A Horse Possessed

She’s beaten the mighty Phar Lap’s winning streak and captured the public’s heart. What makes Winx so special? 

The vibe is backstage at a fashion show. Leggy thoroughbreds prance about in various states of unsaddled as strappers polish and pamper. In a corner, here at Royal Randwick’s race-day stalls, a black mare is taking a shower, snorting with delight while having her tummy tickled with a sponge. In another, there’s an overindulged horse, soothed by a couple of handlers, huffs and puffs and stamps its hooves.

Then, suddenly, the frippery comes to a halt. Strappers drop hooves and stand to slouched attention. The horses become subdued. The crowd gathered for her arrival salutes as she passes, iPhones held high. The race has been moved from Saturday to Monday to avoid the heat. Kids who’ve been plucked out of school so they can forever boast they saw her race – just like those who saw Bradman bat or Freeman run – pull at sleeves. “Is that her, Dad? Is that her?” It is indeed, matey. Winx has entered the stables.

The bloke next to me, Tim Wellwood, had ­earlier shown me a photo his wife took of him and the mare following her merciless victory in the 2016 Cox Plate – a win that cemented her place as the world’s best mare and best horse on turf for the year, the 19th win of her career and the 13th in her winning streak. “Winx sneezed and covered my face in horse snot,” he says of the moment after the shot was taken. “I didn’t wash my face for a couple of days.”

Wellwood is a two-bucks-each-way punter who just loves watching great horses. This could well be the best he’s seen. “I mean, there was ­Sunline and Kingston Town, but Winx, who knows how far she’ll go.” He works as an IT project manager on Sydney’s northern beaches. “Last night I phoned my boss and I told him I was ­taking the day off to see Winx and that if he didn’t like it he could get stuffed.” And so he caught the bus down over the bridge to see his hero; as Hawkie would say, his boss would’ve been a bum to sack him. The crowd crushes in to get a better look as she’s clipped into her stable. “Sorry about that,” says Wellwood as he turns to me, “I just teared up… She takes my breath away.”

The horseflesh on display here would buy the house of Mr Harbourside Mansion but to my untrained eye Winx is pretty much physically indistinguishable from all the other magnificent animals in the stables. Sydney racing sage Max Presnell tells me Black Caviar had a stunning rear end and “Sunline had a hindquarter you’d drool over”. Winx’s booty, while fetching, is not one for salivation. But there is something discernibly different about her: a calmness, an arrogance almost. Head held high, ears pricked, she peers imperiously back at the punters, as though deserving of all this attention. She seems to calmly lap it all up.

“She looks a bit up herself,” I say to Wellwood. “She can afford to be,” he replies. “She’s earned it.” And indeed she has. If she wins today, she will equal the winning streak of Phar Lap.

Thoroughbreds are a bit like company executives. They cost a fortune but that’s hardly a guarantee they’ll be any good. And so the racing industry often plays a role in society of redistributing immense quantities of fast money and inherited wealth through the trickle-down of slow horses. The industry is a bit like a giant Ponzi scheme propped up by dreams. It needs heroes to paper over some ugly realities. It loves an uplifting fable of an unwanted nag, a horse bought for a grand by a trainer who lives in a caravan; a bloke who takes his steed to Royal Ascot to win in front of the Queen and trouser $6 million in total prize money, as Takeover Target did. This is not that story.

Winx is a tale where the rich get even richer, and still she’s loved. One of her owners is Debbie Kepitis, a daughter of Bob Ingham and a beneficiary of the Ingham’s chook empire. Another owner, Peter Tighe, a knockabout Queenslander, recently sold for an undisclosed sum the family’s successful fruit and vegetable wholesaling business, J.H. Leavy & Co, which has operated out of the Brisbane markets. He started off racing ­greyhounds, moved to the trots and then onto thoroughbreds as fortunes improved.

The third partner is a roguish 86-year-old retired adman, Richard Treweeke. When I visit him in his Mosman unit, Treweeke tells me his family once owned more than “a million acres of NSW”, including the vast Nocoleche station near Bourke and other prized properties at Orange and in the Hunter Valley. The remnants of the family wool fortune went towards Winx. For them, her prize money – $10 million thus far – is fruit on the ­sideboard. The cachet, however, is priceless. Between the three of them they’ve owned hundreds of horses, but still the chances of the owners getting a horse as good as Winx were a million to one. “I could have lived 300 lifetimes and never come close to a horse like this… She, she… she’s like a goddess,” says Treweeke.

