Racing

During an unprecedented period of scandal in Australian racing, one horse carried on her back the hopes and dreams of a sport-obsessed nation. By Matt Stewart.

The Winx effect

Hugh Bowman aboard Winx after her fourth Cox Plate win last October.
Credit: AAP Image / Julian Smith

There are abundant examples of Winx and her remarkable reach. Just last week, she appeared in the glossy pages of Vogue Australia, perhaps the perfect 530-kilogram role model, with that lovable long face and lumpy knees that prove beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

She has been a Sunday regular on Weekend Sunrise, slotted between sombre hard-news stories of shootings and car crashes, standing beautiful and alert the morning after smashing her rivals on the racetrack, where she always stalked from behind.

Winx has been more “merched’’ than any horse or human in horse-racing history. On golf courses, you will see blokes whacking balls in Winx caps. I grabbed one last Saturday from the TAB marquee at Randwick and presented it to my father on Sunday. He clasped it the same way he years earlier held a cricket bat signed by Don Bradman.

Trawling Twitter on Saturday afternoon, this cute example of the “Winx effect” caught my eye. It was tweeted by a bloke ed Nick the day Winx’s breathtaking career was celebrated at Royal Randwick Racecourse – renamed Royal RandWinx for the day – with a thunderous farewell show, with bursting blue streamers and a blast of Tina Turner.

It read:

Want to know the power of #Winx? A few hundred people in little Geurie [in central-western NSW] for a rugby match against rivals Wellington. Two teams stopped warming up and the ground announcer played the call of the race over the speakers while the whole crowd stopped, listened, and cheered. Amazing. #GoWinx

Last Saturday, where “Simply the Best’’ thumped throughout a course that was a sea of blue Winx caps and flags as jockey Hugh Bowman trotted the great, victorious hero the length of the home straight, there would have been hundreds of similar Winx stories. Her swan song came after a relentless five-year progression. By the end, she’d bumped the immovable object, Phar Lap.

My ex-wife didn’t enjoy the races, believing punting was a good way to ransack a sensible household budget, but she rang on Saturday night and said Winx’s final win, in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, had brought her to tears.

My niece, who lives in Alice Springs and has a brown-and-white pony named Chickpea, was gobsmacked by my little amateur video of Winx winning the QE, with Bowman standing and waving high in the stirrups as he trotted towards my hand-raised mobile phone.

“You were in the company of royalty!’’ she texted. This from a girl who doesn’t really like horse racing because the horses are whipped.

The build-up to this horse’s last race featured days of front-page stories from our major daily newspapers, especially in Sydney where horse racing has been on the skids for years. There was speculation about future matings, of Winx’s sons and daughters. Sadly, the story might end with Winx. Champion mares rarely produce talented offspring. No one is sure why.

For non-racing types, Winx became a big deal because Bruce McAvaney drew comparisons to legendary figures beyond racing and sport. Winx was in the company of “our Dawn” and “our Cathy’’.

To McAvaney, Winx and Bowman were the greatest Australian duo of all-time – greater than Lillee and Thompson, greater than Mike and Mal Leyland, greater than Roy and HG, greater than the Woodies, greater than a pie and sauce. He would describe the extraordinary chemistry of horse and rider and their pivotal role as counterbalance to racing’s always lurking bad-news stories.

The vast impact of Winx was possible mostly because of her longevity. She became a constant feel-good story. Four-straight wins in our greatest weight-for-age race, the Cox Plate, elevated her to the stratosphere, accompanied by a 33-race winning streak.

But some weren’t as convinced outside the bubble of Australian racing. British racing personality Matt Chapman dared suggest once or twice that Winx never beat a seriously good horse and, because she never raced overseas like Black Caviar, she came with an asterix.

But her far-away critics failed to grasp the legend of her longevity. Relentless racing and training chips away at minds and bodies. Good horses can have their hearts crushed by banging constantly into better ones.

Winx fronted up 43 times in five years, winning 37 races – 25 of them Group 1s. Frankel, Europe’s greatest, raced just 14 times.

Winx’s role as counterbalance was more important than most champions of the past because she raced for longer, during an unprecedented era of scandal.

Australian racing’s endless cobalt saga began in January 2015, when trainers Peter Moody, Danny O’Brien and Mark Kavanagh were informed of illegal readings to the banned treatment. In June that year, Winx came from last to win the Sunshine Coast Guineas, the first hint of what was to come. For the next three years there were cobalt penalties, appeals, counter-appeals. The three big-name trainers were cleared of serious charges but other cobalt positives popped up like mushrooms, and still are. Meanwhile, Winx kept winning.

Then came Aquanita Racing and its brazen race-day cheating, where damning text messages exposing years of doping were plastered through the Herald Sun. Then, appeals against lengthy disqualifications, and more headlines. Eminent horse trainers, such as Robert Smerdon, were run out of the sport for doping.

There was no bigger figure than Darren Weir, whose four-year disqualification in January followed the discovery of electrical “jiggers’’ at his stables. This disqualification, the most significant and damaging in racing history, came between Winx’s fourth Cox Plate and her farewell race at Randwick.

On Saturday morning, as the crowds began to pour into Randwick, running to find a “spot’’ on the front lawn, Racing NSW chief executive Peter V’landys said the challenge now was to capitalise on Winx. As for how, V’landys had no idea.

Racing’s bad-news stories have probably hitched a ride with Winx into the spotlight – the more focus on her, the more on racing itself. And the more focus on gambling, the more footage on whipping.

Against that, probably blurring it all out, has been the glorious image of Winx in full flight.

The greatest achievement of Peter Moody’s career was to gently cajole Black Caviar to 25 straight wins. His best piece of advice was delivered to “Nelly’s’’ jockey Luke Nolen. “You hit her, I hit you,’’ he said.

Racing isn’t the only sport that requires timely turbo-boosts. The sporting landscape is so cluttered that once “huge’’ sports, such as racing and golf, have become bit players.

About 3am on Monday, Tiger Woods won his fifth US Masters, 14 years after his fourth. Woods had skidded from view because of scandal and injury. A Sydney golf pro called John Walter, who is also a punter and jockey manager, was one of millions to tweet his elation after Woods landed that two-footer on the 18th at Augusta.

“What time does the driving range open?’’ he asked.

Golf might now have a resurgence. It’s trickier for racing because of its darker elements, but once in a blue moon something special comes along that sets it alight, then ambles off with its status intact.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "A nod for our Winx". Subscribe here.

Matt Stewart
is a former Herald Sun chief racing writer, now racing editor for Radio RSN.