Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake once more has words on Winx, days after the Australian superstar retired, wondering what might have been with more ambitious campaigning.

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WINX AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Winx brought the curtain down on her long and successful career at Randwick on Saturday morning by winning the Queen Elizabeth Stakes. It was her 33rd consecutive victory and her 25th at Group 1 level. As has generally been the case in her career, she was sent off a very short-priced favourite and it duly proved to be a straightforward task for her. As always, the crowds turned out in their droves to create a carnival atmosphere centring on Winx and she was given a send-off befitting a mare that has become a sporting icon in Australia.

Now that Winx’s career is in the books and the euphoria has started to die down, the conversation will inevitably move on to what her legacy is. Before getting into the nitty gritty, it must be said that her constitution was quite simply remarkable. To win 33 consecutive races in any circumstances is an incredible achievement. That she didn’t miss any significant time along the way is a credit to her physical and mental soundness, as well as to people closest to her throughout her career.

In terms of her talent, her rating of 132 in the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings in both 2016 and 2017 confirms her status as a world-class performer. However, that she achieved those lofty ratings by winning below-standard contests by wide margins has led to persistent international scepticism as to her claims to true greatness. That her connections never travelled her outside of Australia in pursuit of a higher level of competition in international Group 1 races has only added to those doubts.

Mind, purely in terms of financial risk and reward, it is very hard to criticise the campaigning of Winx. According to the performance ratings issued by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, she never had to face a rival that produced a performance rating of 123 or higher against her. Indeed, on only six occasions in her career did her nearest pursuer hit a mark of 120 (more on that here). Yet, she retires as the highest earner of prize money in the history of horse racing and a sporting icon in Australia. Her connections certainly maximised her earning potential and status without ever having to ask her to come out of her comfort zone.

However, since when has maximising earning potential ever been a meaningful contributor to greatness in horse racing? True racing legends are made by taking on the best and overcoming adversity. With that in mind, to an impartial observer it is hard not to think that the Winx story could have been so much more than it was. For a mare with her world-class talent, incredible longevity and remarkable versatility, one can only wonder what might have been had she been campaigned with more adventure by her connections.

A world-class mare with notable longevity is a very rare jewel. Commercial considerations are not anything like as big a factor with them as they are with a stallion prospect. Thus, they can be campaigned for longer and with more adventure without any fears of devaluation or loss of reputation.

It goes without saying that a horse doesn’t have to travel to achieve greatness if their domestic opposition is world class. However, in Winx’s case the perceived need for her to travel became a focus point as it had been clear for many years that she had outgrown the shallow waters of the 7-10f divisions in Australia.

Since 2016, there have been no less 28 individual turf horses trained outside of Australia in her trip bracket rated 123 or higher and could have potentially offered her a stronger test than she ever faced on home soil. It is simply stating a fact to say that Winx never once faced anything approaching the best in the world during her long career. While some have taken the view that those international horses should have come down to Australia to face Winx, it is the established way of the sporting world that the onus is on dominant participants in smaller pools to travel to deeper waters to prove themselves against the best rather than vice versa.

When one thinks back to the likes of Ouija Board, Alexander Goldrun, Goldikova and onto the present day with Enable and Almond Eye, none of them had to travel to prove themselves. The race programmes, prize money and opposition in their home nations were all more than up to scratch for them to enjoy very successful careers and create lasting legacies. Yet, their connections embraced the spirit of competition that horse racing is built on, travelling them out of their comfort zones to test them in different circumstances on different continents. It was that adventure and the successes they enjoyed abroad that took them to the next level in terms of popularity and legacy.

Winx wins her final race at Randwick
Kevin feels Winx not competing on the world stage will affect her legacy

The really sad thing with Winx is that she had all the tools to be one of the most legendary racing mares of all time. She was rated higher, enjoyed a longer career and was arguably more versatile than any of the aforementioned star mares. Chris Waller and Hugh Bowman are wonderfully generous and accomplished communicators that would have represented Team Winx on the world stage with aplomb. Just as significantly, she had the unwavering and passionate support of the entire country of Australia in her corner. She could have carried all of that around the world and showcased it on the biggest racing stages. Win or lose, that would have been incredible for horse racing as a sport and Australia as a horse racing nation.  

What makes it so frustrating that she didn’t travel is that her connections had any amount of opportunities to make it happen at least once over the course of the four-year reign at the top of Australian racing.

There was speculation for a number of years that Winx could run at Royal Ascot and one can be certain that they were offered every incentive under the sun by Ascot to bring her over. While it is fair to say that bringing an Australian-trained mare to race at Royal Ascot during what is the Australian winter is a very tough question to ask, that didn’t stop the connections of Black Caviar putting her unbeaten record on the line in the most high-pressured of circumstances to do just that. By doing so, they gave her the opportunity to earn legendary status around the racing world and she duly did despite not being at her best.

Hong Kong would have been the closest staging ground of world-class racing for Winx to have travelled to. They have Group 1 options at Sha Tin in both late-April and early-December each year that offer more prize money than she competed for in the vast majority of her starts in Australia. While quarantine issues would have all but ruled out travel from Australia to Hong Kong from October 2017 up to last month, those options were very much open to her connections prior to that. Indeed, they could have taken her there at the end of this month for a potential showdown with one of the world’s very best milers in Beauty Generation had they kept her on the go for another few weeks.

Another option for them was to run in the Dubai Turf at the Dubai World Cup meeting in late-March. It takes place at a time of year that coincides with her autumn campaign in Australia over what could well have been an ideal trip for her of nine furlongs. In terms of prize money, it is currently worth over 50% more than any race she ever contested in Australia.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Her connections took the safety-first route with Winx and it isn’t just her reputation that has suffered as a result. That she could win 33 consecutive races including 25 Group 1 races in Australia without meeting a horse that ran to higher than 123 showcased just how little quality there is at the highest level of Australian racing beyond sprint trips. Not to mention how bloated their Group 1 programme has become. At the last count, there are 74 Group 1 races there. For comparison there are just 75 such races in total between Great Britain, Ireland and France.

Winx’s career has also put renewed focus on a wider lack of Australian ambition on the international racing front. Outside of the notable highlights of Black Caviar’s win at Royal Ascot in 2012 and Chautauqua’s victory in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize at Sha Tin in 2016, Australian-trained success on the international circuit has been all-but non-existent since 2010. The Australians will no doubt point to their very strong domestic prize money as to why they don’t travel their horses more, but being considered a leading racing nation is about much more than money, it is about producing and training horses to compete and beat the best in the world. 

As rare and wonderful as Winx was, one can only hope that the next time a mare with comparable talent, longevity and versatility emerges that her connections are more willing to embrace the spirit of competition that is the foundation stone of our sport. Supporters of racing owe it to the sport to demand that the best face the best, as conservative campaigning at the highest level flies in the face of what our great game is meant to be about.

Winx had all the tools to be a true great of not just Australian racing, but of world racing. While she will undoubtedly remain a sporting icon in Australia, the harsh reality is that because of the way she was campaigned she will more likely be remembered by much of the rest of the racing world as a giant among pygmies. That is a great shame, as she could have been so much more if she had been given the opportunity to be.

Kevin Blake
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