Just getting a ticket in this lottery requires ­serious cash – as the late Leonard Cohen said, everybody knows the dice are loaded. And so in 2013, the syndicate rolled the dice at the Magic Millions horse sale on the Gold Coast. There were 1000 horses on offer and their blood stock agent, Guy Mulcaster, had whittled the potential purchases down to about 50. He liked what he saw in Winx’s lineage. Her mother, Vegas Showgirl, had raced consistently well in New Zealand in more than 40 races. Her father was an Irish-bred ­stallion called Street Cry, a winner of the now $10m Dubai World Cup. Well-bred to be sure, but so too were hundreds of other horses in the sale that week; getting a champion is an educated crapshoot. “You are just trying to buy more good ones and less bad ones,” Mulcaster explains.

The great Melbourne racing writer and author Les Carlyon tells me it all points to the “madness of horse racing… you can look at a horse and say she’s well put together, as she is, and you can say it has a terrific pedigree, which she does, but what you can never see is in the brain. You can never see will to win.”

Winx’s trainer, Chris Waller, a slow-talkin’, ­sentimental Kiwi from a dairy farm on the North Island, is often reduced to tears just talking about his wonderful mare. “We had a list of 50 or 60 and you miss out on most of them and end up with six or 10… Ya need a little bit of luck,” he tells me.

The syndicate had set a limit of between $180,000 and $200,000, but on the day before Winx was auctioned they realised horses were dearer that year and so they upped the ante. She was led into the ring and the bidding started at $20,000, moving swiftly past $100,000 and slowing towards $150,000. They thought they might get her cheap – and then the bidding took off again. The gavel fell at $230,000, the 21st most expensive filly and well shy of the top-priced horse at $1.35 million. It was all over in two minutes and the yearling was led away. She didn’t even have a name. The three owners were all asked to send two choices. “She was out of Vegas Showgirl,” says Treweeke. “You know, if you went to Vegas and you saw a good-lookin’ sheila with big tits and a nice bum, well you’d give her a wink, wouldn’t ya?” he says. He submitted the name Winx, and his bawdy joke would become a legend.

Not that she’s always had a rails run. Chris Waller, the master trainer, admits he never realised what a champion Winx was until she became one. She won her first race “but plenty of horses do that” and then her next two starts. And then she came up against a very good horse called First Seal, which she raced twice. “First Seal made us look pretty ordinary,” Waller admits. “It deflated us.” Winx was sent on a holiday, to frolic in a ­paddock and, hopefully, get faster. “We thought her only real chance of winning a big race was to dodge First Seal.” And so, she resumed her career doing what every other horse owner in Australia is trying to do now: dodge a champion.

In April 2015 she ran second in the Australian Oaks at Randwick and Waller was deeply concerned about her future. “I had a good look at her on the Monday after the Oaks and I didn’t really like what I saw,” he says. “I saw a pretty frail filly that might not grow and develop into anything more than what she was offering now.” The only chance she had, he reckoned, of winning a Group One encounter was to take her to the backblocks, to build her confidence and give her a taste of success – and her owners the chance to recoup their cash. And so she went to Queensland.

Slow horses are just horses – they are ascribed the emotions of donkeys. But it seems the faster they get, the more “human” they become. And it was on this winter sojourn, on the Sunshine Coast, that Winx first began to be seen in anthropo­morphic terms – more than a horse, but not yet a goddess. Like a hippie chick on her first trip to Bali, something changed in the subtropics; there was an awakening. “She went to a warmer climate and that can be enough to stimulate a horse,” says Waller. “She started to become confident in herself and, like people, horses thrive on confidence.” Can you see that confidence in a horse? “I don’t think you do until a pattern starts emerging,” he admits.

On the afternoon of May 16, 2015, at ­Caloundra, the first squiggles in that now beautifully etched pattern emerged in the XXXX ­Sunshine Coast Guineas. Winx is last, says the breathy race caller as the runners round the bend, she’ll have to come past the 17 of them. All hope seems lost – she’s so far behind, she’s almost out of shot. And then, ­suddenly, time seems to idle for all but her. She powers past a field of horses that appears to be standing still. The caller seems not to notice and is concentrating on the two leaders, seemingly fighting it out for first. They’re together with 100 to go… Look at Winx! he suddenly shrieks. She’s come from last! She’s stormed down the outside! What a win!

