The supreme racehorse who is Australia's Wonder Woman
Nicholas Godfrey tells the tale of a mighty mare with a famous winning streak
Just what is it about these international fillies? America had Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, Australia had Black Caviar, queens of the turf indeed. Everybody loves them. Now another mighty mare has been taken to the hearts of the adoring public down under and beyond in the shape of Winx, the seemingly invincible Wonder Woman of the sport whose exploits in compiling a celebrated 21-race winning streak have so captivated a legion of fans.
We've got Enable in Europe but, while the racing world is clamouring for a match between two such formidable females, even the Arc winner's connections would surely admit she has some way to go to equal her Australian counterpart. Twice named Horse of the Year, Winx is the highest-rated turf performer in the world with a rating bettered only by US dirt star Arrogate – and he, unlike Winx, has failed to keep his recent record unblemished.
Run Winx over any surface, it seems, at virtually any distance under any sort of conditions in any style of race, and she wins: at seven furlongs to a mile and a quarter, giving weight away in handicaps or at weight-for-age, on heavy ground or much faster. It makes no difference, and her come-from-behind style of racing means it is also dramatic.
She's been favourite for her last 22 races, odds-on every time since her victory in October 2015 in the Cox Plate. On Saturday, she will bid to complete a hat-trick in Australasia's championship event; she won by eight lengths in 2016, when she was recording her ninth Group 1 victory. She's won five more at the top level since. "She's a superior racehorse," says her jockey Hugh Bowman. "It's just great honour to be a part of it."
Chris Waller, the thoughtful New Zealander who has risen to become Sydney's top trainer, is not a man given to superlatives, but even he knows he is involved in something pretty special. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever have thought I'd be responsible for the training of a horse people will talk about in years to come," he says. "It's still very surreal – maybe when she retires we'll get the chance to reflect, when we find out how hard it is to replace such a horse."
Foaled on September 14, 2011, Winx is the second foal of the mare Vegas Showgirl, a Listed winner in New Zealand who won seven of 35 starts. Her first foal, called Miss Atom Bomb, had a wind issue and never made it to the track; her third foal, named Win Win Raider, is unraced in Hong Kong.
In between came Winx, like Zenyatta a daughter of US stallion Street Cry. She was bred by businessman John Camilleri's Fairway Thoroughbreds and sold as a yearling for A$230,000 (about £150,000 at the time) at the 2013 Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling sale – as part of a Coolmore draft, the Irish behemoth acting as agent.
The purchasers were a partnership put together by Magic Bloodstock Racing, owned by Brisbane-based fruit-and-veg wholesaler Peter Tighe and his wife Patty. The others involved are Debbie and Paul Kepitis – as a scion of the powerful Ingham family dynasty, Debbie is described as "Australian racing royalty" – and Sydney friend Richard Treweeke.
Peter Tighe vividly recalls breaking the budget to buy Winx after she was picked out on their behalf by bloodstock agent Guy Mulcaster. "I actually did the bidding myself," he says. "We had a budget of up to A$200,000 but we'd missed out on a few others so I ended up stretching it to A$230,000 – with the blessing of the other owners. It was a tight finish – in the end it was that close that if they'd bid once more, they'd have got her."
Before Winx, the Tighes' only other high-profile performer was four-time Group 1 winner Preferment, also trained by Waller. "He was our first Group 1 winner in 20 years so he was very special," says Tighe. "Winx had won only one or two races at that stage – we hoped she be good but we had no idea she'd end up like she has."
Although Winx won the first three races of her career in the Magic Bloodstock colours (blue with a white 'M'), she did not really start to look anything out of the ordinary until the end of her three-year-old campaign, when she began her sensational winning spree with her final two starts, including her first Group 1 success in the Queensland Oaks. "We were running out of time to do something as a three-year-old and we were in limbo a little bit," says Tighe. "We weren't sure if she was a stayer or a middle-distance filly."
She had suffered a string of defeats – six in seven starts, in fact. Waller reflects: "She did win her first three races but her three-year-old year was distinguished by getting beaten a number of times so we targeted a lesser Group 1 race in Queensland and she managed to win that. Her confidence levels seemed to grow further and further from there."
Winx's first major target at four was the prestigious Epsom Handicap in October 2015 at Randwick in Sydney, one of those lavishly endowed Group 1 handicaps the Aussies do so well. She won, in the sort of manner to which her fans have become accustomed: overcoming adversity, this time with a troubled passage, to overwhelm her rivals close home courtesy of a withering late charge down the straight under an ice-cool Bowman.
