Storm clouds may be rumbling over racing’s future financing in terms of gambling legislation but 2019 offered no shortage of happy memories. The emergence of the once-bumptious Oisin Murphy as a modest, articulate and thoughtful champion jockey. The pulsating battle between two previous winners in this year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes when Enable and Crystal Ocean provided the most thrilling racecourse duel since the gut-buster between Grundy and Bustino in 1975, with John Gosden’s mare taking it by a neck. Then there was the dominance of Pinatubo, surely the best juvenile since Frankel, in the Woodcote at Epsom, the Chesham at Ascot, Goodwood’s Vintage Stakes and the National Stakes at the Curragh. He will be the hottest ticket on the racecourse this coming year.
Over jumps we have already enjoyed an enthralling round one in what should be a fascinating series when Nicky Henderson’s Altior lost his 19-race unbeaten record over jumps to Paul Nicholls’s Cyrname. We saw the emergence of a new star when Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation conquered Betfair Chase hero Bristol de Mai at Haydock.
The arrival in the post of a bulky parcel from Australia (the Queen got one too) reminded me that we also celebrated this year a triumphant end to the career of the best horse ever raced on that continent. The Hunter Valley area is probably better known to British wine-drinkers than racegoers but Winx, a filly by Street Cry out of Vegas Showgirl who was foaled there in the spring of 2011, went on to become the darling of Australian race fans, her following surpassing even that enjoyed by Phar Lap, Makybe Diva and Black Caviar. My friend Andrew Rule, a much be-gonged investigative journalist with an instinctive flair for race writing, has penned the definitive biography of the mare who rewrote the Antipodean record books, and it is a joy.
Let me give you a flavour of his style, which is Damon Runyon meets the late, great Les Carlyon:
That Saturday in the spring of 2015, Hugh Bowman vaults into the patent leather wafer that passes for a saddle as casually as most of us step into a car. Handles the white reins the way Eddie Charlton chalked a cue. Slides paper-thin boots into alloy stirrup ‘irons’ that have all the heft of a wedding ring. Bowman’s cool, always is. Looks as if he was born with a slow heartbeat and just enough nerves to stay awake. Doesn’t even blink much. Could ride before he could read, a sixth generation horseman from cattle country…
Bowman, of course, was the great mare’s regular jockey and over 500 pages Rule gives us in-depth portraits of everyone ever connected with Winx, from trainer Chris Waller to her breeder, breaker, owners, strapper, work rider and holiday-home ‘spelling’ manager. He takes us, with statistical appendices, right through the six-season-long career in which she won the Cox Plate four times. It was the Australian master trainer Bart Cummings who wisely urged us: ‘Celebrate champions, don’t compare them,’ but a little context does no harm. When she ended in April with victory in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick it was Winx’s 33rd consecutive winning appearance, including a world-record 25 Group One races, an Aussie statistic to rival even Don Bradman’s batting average of 99.94. If you total up the achievements of her three best contemporaries on turf — Frankel, the French mare Treve (who, like Enable, won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice) and Enable, Winx won more races than the three of them combined.
Winx never raced abroad but her workaholic, painstaking trainer Chris Waller was entitled to claim, as he did, that ‘When she’s in the zone she would beat any horse in the world.’ She wasn’t a great looker. As her regular partner Hugh Bowman put it: ‘She’s not a horse that behaves with any sort of presence — the aura has developed because of her success.’
What was so special about Winx was that throughout her long career she could travel at a high cruising speed through races, then provide a devastating sprinter’s burst at the end like a Usain Bolt coming in for the last 100 of 2,000 metres. She didn’t lower her body and extend like some but simply increased the revs to win most of her races from miles behind the early leaders, taking 14 strides for her rivals’ dozen. Top rider Kerrin McEvoy only ever rode her in an exhibition gallop but he noted: ‘She’s so smooth and well balanced, when she’s galloping she’s like a snooker table. In human athletes we say “core strength” and that’s what she replicates.’
Sadly for Australia, Winx has now been retired to make babies. It is British racegoers’ good fortune that Prince Khalid Abdullah, the sporting owner who let Frankel race on at four, has agreed to let Enable, who narrowly failed this autumn to become the first three-time winner of the Arc, to race on one more season, giving it one more go at the age of six.