and very early mornings.

But it's the weight issue which is more defining. A jockey's weight dictates his entire working life. Riders are given a weight to ride at according to how the horse is handicapped and they must adhere to it. Every week for most working jockeys involves episodes of drastic weight loss through dieting, starving, purging or sweating, or a combination of all four.

They risk potassium depletion, bulimia and bone damage because of their strange dietary restrictions. Some make themselves vomit when they have eaten or had a soft drink, a practice called ''flipping''.

Marshall's sweat glands, bones and vertebrae are damaged from his time as a jockey. Nolen sits at around 55 kilograms but in any given week may be required to lose three or more kilograms. He mainly does this in a supercharged spa at his home; the wooden cabin it is in has heaters and a television. Some days he has three 40-minute sessions in it and can lose 2.5 kilograms in that time.

''I do enjoy a beer,'' he says, ''that's why I have to sweat more. You reap what you sow. I'm Australian, whaddya gonna do? It doesn't come off as easy as it goes in, but there's nothing like a cold beer on a hot day. They are real bloody enjoyable, I'll give you the tip.

''You have to put your body through a little bit of mild torture to lose the weight. The family has to deal with the personality change. You've gotta enjoy life too, so have a feed when you can, have a beer when you can - as a consequence these problems start to raise their head about Tuesday the following week.''

He eats Lite 'n' Easy meals quite often. Usually, he'll eat only one meal a day. Sometimes that might only be a small can of tuna. He eats Japanese takeaway food quite often too: raw beef, sashimi, salmon. Alicia Nolen says he has a weakness for cheeseburgers and Nandos and, rather than setting out his meals, she acts as his conscience.

''It could be called nagging,'' she says, ''but I see it as reminding. He'll eat anything he can get his hands on. I give him what he wants but give him a hard time when he is working to get it off. He can be a little bit difficult to live with at those times when he is 'wasting' but we get over it pretty quick.''

Some jockeys find that driving in a hot car wearing lots of thick clothing helps them sweat and lose weight. Just before the grand final, Nolen used this method. He had to drive from Frankston South to Maribyrnong and back (to pick up his wife's footy tickets) and he did so wearing skivvies, Skins, pants, jackets, a shower cap and a beanie.

It can't be good for you. ''You've only got a small window of opportunity to make good money in this game,'' says Nolen. ''Make every post a winner. You're retired a long time.''

The top jockeys do well, especially at this time of year when prizemoney skyrockets in the premier races. All jockeys get paid a flat fee of around $170 a race - any race - but they get 5 per cent of all winnings. They are also unofficially slung bonuses by owners after good rides.

Still, the ''wasting'' is gruelling, the hours are cruel, the demands on family are great and it's one of the few jobs where you're followed around by an ambulance. A few years ago the Medical Journal of Australia cited jockeying as the second most dangerous job in the country behind commercial fishing. Nolen has had only one big fall, but it was a bad one, in Brisbane in 2008. He had been married for four months.

He was propelled under the falling horse and suffered a broken jaw, a fractured eye socket and broken bones under his right eye. His jaw was wired and plates put in his face. He had a small bruise on his brain, which subsided.

''It messed me up,'' he says.

Nolen's lowest ebb, however, was in June this year, when his ride on Black Caviar in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot almost went horribly wrong. The horse still won by a head, but the jockey copped criticism from the media almost immediately for easing her 50 metres from the line. It nearly caused Australia's greatest sprinter to suffer her first defeat.

Nolen was called - in English headlines - ''Flukey Lukey'' and the ''Blunder from Down Under'' who had somehow avoided a ''moment of Strewth''. He admitted his mistake. The horse had been injured - although no one knew about that until the next day.

''They give me a bit of a touch-up over it. I reckon there's still an Aussie-English slanging match over cricket or racing and all that,'' he said. ''Us against them. She still won, but I didn't enjoy it the whole time I was there. It was a hollow feeling.''

Today, Luke Nolen rides three times for trainer Peter Moody at Caulfield - on Mr Make Believe, Golden Archer and Dream Face. Next he rides the Phillip Stokes-trained Maybe Discreet in the Thousand Guineas at Caulfield on Wednesday. Next weekend, he's riding Lights Of Heaven for Moody in the Caulfield Cup.

The word out of the Moody stables is that Black Caviar might yet race again after being rested this season. She might - might - come back next autumn, all going well. She is a big horse and an injury-prone one. Yet she is the horse that will forever be linked with this unassuming champion jockey from the Mallee.

''She'll tell us if she's ready,'' the horseman says.

This story Cool Hand Luke first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.