Every race is like a Cox Plate: trainer discusses the emotions Winx conjures
Stuart Riley in Melbourne hears what it's like to handle the wondermare
Winx is a superstar. You could go long into the night and not reach a consensus on Australia's best rugby player, cricketer or footy star, but everyone knows the nation's best horse.
It was not always obvious it would be Winx, however. Despite the fact she will attempt to win a record-breaking fourth Cox Plate at Moonee Valley on Saturday, she won just four of her first ten starts which, while good, did not suggest she would go unbeaten for her next 28 – and even her trainer Chris Waller had doubts.
“It looked like she had ability in her first few runs, but she wasn’t a big, strong horse and we thought 'you’re really going to struggle unless you grow and develop, and there’s a chance you won’t',” he says now, safe in the knowledge she did. “We actually stepped her up in distance to avoid the better three-year-old fillies and sent her to Queensland thinking it was her best chance to win a Group 1, as when she came back at four she’d likely struggle.”
She did win her Group 1 at Doomben, win number two of the sequence, but did not struggle thereafter. A light spring ended with her first Cox Plate victory, by four and three-quarter lengths in a track-record time. She then went back to Sydney and proved it was no fluke, rattling off four straight wins that culminated in the Group 1 Doncaster Handicap – her sixth win at the highest level. “That’s when I first said she was a champion,” says Waller.
However, Waller adds her elevation to global superstar status has brought unexpected difficulties. "It’s different," he says. "The first 12 months were very daunting as we were adapting to the expectations of people beyond the punter we dealt with every week. You’re also dealing with people’s opinions, from where does she fit in with the great horses, to people wanting to know what she’s doing every day of her life.
“We were a little bit guarded in that first stage because I hadn’t been in that situation before, the owners hadn’t either, and even Hugh Bowman, who is one of the world’s greatest riders, hadn’t been the pilot of one of the greatest. It’s been a learning curve for the lot of us, but we’ve realised the duty to pass on the message as to what Winx is like, and we’ve had to adapt to that.
“Since then it's been more a question of how do we stop people getting disappointed? How will she be perceived if she got beaten? Or if we pushed too far? All of those types of questions. And then you’ve got to shake yourself and say ‘hey, let’s not get too carried away, we’re still at the peak of her career’.
“If anything it’s got a little bit easier, as for the last 12 months we’ve been thinking more about the end, and life after Winx.”
Life after Winx is not here just yet and, luckily for Waller, if he ever does get anything wrong Winx possesses that get-out-of-jail free card to cover his blushes.
He says: “She must have ten per cent in reserve that other good horses don't have to pull through on days when we might not have quite had her right, where she potentially could have been beaten, as when we’ve gone one too many runs, or not prepared her well enough.”
That extra ten per cent was firmly on display on her last start in the Turnbull Stakes when winning her ninth consecutive Group 1. Winx came swooping through later than usual, but Waller's heart was no more in his mouth than on any of her other start, although that owes more to that always being the case when she runs, rather than him being an especially cool customer.
“It was the same as every other race, your heart's beating out of your chest because of the way she gets back in her races and because of who she is," he says. "What separates her from the best is when the pressure goes on, that's when she can show her dominance. In sprint races similar to her last start you’re aware she’s not going to win by big margins and it’s going to look a bit scary until you get to 200 metres out – that's when you’re just praying that the X-factor’s still there.”
The X-factor is certainly still there, and Waller famously can get quite emotional after her wins. But there is a good reason for that, and simply listening to him explain that winning feeling is emotional.
“The feeling after she wins is quite special,” he says. “It’s the relief when she hits the front. Everything’s stopping you from being excited on a raceday and every possible thought is going through your mind, and then at that 100-metre mark when she hits the front it’s like someone switches everything on and your emotions change instantly.
“That last 100 metres goes for five or six seconds and it’s a pretty special time as she’s not normally fighting out a finish, so you can enjoy it. You shake your head every time and just say ‘wow’. She continues to amaze us each and every time.”
Could an unprecedented fourth victory in Australia's premier weight-for-age race on Saturday tip him over the edge? “I’m starting to get emotional just thinking about it, so that’s not a good sign for Saturday!” he says with a croak in his voice.
But Winx's celebrity has had a bizarre effect on Waller and rather than the Cox Plate taking on extra significance, it has made every race she runs feel like a Cox Plate. “The thing with Winx is every race is so important, there’s so much pressure,” he says.
“Because she’s beyond a racing horse, she’s now a general public horse, a lot of people don’t really understand the difference of a Cox Plate, they just see Winx in a race and she’s won all these races in a row, so they might turn the telly on or pick up the Sunday paper to see if she won again.
“So it’s almost like every one of her races is a Cox Plate.”
Winx really is the people's horse but Waller readily admits it may not be until her career is over that he fully appreciates the sheer size and scale of her following. He may get a sense of it if she wins on Saturday, however, as many believe victory will rubberstamp her status as the greatest horse in Australian history.
Waller may be diplomatic enough to make the case as to why the likes of Phar Lap and the unbeaten Black Caviar deserve to be ranked alongside her, but a fourth Cox Plate would settle any debate and put her in a league of her own.
Just how close did the Winx camp come to visiting Royal Ascot?
Everyone in Europe wanted Winx to travel to Royal Ascot, not just for the chance to witness her in the flesh, but to see how she compared. But how close were they to coming? “We didn’t get that close,” says Waller.
Explaining why, he adds: “We get as many horses as anyone coming from the UK, so I see with each and every one how hard they struggle with the change of climate. She was expected to go there, fly the flag for Australia, and then come back to win a Cox Plate. She has to be at 100 per cent to win both – if she’s not 100 per cent, the flag flies at half mast.
“People might acknowledge the trip was too hard, but they won’t say that’s the reason she got beat, so that made it very hard to travel, especially with all the unknowns.
"We've had [European] horses come down for the Carnival who were stuck on a plane for 35 hours – it’s not really the way to treat the world champ.”
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