You can care nothing for racing or horses and still watch this run with awe. The speed and power reminded me of witnessing a rampaging bush fire through a national park. It gives you goosebumps. Waller’s voice cracks and he fights back tears talking about it. “It gave her the confidence to go on…” he says, with a short break to steady his emotions, “to win the Queensland Oaks – and she won that too with authority.”

“She was like a horse possessed,” says Waller. And then, she just kept winning. Like a fire up a gully on 42-degree day, nothing could stop her.

So how good is she? Well, in January she was judged the world’s best horse on turf and the third best on all surfaces in the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Awards. But where does this place her in the line-up of Australian all-time greats? Les Carlyon reckons she is one of the best horses he’s ever seen and so does Max Presnell – and these two ancient scribes have seen a lot of horses. “She’s just shy of the immortals,” says Carlyon. “Carbine won the [1890] Melbourne Cup with 10 stone five [66kg]. Phar Lap won on every day of the ­Melbourne Spring Carnival; that’s unique. Black Caviar won 25 straight; no other horse in the world has ever done that. Winx is just shy of them.” Carlyon thinks she needs just a bit more time, a few more incredible wins this year, to make it to the top of the mount.

Presnell reckons she may already be there, up in the pantheon of the greats. “She’s a champion in my estimation,” he says, “and that’s not a title I give lightly. One of the qualifications for a champion is that they not only beat other great horses, but that they donkey-lick them, and that’s what she did to Hartnell in the Cox Plate. It was just gobsmacking because Hartnell is a very good racehorse.”

In the 2015 Cox Plate, Winx broke the race record. The next year she came back and won again, this time by eight lengths, the largest-ever winning margin in almost a century of the great race. “She’s a champion and you can just feel it,” he says. “Some people see it in the hindquarter, others the length of rein – but for me it is a feeling and I’ve seen this horse and I knew I was in the presence of greatness.” What gives her the ability to donkey-lick a great horse like Hartnell, as she did in the 2016 Cox Plate? “It’s heart,” says Presnell. “She is able to overcome the pain barrier, the stress barrier, which stops normal horses.”

She is a fine athlete with great co-ordination, says Carlyon, able to take a bump and weave, like Johnathan Thurston through a forward pack with the try line in sight. She has a beautiful stride, long and low and graceful, he says. “The mark of a good horse is to be able to quicken for a furlong or two furlongs. She can quicken for half a mile… It’s something in her head because the thing that defines her is her incredible will to win. She’s a lovely mover – and not just at racing paces. She’s a quick walker, as if she knows where she is going and why, and is beautifully ­balanced at the trot and slow canter.

“It’s all about economy of movement and it just seems to come naturally,” says Carlyon. “Her head isn’t chiselled femininity but it is alert and intelligent. She reminds me of one of those whip-smart Australian stock horses, the sort who will tear after a bullock, return him to the mob, then drop the bit and relax. Her head says no nonsense, no diversions, no showing off, I’m only here to do a job.”

Her trainer, Waller, says the only physical attribute he can discern is that Winx has a “very long hind leg that looks to be like a lever to give her amazing stretch – that’s the only real difference, apart from her determination and her will to win… She can quicken when she’s red-lining and finds that acceleration under pressure.”

Is she getting a bit too confident, I ask; is there a chance of hubris creeping in? “I think there could be a bit of arrogance stepping in… In saying that, she doesn’t ask for anything more at home, she’s not a horse to make a fuss and demand to go out first or ‘when I am ready’. She’s the perfect lady at home, she’s your ideal partner for life really.” She’s a keeper. “She just does things that make you go, ‘Wow! What is going on here?”

