Don't underestimate the importance of the world's new wondermare
So who’s the horse of the moment right now? Is it Nyquist, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who surged to Kentucky Derby favouritism last Saturday by brushing aside the much-vaunted former market leader Mohaymen in the Florida Derby?
Or is the fabulous redemption of California Chrome in the Middle East the Saturday before still fresh enough in the memory to keep Art Sherman’s astonishingly popular 5-year-old in pole position?
Maybe, though, particularly if you’re British or Irish, you would want to make a case for the Irish mare Annie Power, who followed up her Champion Hurdle triumph at the Cheltenham Festival last month by dishing out a spectacular hammering to the best competition around at Aintree yesterday at the start of the Grand National meeting.
You’d be wrong, of course, if you answered any of the above. Considering the criteria that count the most - ability, level of achievement, popularity, and the sheer importance of the horse to the nation where it races – there’s another winner.
When she took the A$3 million Doncaster Mile in the blazing Sidney sunshine at Royal Randwick last Saturday as America and Europe lay sleeping, she was also assuming a place alongside legends like Black Caviar, Makybe Diva and Sunline in the roll call of great Australasian racemares.
The ultimate stage
They weren’t just magnificent runners, they were showstoppers. Thousands crammed into racecourses just because they were about to perform. Most of those who couldn’t make it to the track switched on their TVs instead.
And that’s what happens now when the 4-year-old Winx is running.
The Doncaster was the race that sealed the deal. The daughter of Street Cry was odds-on going into it, as you’d expect of a horse shooting for its ninth straight victory (including six Group 1s), a horse that had already won Australia’s principal weight-for-age mile-and-a-quarter event (the Cox Plate). But this was a handicap, and she was giving weight to her main rivals, and this was the ultimate stage – the feature race on day one of The Championships, the awesomely endowed ‘grand finals’ of Australian racing, and one of the richest race meetings anywhere in the world, a sort of Aussie Breeders’ Cup.
It was the manner of her victory that meant so much. Entering the finishing straight, the mare of whom so much was expected was trapped behind with nowhere to go. She looked an unlikely winner. Then the opening appeared, Winx surged through and the race was over before the furlong pole.
Jockey Hugh Bowman’s patient professionalism has rightly been lauded, but you couldn’t help noticing that the gap only appeared after an almost brutal display of collective will from the 22,000 Aussies in the stands.
It’s the kind of public affection that comes when a horse keeps taking on the best, and keeps on beating them. And, boy, has Winx been doing that. The Doncaster was her fourth race in seven weeks. All of them Group 1s, all of them against the elite. And, of course, she’s won them all.
The strange thing was what she did to another champion who wasn’t even in the same race. The Doncaster was Race 9. In Race 8, the A$2.5 million T.J.Smith Stakes, the 5-year-old gelding Chautauqua produced a performance of unfeasible brilliance. Unlike Winx, who looked beaten entering the straight, Chautauqua was beaten. Stone cold last and appearing to struggle, 10 lengths or more behind some of the fastest horses in Australia with only 600 metres left.
He got up to win on the line.
Chautauqua was already regarded by many as the world’s top sprinter, and he will have chances to underline that in the G1 Chairman’s Sprint at Sha Tin in Hong Kong on May 1, and possibly at Royal Ascot in June.
It was his second successive win in the T.J.Smith, and it left the crowd buzzing and in awe. But it was virtually forgotten after Race 9. They only had eyes for Winx after that.
Incredibly, the plan had been for her to go back to Randwick tomorrow, just seven days later, to run again on the second and final day of The Championships in the A$4 million Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the world’s richest mile-and-a-quarter turf race (for which she had been 2-5 favourite). That would have been five races in eight weeks, and it was all the Aussie media wanted to talk about for days.
Land of the supersprinter
It won’t help Randwick’s finances, or those of some ante-post punters, but trainer Chris Waller pulled the plug on that idea after deciding the Doncaster had taken a little too much out of Winx. She is resting now until next season.
Since the Doncaster, the international ratings experts, a notoriously difficult bunch to impress, have begun to cotton on to Winx. Sam Walker, of the Racing Post, put her up to 126 pounds, a mark that would have made her joint third best in the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings last year, 3 pounds ahead of Beholder, level with Treve and Shared Belief, and behind only Golden Horn and the champion, American Pharoah.
Walker gives just one horse a higher rating so far in 2016 – California Chrome (127). But the 3-pound mares’ allowance effectively makes Winx worth 129, meaning a male would need to be rated 130 to be able to beat her.
It projects Winx as the best mile/middle-distance runner Australia has produced for a decade. Which has interesting implications on the world stage.
Everybody gets it that Australia produces outstanding speed horses. It’s the land of the turf supersprinter - Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Black Caviar, Chautauqua and so on. But middle-distance runners? The good ones come from Europe, don’t they?
Aidan O’Brien won the Cox Plate with his second or third best horse (Adelaide) in 2014. The favourite for tomorrow’s Queen Elizabeth, in the absence of Winx, is another ex-Ballydoyle Galileo runner, The United States.
Before the New Zealand-bred 100-1 shot Prince Of Penzance last November, the previous FIVE Melbourne Cup winners had all either been bought in Europe or were trained there.
Racing and breeding have a hugely important international context, and Australia is a key component. Now it has produced a champion once again, its bloodstock industry can only benefit.
We saw signs of that on Tuesday, when Gai Waterhouse went to A$2.3 million at the prestigious Inglis Easter Yearling Sales near Randwick to acquire Winx’s Snitzel half-brother (and full brother to 2-year-old El Divino, who dead-heated in a Group 3 on that same Championships card on Saturday).
Winx will be back for the biggest mile-plus races in Australia next season. And Chris Waller has hinted a race or two abroad may be considered.
We have to hope that happens. Not only would it give the Northern Hemisphere the chance to see this remarkable racehorse in the flesh, it would also emphasise the true range of Australia’s capabilities to the rest of the world.