Is there a threat to Almanzor as the world’s best on turf? You bet there is

Winx: the outstanding Australian mare is bidding for her 13th straight victory in Saturday’s Cox Plate. Photo:

The electric Almanzor arguably now has a mortgage on the crown of world’s best middle-distance turf performer - if not best overall - after his defeat of Arc winner Found in last Saturday’s Champion Stakes at Ascot.

He’s disposed of Europe’s best in the English and Irish versions of the ‘Champions’ and now has surely deposed the Japanese 5-year-old A Shin Hikari, who was rated above him, in the category in the IFHA Word’s Best Racehorse Rankings.

The most recent published rankings, of course, preceded Saturday’s win and the appearance of his one remaining legitimate challenger waiting very imminently in the wings: Winx.

The exceptional Australian mare carries 12 consecutive wins - including eight Group 1s - into the defence of her own crown, the $3 million G1 Cox Plate (2040m), Australia’s top weight-for-age race, at Moonee Valley this Saturday.

Meaningful comparisons

Naturally enough, many observers south of the Equator would parochially argue she is already superior. She was, incidentally, rated his equal on 127 in those most recent IFHA ratings; two points behind A Shin Hikari.

This writer would be a little more circumspect and concede that last year’s Cox Plate-winning margin of 4.75 lengths over Criterion (with a further 0.7 lengths to Highland Reel) was possibly flattering given that the leader rolled off the fence coming to the home turn and presented the Chris Waller-trained mare with a ‘dream’ rails run. Mind you, she did run a track record time.

Highland Reel’s second to Found in the Arc provides us with some link, even if a touch tenuous, between Almanzor and Winx, given that Found has finished second behind the French 3-year-old in each of his recent wins.

Tenuous or not, the beauty of the burgeoning international  travel of racehorses does allow us to link form-lines, which allows for more meaningful comparisons than might been made 20-odd years ago. From England to France to Australia - and even Canada after Sunday’s Woodbine International, which was quinellaed by Erupt and Dartmouth, who were both well held behind Highland Reel in July’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2400m) at Ascot.

Those multi-national links will again be showcased this Saturday, when Winx tackles a Cox Plate field that has much greater depth than the 2015 edition and which includes the Andre Fabre-trained Vadamos, the last-start winner of G1 Prix du Moulin over 1600 metres at Chantilly.

Other Aussie exceptions

On that occasion, Vadamos had in his wake - by 2.75 lengths - Zarak, the horse who’d finished a one-length second to Almanzor in the Prix Guillame D’Ornano and was also runner-up to Almanzor in the Prix du Jockey Club.

Royal Artillery, third home in the Guillame, had previously run second to Scottish (another with Highland Reel form), who then, to add to the international links, appeared in last Saturday’s G1 Caulfield Cup (2400m) and finished three lengths second behind Jameka, who finished a similar margin behind Hartnell in the G1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m) at her previous start. Hartnell has not finished closer than 3.5 lengths behind Winx in three meetings.

None of this, of course, is conclusive evidence of anything but certainly points to Winx being entitled to be mentioned in the same breath as Almanzor - and even more so should she stretch her run to 13 straight on Saturday in a race that has depth provided by Vadamos, Hartnell (who’s won three straight since his last defeat behind Winx) and the highly talented 3-year-old filly Yankee Rose, along with solid performers Black Heart Bart, Hauraki and Lucia Valentina.

Perhaps we down south, still suffering from convict cultural cringe, want to shout her name from the rooftops and ensure she has deserved recognition. While it’s generally conceded that the European middle-distance and staying horse is better than those produced in the Southern Hemisphere, there are exceptions. Winx is almost certainly one of them, like the best of her recent predecessors - So You Think (who won five Group 1 races in each hemisphere); Sunline (who won in Hong Kong); Northerly (who didn’t travel) and Makybe Diva (who did fail in two runs in Japan but struck rock hard tracks and went there against the advice of her trainer).

