At 5pm today, Melbourne time, Winx will attempt to do something no athlete has done before: win a fourth Cox Plate, Australasia’s elite horserace. If she does win, as even the galah in the pet shop expects she will, her prize money will top $20 million, another Australian record.
Not bad for a tall, leggy yearling filly, then known only as Lot 329, who stopped the auctioneer’s hammer at the now bargain price of $230,000 at Magic Millions sale on the Gold Coast in 2013.
That use of “athlete” is deliberate. Of course, the seven-year-old mare, who is lining up for her 29th straight win at the part-velodrome, part-Colosseum otherwise known as Moonee Valley racecourse, is an equine athlete.
But, as sports broadcaster Bruce McAvaney notes in his introduction to Winx: The Authorised Biography, she is not just a horse. She is a public figure and as such she is public property. He compares her with Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt. The biographer, journalist Andrew Rule, sensibly adjusts the gender scales soon after he is let out of the starting gate. Winx is in the same sisterhood as Cathy Freeman and Dawn Fraser.
The snapshot of Winx in a custom-made aqua-treadmill goes to one of the highlights of Rule’s book. It includes behind-the-scenes photographs of the queen of the turf and her attendants. The one of her bending a leg for her physiotherapist, Tom Simpson, is beautiful.
This impressive pictorial display partly explains why this is an “authorised” biography.
No, Rule does not interview Winx. By all accounts she wouldn’t say much anyway. She is known as aloof. But he does have rare access to the men and women behind the horse: trainer Chris Waller, jockey Hugh Bowman, the owners and the various people who look after her on and off the track, including the former Turkish actor turned stablehand Umut Odemislioglu.
This allows Rule to at times come close to his mentor, Les Carlyon, to whom the book is dedicated. Carlyon is one of our great writers, and when it comes to the art and grit of thoroughbred racing he has no equal. He plumbs the psychologies of human and beast. That was the advice he offered Rule. Write about the horse, yes, but write about the people too. “As the publisher said to Tolstoy,’’ Carlyon noted, “‘Don’t just do war, Leo, do peace as well.’ ’’
Rule listened. There are fascinating chapters on Waller, the Sydney-based trainer who grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand; Bowman, the rider who had to come back from being busted for cocaine use in 2002; and the motley group of owners, led in a sense by Debbie Kepitis, daughter and niece of the “chicken kings”, brothers Bob and Jack Ingham, who built a racing empire in which she showed little early interest.
We learn a bit about their childhoods and Winx: The Authorised Biography By Andrew Rule Allen & Unwin, 464pp, $44.99 (HB) their ups and downs in adulthood. Here’s Waller’s older sister, Megan, on what he was like as a boy: “He was always hands on. He couldn’t watch the All Blacks playing on television without going outside and playing. He had a goalpost set up in the paddock. And a long jump pit! And a running track … and a cricket pitch — with boundaries, all mowed and rolled.” No surprise to learn that Waller’s alarm goes off at 2.58am every day except Sunday, so he can be at the Rosehill stables in western Sydney at 3.30am, the same time as his staff are expected to turn up.
Here’s Bowman on what makes Winx so special. “She is the perfect woman.”
Whether the running order is deliberate or not, it made me laugh to look at the photo of Bowman kissing Winx and, six pages later, kissing his wife Christine. To be fair, the husband-wife smooch looks more passionate.
Rule observes that after some momentous wins Christine Bowman cries and Hugh tries not to. And Winx? “She looks as though she could go around again.”
Rule also has access to the regular emails Waller sends out to the owners. As someone who has owned a few horses, I can confirm that Waller sends a good note. It’s obvious he puts the horses — he has about 200 in work — first. This is the main reason he has resisted offshore entreaties to send Winx to Royal Ascot in Britain, the track that almost did in her glamorous predecessor Black Caviar.
This is from Waller’s email after Winx won
Winx, at home in her stable at Rosehill, bends a leg for physiotherapist Tom Simpson; Hugh Bowman steals a kiss after a 2017 win at Randwick racecourse