A new Aussie legend was officially crowned on Saturday. Winx is now not only part of Australia’s sporting folklore but she’s almost certainly the most universally admired luminary we have at present. What is it about certain racehorses that sends the Australian public into waves of emotion? COLIN DALE joined the thousands of devotees at Moonee Valley to find out:
“THIS EVENT is sold out”. Certainly not something you expect to see at a racetrack these days, even if Australia’s premier weight-for-age race was on the program. But this was not to be your normal big spring carnival race day. This was coronation day. A new Queen of our sporting nation was about to arise – and did they flock to the Valley to witness it!
Dressed to impress and dressed to party, this large swathe of jolly band of racegoers – many for whom it was the first time on a track – queued with excitement and anticipation of something special – many hours and eight races before the big event. This was certainly no ordinary Cox Plate day and everyone there knew it.
“We’ve all arrived at a rock concert and the atmosphere of this build-up is amazing,” is how the ABC introduced the afternoon to millions of listeners across the nation. Shortly after, the Channel 7 chopper beamed live coverage of the star of the show’s arrival backstage. There was no stretch limo and VIP changeroom, just stall 54 in the birdcage awaiting as the headline act strode out of the float.
Once again, the nation has gone crazy over a racehorse. A wonder mare who had won 21 races straight before Saturday, has captured the hearts of a nation, singlehandedly bringing racing back into the loungerooms, bars and cafeterias around the country.
Australia has a new star – she’s the “best on the planet” – and for one glorious spring afternoon we’re united as one. While only a world cup soccer game will bring those divided folk in England together, it seems that only a thoroughbred can do the same Downunder.
The legendary Phar Lap is credited with keeping a country’s spirits up during the dark days of the Depression. Even before Australia became a nation, Carbine captivated the colonies in 1890 – and is often regarded as the greatest of all time. Heroic feats by the likes of Bernborough, Ajax, Tulloch, Manikato and Kingston Town have propelled racing into the national psyche.
And now – in just over a decade – we have celebrated three equine wonders: Makybe Diva, Black Caviar and now Winx.
“I love it when the racing is not all about punting, but the sport itself,” ABC sporting guru Gerard Whateley said, as he relished the build-up during the afternoon. The author of Black Caviar: The Horse of a Lifetime, believes for many in the crowd the occasion was like “barracking for your football team – they’re all here to cheer their team. There’s such great anticipation and atmosphere building as we all wait to witness history.”
Horse-lover Peter Stefanovic, who closely followed Winx for Nine’s 60 minutes, believes it’s a no-brainer that the mare would become Australia’s next legend. “Australians love sport and Australians love a champion,” he said.
Yet with the tall poppy syndrome alive and well in our supposed egalitarian society, it seems only thoroughbred champions are immune from the treatment dished out to our leaders, stars and celebrities.
Outside box 54, the crowd is 10-deep throughout the afternoon, smart phones flashing, as a star-glazed crowd pays homage to the Aussie monarch in waiting. Channel 7’s live outdoor studio is just metres away, yet for the six-year-old mare and her Turkish strapper Umut Odemislioglu, it’s just another day at the office.
Fans have travelled from far and wide. “You’ve just gotta be here,” said racing nut Paul Neubecker, who dragged his non-racing local publican Mark Hurst down south and away from one of the busiest weekends at the Pine Beach Hotel in Emu Park, on the Capricorn Coast. “This is not only racing history being made, but it is Australian sporting history and it’s great to be a part of it.”
The horse’s blue and white racing colours along with the standout “M” have taken over racing marketing from Black Caviar’s famous salmon with black spots. The Valley’s souvenir Winx hats sold out in the first hour and naturally blue and white was the dress of choice in the enclosures.
Lloyd Menz and his daughter Angela were the odds-on favourites for “Winx fashions in the fields”. Menz, who travelled from Canberra, has been adding home-made patches to his one-off blazer after each of the 21 wins. “Yeah, I think I’m running out of room,” laughs Lloyd. “I simply want to be here to witness folklore happen and be a part of the excitement.”
Angela believes the hype and excitement that surrounds a super-horse is explained because for non-racing people like her, the whole concept of winning and continuing to win is easy to understand and get behind.
For Lloyd, the super-horse manifestation occurs when it reaches a certain point when “the public takes over ownership of it. Everyone here owns Winx and it’s something special when we all get behind her.”
Back on the lawn, it’s packed, and in the middle of the mosh pit: party time. It’s been a long wait for the 9th race. Greg Hill is just one of the many racegoers who have turned up dressed like jockey Hugh Bowman. Even some of the youngsters are being Bowman for a day. The vast majority of the Winx army weren’t born when Kingston Town won his 3rd Cox Plate in 1982, many were just toddlers when Makybe Diva won three Melbourne Cups in a row.
It’s now officially a rock concert with just 20 minutes to go, and the 32,000 plus crowd are (fortunately) out-singing Daryl Braithwaite as he attempts to belt out his classic Horses. Then at last the “players” emerge from the tunnel on to the track. Seven runners, who are meant to make up the numbers, and then, wait for it, the star of the show emerges to a reception Mick Jagger would be proud of.
The 3rd Cox Plate encore was meant to be a lap of honour for the $1.10 favourite and the crowd’s roar as she rounded the field at the 800-metre mark certainly heralded the arrival of the new Queen. Then a party pooper loomed as they straightened. Momentary silence, before the star held off Humidor by a long neck. Long live Queen Winx.
The crowd howled, hooted and celebrated. Their horse had just reached equine immortality and they were there to be part of her win. Acknowledging this, part-owner Debbie Keptis, who also whooped and shrieked as she collected the plate, symbolically handed over the keys of her wonder horse as she thanked them all for being a part of the Winx phenomenon.
A memorable, record-breaking day at the races for 32,617 proud owners of the nation’s new superstar.
Melbourne-born sports nut, Colin “Bomber” Dale began his career in journalism with The Herald as copy boy in 1980. Stints with the Sunday Press and The Sun followed along with a year with NTV Channel 8 in Darwin. Chasing his dream to work in Fleet Street and follow all sports and drink beer around the world, Bomber landed on his feet in the UK, founding a tour company specialising in festivals such as the Oktoberfest in Munich, Rugby Internationals and Royal Ascot. Prost!