"She drew an outside barrier and almost fell at a vital part of the race," says Waller, who is 43. "But she picked herself up and still won by a wide margin. It showed we had a star, but not the bright shining star we have now. Even after the Epsom Handicap I don't think anybody if they followed her first ten races would've ever expected her to be what she is now."
Next up came her first Cox Plate, which Waller suggests was pretty much an afterthought, despite Winx having carried more weight to victory at Randwick than any other Epsom Handicap-winning filly. "That looked a logical race for her but it's not a great form race for the Cox Plate," explains the trainer. "We really only put her in there as an off chance,"
Maybe so, but Winx still started favourite, as she always does. Dropped in by Bowman, she breezed up the inside on the final bend and won easily by nearly five lengths over four-time Group 1 winner Criterion with renowned Irish globetrotter Highland Reel further back in third. For good measure, she also broke the Moonee Valley track record.
After a three-and-a-half-month break, Winx carried on where she left off as she returned to Sydney for the autumn and rattled off four more victories, rounding off her campaign by defying top weight on soft ground against 14 rivals in the Doncaster Handicap, in which she faced a wall of horses inside the final furlong before breaking through.
More of the same followed as a five-year-old, notable especially for a tour de force back in the Cox Plate, in which the race looked to be on as she ranged alongside her main rival, the Melbourne Cup favourite Hartnell. But if this was a race, it was of the one-horse variety. The response when Bowman popped the question was electric. Winx took a two-length lead at the head of the straight and drew further and further away to score by a record winning margin that left the crowd going mad and her trainer fighting back the tears.
"She was just in the zone and wherever she goes, if she's in that zone, she'll win anything," says Waller. "She is just such an athlete. She has a tremendous will to win. She comes from impossible positions in races, overcomes wide draws or wet tracks, the kind of things most horses at the highest grade struggle with."
Winx's official rating of 132 ensured she became the top-rated turf horse; it is the highest ever assigned to a female racehorse, equalling Black Caviar's best mark. Back in Sydney for the autumn, Winx's reputation grew and grew alongside her winning sequence, which stretched to 21 by the end of the 2016-17 Australian season, which she rounded off with a stunning victory in Sydney's top race, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
"She's just kept on furnishing and she just kept going," says Tighe. "She'd have four runs and Chris would spell her, then do it again, and every time she's come back bigger and better. We took her to the next level, different distances, different tracks, different weather conditions, she had bad barriers, bad luck, and she was able to overcome all of that and still win. As her reputation grew, we knew we had something special. She was coming from last or getting checked and still winning. She's so resilient, she just loves the competition, she loves to win the races."
Nothing seems to faze her, as Waller marvels. "Every challenge we give Winx, she rises to, whether it's track conditions, distances, conditions of races, the way the races are run," says the trainer. "Her versatility is what makes her the complete package of an all-round racehorse – she's competitive first up and she's competitive at the end of her preparation."
Alongside a celebrated winning sequence have come overtures from European racecourses headed by Royal Ascot, keen to lure this outstanding performer away from home. Waller has steadfastly postponed any possible journey until after the mare's attempt to win a third Cox Plate. The owners are keen, though, with Tighe saying: "It's definitely on the cards as long as she gets through her Cox Plate preparation unscathed. We'd love to come over there and see you guys."
The Cox Plate, though, is the clear priority – and, drama queen that she is, Winx has kept the crowds on the edge of their seats with a couple of last-gasp, last-to-first victories against lesser mortals in lower-grade prep races before a more consummate display on her most recent outing in the Group 1 Turnbull Stakes at Flemington.
"That day she really missed the start, I thought that was the day the winning streak would come to an end," says Tighe. "She played up and missed the kick by four or five lengths before overcoming all odds to win. At the end of the day, it's not by how far you win, it's whether you win, and she's been able to keep the run going for everybody."
Waller, now applying earmuffs to Winx in a bid to sharpen her up at the gates, was also worried. "There's been several times we've been concerned and thought, this is the day she may not win, but every time she's risen to the occasion," he says. "I'm a trainer of a big team of horses and we see the good and bad regularly on racedays. There's always a list as long as your arm with relation to excuses for horses not winning but with a horse like Winx, she makes us all look pretty good.
"She does like to relax in the early part of her races, getting back to midfield or even rear positions, so you do need a lot of luck. But watching her in a race is just like any other horse – she doesn't look any different, doesn't appear to be travelling any better – until you ask her for the ultimate effort when the others are also under the same pressure and therefore struggling to quicken under the intensity of the distance.
"At that stage you start to become a little more confident because you see the rider looking motionless when rival jockeys are starting to get edgy. From that perspective it's a pretty rewarding feeling travelling to the 200-metre mark when you have the opposition safely covered."