Slight edge for Winx in the Cox Plate

The release of the next IFHA  racehorse rankings, on 10 November, will be eagerly anticipated. They are now updated on the second Thursday of every month, with the opinions of 19 race club handicappers collated by England’s Phil Smith and Hong Kong’s Nigel Gray. The panel comprises five members from Europe; five from South America plus one from the USA, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Dubai.

“There’s generally solid debate before we arrive at a consensus of opinion,” said Australia’s representative, Greg Carpenter. “Subsequent to Winx’s win in the Doncaster [Mile at Randwick in April], everyone was happy to raise her to 127. Since then, we’ve had Found’s Arc win certainly having a positive effect on Almanzor’s rating and now we await Winx versus Hartnell and Vadamos.”

Gary Crispe, head of Timeform Australia, says they currently have Winx and Hartnell both rated 128. “However, under the weight for age conditions (in the Cox Plate), Winx will receive the mares allowance of 2kgs, or 4 lbs, which in a predictive sense still gives her a slight edge of a bit over a length,” Crispe said.

“In three runs this preparation, she has not reached her master figure of 128, but is idling at 126. Surely she will need to go close to producing her master on Saturday in her clash with Hartnell and Vadamos.”

‘A beautiful horse’

Crispe added that Winx, with a Timeform rating of 128, is knocking on the door to join the aforementioned great Australasian mares Makybe Diva and Sunline, both on 129, but is still below the equal top Timeform-rated mare of all time, Black Caviar on 136 (equal with Allez France and Habibti).

“As far as current racing mares go, she is very highly rated in the global sense. British sprinter Mecca’s Angel sits on 131 but a more appropriate comparison would be Arc winner Found on 129. Almanzor went into Saturday’s Champion Stakes day on 133 but I suspect he might be higher now,” he said.

Almanzor on 133 with a bullet compared to Winx on 128 (below the bonny but 1000 metres-capped Mecca’s Angel) seems out of kilter. Perhaps all the ratings gurus will re-assess after Saturday’s action.

We’ve touched on the form credentials of Vadamos, and jockey Damien Oliver described him as a ‘beautiful horse with a turn of foot and plenty of X factor’ after riding him in work on Monday morning. But Winx will also have to contend with another ‘X factor’ runner, Yankee Rose, and the ever-improving Hartnell.

He has emerged as a legitimate rival despite earlier defeats behind Winx. He is the gelded son of Authorized who has blossomed through this preparation with three consecutive wins by an aggregate of 17 lengths after running second to Winx, beaten 3.5 lengths, first-up in the Group 2 Warwick Stakes at 1400 metres.

Improvement with maturity

Interestingly, he’s won five of his 13 starts in Australia, which is precisely the same statistical record as his career in the U.K. He was shipped south after running 6.5 lengths seventh to Kingston Hill in the 2014 St Leger and, while no observer then and there could consider him high class, improvement with maturity and a change of environment under Godolphin’s Australian trainer John O’Shea (currently world No. 7 in the TRC Global Rankings) can’t be summarily dismissed.

Yankee Rose carries just 47.5 kg under the Southern Hemisphere weight-for-age conditions and is the last-start winner, against 3-year-old males, of the G1 Spring Champion Stakes (2000m). She’s trained by David Vandyke, who changed his surname from Hayes to avoid confusion with his better known namesake, who’s been a premier trainer in Australia and Hong Kong.

Yankee Rose seeks to become just the second filly to win the Cox Plate, which was first run in 1922. However, four 3-year-old males have won since 1995 (including So You Think in 2009).

Winx, a $230,000-yearling purchase, has showcased the talents of trainer Waller (No. 2 in the TRC Global Rankings), whose first Group 1 win came with Triple Honour in the Doncaster Mile in season 2007-08. Victory in that same race this year propelled Winx to an official rating of 126, which, at the time, had her ranked equal with California Chrome and above all others.

“I can’t fault her,” Waller said of Winx after she galloped at next Saturday’s venue at the weekend.

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