Winx: Two-time Turnbull champion
She is the mare written into the history books and a national sporting idol. This year marks five years since Winx won the second of her two Turnbull Stakes at Flemington. With recent news that her foal by star stallion Pierro will be sold at next year’s Inglis Easter Yearling Sale, we take a look back at the champion’s magic moment at Flemington in 2017. We can only hope and wonder if her yearling filly will also one day be a part of history.
It wasn’t the best field she defeated, and certainly not the biggest. It was not her largest purse won, nor her greatest margin. But as 21st celebrations go, this would be remembered by all who bore witness to the occasion, and roared on its beloved star.
On October 7, 2017, a large and buzzing crowd thronged to Flemington, mostly to see one horse only: Winx, the wonder mare.
She’d won 20 races straight and was by now laying waste routinely to records and rivals, high-quality thoroughbreds unluckily born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet in all her 30 starts, Chris Waller’s champion – nothing much to look at, but by most reckonings the greatest racehorse in the world – hadn’t graced Australian racing’s grandest stage, this country’s oldest sporting venue.
Through 177 years since 1840, the mightiest of thoroughbreds had been hailed at the course by the old Salt Water River. Carbine, Phar Lap, Rising Fast, Tulloch, Makybe Diva and Black Caviar. Kingston Town had been there, but was four times vanquished.
Now Winx would take her bow. If she could win the Turnbull Stakes, she’d take another step toward eclipsing The King a second way, equalling his 14 Group 1 triumphs. After this would come the unthinkable – matching his three Cox Plates.
Her jockey Hugh Bowman would typically preview his other half’s keenly awaited appearances by cautioning that they were, after all, still horse races, so nothing could be taken for granted. But on this fine spring day she looked a certainty more than she had in any previous event.
For starters, there weren’t many of them. Watching the transcendent daughter of Street Cry had become a treat for the nation – racing cognoscenti and otherwise. Combatting her, however, was now a wholly unpalatable idea. Only two opponents were initially entered to run with her, or at least jump with her, in the half-million dollar race. It shaped as a repeat of her stroll in the three-horse Caulfield Stakes the previous spring, until a call-around rustled four more willing victims, of varying repute. With $10,000 on offer for finishing seventh, why not? Magicool leapt in on the back of a last of 10 in the Benalla Cup. Skyfire came from a fifth of seven in a Mornington benchmark-78.
And then there was her form – not the familiar equine shape which frightened many a rival with a menacing beauty, but the other kind: the Ws, the “picket fence” which by then could have ringed a mansion, let alone fronted a house. Now six, she’d won three this campaign. Though that included near calamity against Foxplay after missing the start in the Warwick Stakes – Bowman now recalls that period Winx at her most supreme.
“Personally, I think she was at her best in that 12-month period,” Bowman tells us. “I was pretty confident that day, to be honest.”
That confidence had been bolstered by Winx’s stunning yet effortless Flemington gallop the previous Monday – 21 seconds for her last 400m, much the same as when flying home in the Warwick Stakes. Trackwork clockers triple checked their stopwatches. “That’d be right,” Bowman nonchalantly told them.
“By that stage,” he says now, “We knew what to expect. As long as she was moving well and was fit, happy and healthy …”
Winx needed no help, but after the septet left the 2000m start by the river, she received it in spades. Magicool, at $201, flew to set a rapid pace, which only increased when Sir Isaac Newton pressed him at the 1400m. Bowman and Winx sat third last.
“She was so good to ride when the pace was on because she just travelled so comfortably. It was the slow races where I had to engage more into things,” Bowman says.
Engage? He barely moved. Under a hold Winx began hauling them in, from five lengths back at the 500 metre mark. Remarkably, that’s when the cheering began from the crowd at this 21st party. Bowman still didn’t budge, and Winx – blessed not with a long stride but an extraordinary ability to quicken it – cruised to the lead at the 380m. Finally, Bowman merely relaxed his grip at the 200m and she eased away, winning by 6.5 lengths from the two other original acceptors – Ventura Storm and Humidor.
“I could hear the crowd,” Bowman says. “They were waiting for me to let her go to really roar, so I knew what was on. She knew it too. She knew how good she was. I’d just release the handbrake and the crowd would roar and she’d go even more, responding to the people.”
Waller, as customary by then, hid in the weighing room to watch on TV but “put my head out to watch them go past at the 200” and beheld “an amazing display, really”.
“It looked great. The colour was fantastic – beautiful green grass and the surrounds at Flemington. She was there for the first time, but she looked at home,” says Waller, who concurs with Bowman’s view their appreciation of it all “embeds more deeply as the years go on”.
“It was actually a huge relief when she retired, because it was a demanding period,” Waller says. “We knew it was a privilege when we were involved, but we never really got to enjoy her wins like the public. It was just constant pressure – training, riding, being associated with such a good horse.
“The different perspective now is it’s helped me cope with pressure a lot better. She’s changed us as people, and it’s been an amazing experience.”
Like Bowman, who “still can’t get my head around the numbers”, like the 25 Group 1s and the 33 straight wins, Waller understands his good fortune.
“I’ve only been through all her replays a couple of times,” he says, “simply because it was so very deep and involved when she was racing. We’d relive every second of the race as it happened, let alone watching and reviewing later.
“I can certainly appreciate it now. You’ll see good horses, winning four or five in a row, winning a couple of Group 1s, but then see them get beaten. It’s not that they’re not good horses, it’s simply how hard it is to continue to achieve that level.
“Whether she was 100 per cent right on the day, or 90 per cent, regardless of track conditions, the opposition, or if it was early in the prep – she was simply invincible.”