Now comes her primary assignment, ahead of which even the calm, collected Bowman is admitting a tinge of excitement. "We're trying to emulate history by winning a third Cox Plate and she couldn't be in better shape," says the jockey. "The race can't come quick enough to be perfectly honest. She's settled into Melbourne very well – we're quietly confident to say the least. It's a special feeling, a dream come true to be involved with such an elite horse."
Waller claims not to be feeling extra pressure. "Every race is so big now because of her winning sequence because she carries the expectations of so many people," he says. "There's just as much pressure going into the first race of a campaign as it is for the big races such as a Cox Plate.
"Every race means so much," he adds, "but the Cox Plate is a big part of Australian history, the weight-for-age grand final, so to win three from being quite an immature four-year-old to a more mature horse now would be quite an accolade for the horse. To keep going for three seasons at the highest level possible is something special."
After the Cox Plate, all options are on the table. "We're proud of the impression she's created throughout the racing world," says Waller. "Let's get the Cox Plate out of the way first and after that we'll be having a serious discussion with the owners."
For now thoughts of Royal Ascot will have to wait. But it remains a definitely maybe.
A serious but gentle individual
'Winxy', as she is sometimes called at home, is a "very purposeful horse," according to trainer Chris Waller. "If I could compare her to a person I'd say she's quite a serious individual who enjoys her job and is always ready to perform when called upon," he says.
"At the same time she's quite a gentle horse, very accommodating for people when they come to see her, and she's met everybody. I've had my photo taken with her a number of times. With a lot of horses, if you get in close they might bang your head or get a bit boisterous and push you out of the way, but she knows exactly where you are and she won't bump your head, stand on your toes or do anything silly. It's as if to say she knows what you're there for and she respects that. For a horse, it's quite unique."
What's in a name? X marks the spot
According to part-owner Peter Tighe, Winx was named by fellow owner Richard Treweeke. "He's an elderly gentleman and he doesn't get to the races much any more so he gets his enjoyment from watching on television," explains Tighe. "He's enjoying the ride but he's not in real good health and we let him do the naming."
As a result, Winx was named with a nod to her dam Vegas Showgirl and burlesque performances. Tighe explains: "Many years ago he went to Vegas and the story goes that if you went to see the shows with the girls in them, if you gave a wink to the girls and they gave you a wink back, you might have been in luck. That's how he named her – we just spelt with an 'X' to make it stand out."
Winx’s career began with three wins, then she was beaten six times out of seven as a three-year-old before embarking on her incredible winning spree
Three-year-old season 2014-15
May 16 Sunshine Coast, G3 Sunshine Coast Guineas, 1m, 8-5f
May 30 Doomben, G1 Queensland Oaks, 1m3f, 19-20f
Four-year-old season 2015-16
Sept 12 Rosehill, G2 Theo Marks Stakes (h'cap), 6½f, 12-5f
Oct 3 Randwick, G1 Epsom Hcap, 1m, 21-10f
Oct 24 Moonee Valley, G1 Cox Plate, 1m2f, 18-5f
Feb 13 Randwick, G2 Apollo Stakes, 7f, 3-5f
Feb 27 Randwick, G1 Chipping Norton Stakes, 1m, 7-20f
March 19 Rosehill G1, George Ryder Stakes, 7½f, 9-10f
April 2 Randwick, G1 Doncaster Mile (h'cap), 1m, 4-5f
Five-year-old season 2016-17
Aug 20 Randwick, G2 Warwick Stakes, 7f, 1-4f
Sept 17 Randwick, G1 Colgate Optic White (George Main) Stakes, 1m, 1-11f
Oct 8 Caulfield, G1 Caulfield Stakes, 1m2f, 1-4f
Oct 22 Moonee Valley, G1 Cox Plate, 1m2f, 4-5f
Feb 13 Randwick, G2 Apollo Stakes, 7f, 1-7f
Feb 25 Randwick, G1 Chipping Norton Stakes, 1m, 11-50f
March 18 Rosehill, G1 George Ryder Stakes, 7½f, 20-75f
April 8 Randwick, G1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes, 1m2f, 2-17f
Six-year-old season 2017-18
Aug 19 Randwick, G2 Warwick Stakes, 7f, 1-10f
Sept 2 Randwick, G2 Chelmsford Stakes, 1m, 1-11f
Sept 16 Randwick, G1 Colgate Optic White (George Main) Stakes, 1m, 2-17f
Oct 7 Flemington, G1 Turnbull Stakes, 1m2f, 1-5f
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