Flemington Racecourse might be in the middle of a reconstruction, but that didn’t stop a crowd of more than 20,000 – double the usual – flocking to the track for the $500,000 Turnbull Stakes on October 7. They came for one thing, to see the wonder mare Winx, and she didn’t let them down, with a demolition of her own.
The masses gathered on the lawns, youngsters perched on parents’ shoulders, wearing blue and white Winx caps and waving giveaway Winx flags as caller Matt Hill celebrated the mare’s brilliant win with the line: “21 today on the biggest dance floor of all” – a recognition of the champion’s incredible 21-race winning sequence and the fact she was racing at Flemington for the first time.
Jockey Hugh Bowman threw his goggles into the waving crowd as Winx returned after the race along the “winner’s walk”, which will be splashed with colour when the famous roses are in bloom during Melbourne Cup week. It didn’t matter, as there were only eyes for Winx.
There have been bigger crowds and louder receptions, but few better performances than Winx produced. The fluidity of her movement and the way she ran by seasoned campaigners as if they were bush hacks is what made the crowd gasp. It’s awe-inspiring to witness an athlete at the peak of their powers, and that was Winx at Flemington as she warmed up for an historic third $3 million Cox Plate at Moonee Valley on October 28.
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As Black Caviar did only a few years ago, Winx has captured the imagination of the Australian public and, like Black Caviar was, is being feted to race in Europe.
During her 18-month winning streak, Winx has built a bank balance for her owners of $13,777,925 – just another Cox Plate win short of breaking Makybe Diva’s $14,526,685 Australian record. She has won 14 Group 1 races (Black Caviar’s Australian record is 15) and earned the title of the Champion Turf Horse in the world. In doing so, she has earned her place in the annals of Australian racing; to be mentioned in the same breath as Phar Lap, Carbine, Tulloch, Kingston Town and Black Caviar.
The Winx story began six years ago on a chilly morning at the famed Coolmore Stud in the Hunter Valley. There at her birth was stud manager Peter O’Brien, who is adamant that, breeding and ability aside, trainer Chris Waller is the reason the mare is as good as she is.
“If she had gone to any other trainer other than Chris Waller, I doubt we’d be talking about her as we are now,” Peter says. He says that, right from the time she was a foal, Winx showed she was going to be a late maturer. Chris, with his patient and careful training regime, gave Winx the time to “grow into herself”.
Peter happened to be at Winx’s birth by chance. He had bought the champion’s mother, Vegas Showgirl, for Sydney businessman John Camilleri for $455,000 at the 2008 Magic Millions National Sale. “Vegas Showgirl foaled at 9.30 in the morning and we were doing our vetting nearby at the time, so there were quite a few of us there at the birth,” he recalls.
The birth itself was uneventful, although Peter recalls that Winx, despite being all legs like a young giraffe, showed a strength and tenacity rarely seen in newborns. “She was on her feet in 10 minutes, which is unique (foals usually take almost an hour to stand and nurse),” he says. “Apart from that there was nothing unusual about her, except that she was very leggy and quite refined.”
Within a couple of months, Vegas Showgirl and her filly foal were sharing one of the big paddocks at Coolmore, knee deep in lush, irrigated grass. It was then that the filly started to show the independent nature that trainer Chris Waller says sets her apart in his Rosehill stable.
“She was always an independent foal, leaving her mother’s side to run around and explore,” Peter says. “She was leggy, light and elegant, but she had a frame (to grow into) and her (good) temperament stood out.”
Winx next found herself on the buying list of Chris’ bloodstock agent Guy Mulcaster, who was acting for clients Peter and Patty Tighe and their partners Debbie Kepitis and Richard Treweeke. The partnership had a strict budget and felt the Vegas Showgirl filly was the one likely to fit into their price range. She did, only just; Peter Tighe signed the bill of sale for $230,000.
The Tighes, who run a fruit and vegie wholesalers, had owned horses for 20 years, mainly with Gold Coast trainer Alan Bailey, but more recently with Chris Waller. Sydney retiree Richard Treweeke, a former Orange grazier, now 85, has raced horses for nearly half a century. He rarely gets to see them race – even Winx – as he suffers from vertigo. Sydney-based Debbie Kepitis is no stranger to champions. Her father, Bob Ingham, raced many great horses, including the 1990s champion Octagonal, and his equally famous son, Lonhro.
The owners’ incredible winning streak began on May 16, 2015, when Winx won the group 3 Sunshine Coast Guineas at Caloundra. These days, they like to deflect some of the race-day attention from Chris Waller, to allow the trainer to get about and do his job.
“We like it (the success) for him as much as we do for the horse,” Peter Tighe says. “He’s put in all the time and effort and planning.”
Chris is an emotional man, and tearing up after a big race win has become something of a trademark. But he seems more in awe of Winx than emotional. He and Hugh Bowman often use the word “privilege” in interviews about the star mare.
Chris says he just wants Winx to be treated as a normal horse at his stables. “She likes to be left alone, not fussed about, and we allow her to have her own time and space,” he says.
But he also knows that when Winx gets to the races, life is anything but normal for her. TV cameras follow her every movement; from stepping off the float to enjoying a rub down in the wash bay. Crowds gather 10-deep outside her stall and adoringly follow her every step, sometimes reaching across for a pat or a sample of her tail. It’s a testing time for everyone concerned.
However, Winx’s regular strapper Umut Odem is rarely far from her side and the race routine is kept as simple and as familiar as possible. Chris uses ear muffs to lessen the impact of the race day noise and the leggy mare takes it in her stride.
Does she know she’s good? Her trainer seems to think so, and so too does Hugh Bowman, who has ridden Winx 22 times for 21 wins. He feels her reacting to the crowd as she walks on to the track, but also feels her enormous strength and professionalism as she moves into stride when she takes off at a leisurely gallop to the barriers. That’s when jockey and horse become one.
After the champion’s first Flemington win, Hugh summed up the Winx phenomenon perfectly. “It’s such a dream to be part of,” he says. “Every time she goes onto the track, she is rewriting history, and to be part of that is a great honour. For everyone involved – the team, the owners and our families – we are all here for the ride and it’s due to this wonderful thoroughbred.”