What a buzz that week was. It was hyped as a two-horse war between my bloke and her. The build-up felt like a football grand final.
As hopeful as it might sound today, I thought we were a genuine chance to beat Winx that day. With me doing the steering, Hartnell had bolted in in his three starts since that Warwick Stakes second. The most recent was the Turnbull Stakes at Flemington, over roughly the same distance as the 2,040-metre Cox Plate. He’d brained ‘em, winning by more than three lengths over Jameka, who strolled away with the Caulfield Cup at her next start.
And it wasn’t just me, but a lot of people thought Winx was vulnerable in that Cox Plate. The market suggested it, with Winx at $1.80 – cricket-score odds for her – and Hartnell at $5. No horse has started as short against her since.
I made my plans with trainer John O’Shea. We knew if Winx was ever going to get beaten, you couldn’t come from behind her to do it. From barrier seven, to her barrier three, I jumped out ahead of her, and kept a good couple of lengths in front of her throughout. Going down the School Side with about 700 metres to go, I made my move and sent Hartnell towards the lead. I knew Winx was gonna come at some point, but Hughie brought her up alongside us earlier than I anticipated.
you’re freakin’ kidding me
Towards the turn I was urging Hartnell on, but on my outside there was that familiar white bridle again. And Winx was moving so easily. To be honest, I was a bit deflated. Hughie later told the press he heard me cry out something like “Oh Jesus Christ”, as if it just wasn’t fair! We did exchange some words, but I think it was more like me singing out “Oh you’re freakin’ kidding me!” … or words to that effect.
As Hartnell battled on in his usual gallant style in the straight, I just saw Winx go further ahead – four lengths, six lengths, eight lengths on the line. I was just gobsmacked. It wouldn’t have mattered where we’d sat. And that’s the beauty of Winx. She could’ve waited another 400 metres to make her run and still beaten me. She could’ve gone a lot earlier and still won by a big gap.
Most horses take a hundred metres to get past you. Winx does it in a couple of strides. One second she’s there beside you, the next second she’s gone.
From there, she’s only got better. It’s testament to the great job my fellow Kiwi Chris Waller has done with her, the patience of her owners, the work of the stable staff, and Hughie.
You know when Winx is running, because that day in the jockeys’ room, Hughie doesn’t say much. He’s a man of few words on most days, actually, but on Winx days he really goes into the zone. He’s done an incredible job with her the whole way through. I can only hope one day I get to have a partnership with a horse like her. You’d reckon it’s pretty unlikely though! She’s just improved with age, and I agree with Hughie’s comment this week that she could comfortably go on racing, and winning.
I’ll be out there trying to beat her again, one last time, on Saturday, when I’ll be on the second favourite (again!) in He’s Eminent. I’m sure Happy Clapper and Hartnell would love to know it’s the last time they’ll see Winx, having run second to her five and four times respectively. I don’t think the unthinkable will happen in Winx’s swansong, but I don’t think it’ll be as easy for her as her last few runs. And I do think He’s Eminent has a chance – though it would help greatly if Winx stands in the gates when they open.
Yes, it’s been a bit frustrating to have run second to her so often (and third twice). Someone worked out she cost me almost $100,000 in prizemoney through those five seconds, so I’d be a good bit richer if she wasn’t around! But just to ride against her is amazing. She adapts to any race conditions. She sits wide, she sits in. You can’t outsprint her, and you can’t outstay her. She’s won from 1100m to 2200m, and I reckon if they’d put her in a Melbourne Cup, over 3200m, she’d have got the distance and won that as well, because she just relaxes so well, and knows when to switch on.
She’s had longevity, being unbeaten for nearly four years. She’s turned up and performed on 32 straight race days. Every time. That’s just extraordinary for any horse, but especially for a mare, since hormones mean mares can often have an off day, or lose interest forever.
She’s just got no chinks in her armour. She’ll always come out on top. A bit like the mighty All Blacks, she’ll just find a way to win. And all of that is why – although they say you shouldn’t compare champions of different eras – I’m happy to do it with her. I’m happy to put her on top, by herself, against any of the historical greats you care to name: Phar Lap, Tulloch, Bernborough, Kingston Town, the lot.
She’s that good, and we’ve all been blessed to have had her in our lifetimes.