Her jockey, Hugh Bowman, grew up on a farm at Dunedoo in Central Western NSW and learnt to ride not long after he learnt to walk. He honed his skills doing horse sports at pony club and playing polo cross. He’s a superb horseman. At the time Winx began her winning streak he was ­riding her nemesis, First Seal. But after they clashed, he switched to Winx. He’s very glad he did. Bowman has ridden many thousands of horses in his career but none as good as this. “She is so well balanced,” he says. “The difference between her and other horses is that she can go quicker and her action doesn’t change.” And neither does Bowman’s. While other jockeys are dancing up and down, back and forth, in the saddle, ­Bowman sits steady and steely, like a tank commander, head out the hatch as his speeding machine crushes everything in its path.

In several of her runs, Bowman has been trapped behind heavy traffic in the field and each time he has managed to find a way through. This is due in part to his incredible horsemanship but also because of his mount, who he says can change direction without becoming unbalanced and ­losing speed. It also helps, he says, that he always has the fastest horse in the race and he can be patient and wait for gaps to appear.

When I meet Bowman, 36, at a beachside cafe in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, he tells me he is thankful that Winx came along at this stage of his career. “If she’d come along when I was 23 I don’t think I’d have appreciated her that much, but now that I am older I know how special this is… There is a different aura. There’s respect for her from the other jockeys, the crowds love her, everyone just wants to see her win.”

Leading into last year’s Cox Plate, Bowman says he felt there was no way he could lose, and that he had to push those thoughts from his mind. During that race he says he was able to toy with Hartnell, sitting just behind him. “I made him go quicker than he wanted to go and every time he got ­comfortable, I’d put a bit more on him. So, by the time it looked like the race was on, he was flat out and I hadn’t even asked my horse for any. I was just cantering along – pretty fast canter – so that’s why when I went, I left him, ’cause he was flat out and Winx was just winding up.”

He says has only asked her to go “at 110 per cent” three times – the Doncaster and the two Cox Plates. Every other time she’s won, she’s not been fully stretched. And she does it easily again today at Randwick to equal Phar Lap’s record of 14 straight wins. Look at Winx! the caller screams. She’s the equine queen of the world!

Two weeks later, Winx is back at Randwick but under very different conditions. Rain is pelting down. The usually calm owner, Peter Tighe, is nervously pacing around the racetrack as he and the other owners decide if she should be scratched. Not long before the race, Chris Waller trudges along the track with an umbrella. They don’t want to do anything to injure their champion mare, but they also don’t want to disappoint her fans who’ve come out in the wet wearing their “Winx” baseball caps.

A decision is made. She’ll run. In the mounting yard, Waller wanders past and stops with a smile. “Please don’t tell everyone how much I cry,” he says. He is joined by Bowman. Waller greets the jockey but offers no instruction. He always lets Bowman decide how he will attack each race. There’s a deep respect between the two men. They mount up and I head out to watch the race with Bowman’s wife, Christine, a vivacious Irishwoman, and the owners. “Don’t be bloody quotin’ me if I swear,” she says.

Not even a wet day and a soggy track can douse the fire in Winx’s belly. It is a truly awesome run in the Chipping Norton Stakes; the mare just has too much power and speed for every other horse. A smile breaks out on Bowman’s face as Winx nears the line. Debbie Kepitis lets out a great yelp as she crosses first. Christine hugs a friend and cries.

Waller cries too, a couple of times. Winx has just won an incredible 15 races in a row to overtake Phar Lap’s winning streak and equal Carbine’s. She has two more runs in coming weeks; if she wins these she’ll hit $12.8 million in prize money, ­trailing only Makybe Diva, who won $14.5 million. Will she haul in Black Caviar’s incredible 25 wins? She’s already surpassed Black Caviar’s career earnings of $8 million. The pressure on all involved to keep her healthy – last April, she had a successful operation on her fetlock – and to maintain this ­winning streak is immense. The horse seems not to notice. “Winx has been down and out on the canvas and proved that she can improve,” says Waller. “She wasn’t the child star, she’s had to work hard to get where she is… There’s no other way to put it, she’s a horse possessed.”

Tim Wellwood, the two-bucks each way punter, is also out in the drenching rain to see his hero run again. “There’s just some horses that you feel a sense of ownership with,” he tells me. “I felt it with Sunline and with Winx, not so much with Makybe Diva… it’s hard to explain.” And so he now has part-ownership of a champion, one of the finest horses this country has ever produced, and he doesn’t have to stump up the stable fees. What did you do when she won? “I cried,” he says. “I think everyone did. She’s that kind of horse.”

The Australian

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