How long will it take for Australian racing jurisdictions to bite the bullet and open their tracks on Good Friday?
The fabled love-at-first sight notwithstanding, for most of us, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment we fall in love.
You meet someone you’re attracted to and start seeing them casually, having some fun while you get to know each other better, then one day you wake up and realise you’ve lost your heart.
That’s how it was with me and Winx.
To say love caught me by surprise is an understatement. Prior to Winx, I wasn’t a regular racegoer. I have and had some serious misgivings about the industry.
I think racing at its best is glorious; it provides a platform for magnificent creatures to fulfil the unique talent they’re born with, and delivers rewards based on important qualities like courage, discipline and hard work.
It also gives a public largely cut off from the natural world the opportunity to engage in some inter species intimacy and appreciate just how special the non-human animal can be.
But, like most things these days, it’s suffering from excess. Too much money, too much hype, too many thoughtless owners with ravenous egos impatient for success is creating a bloated juggernaut that might be a boon for those who profit from it, but leaves way too many innocent racehorses discarded as mere collateral damage for me to be comfortable with.
So when I first felt drawn to Winx, I was hesitant. She was clearly something special that transcended modern media hysteria but, with my ambivalence towards racing, the attraction felt illicit.
It was also undeniable, and it was the little things about the mighty mare that enchanted me most.
In an industry where inflated reputations can inflate a horse’s market value, many competitors are saddled with ridiculously grandiose monikers.
So I was charmed by Winx’s own simple, unassuming name, though that was nothing to the raptures I felt when I learned her Mum’s name is Vegas Showgirl.
That superstar-next-door appeal revealed itself in other ways. While horses are all natural beauty queens, the young Winx was apparently so unremarkable her official biographer, respected journalist Andrew Rule, labels her a wallflower.
Another distinctly anti-beauty queen quality which brought a smile to my face was learning the champion mare has a champion appetite to match. And while the unbeaten Black Caviar is for many the epitome of excellence, the fact Winx lost some races on her way to greatness made her a more relatable figure to me.
The people surrounding Winx were another attraction. In a society so jaded chemical stimulation has become a prerequisite for many just to enjoy a day out, I was delighted to be reminded that innocence endures when I saw a story about her New Zealand born trainer, Chris Waller, whose children came home after a day in the playground with the heart meltingly simple query, “Is Winx famous?”
Excelling in an industry that attracts some of the toughest players from the elite macho echelons of global business and power, Waller himself is the antithesis of toxic manhood.
Thoughtful, measured, sensitive, humble, this is a man so focused on his charges’ wellbeing, he doesn’t think twice about hosing down a runner in the summer heat wearing his immaculate race day best.
And these were no fly-by-night owners willing to engage any foul means to earn some quick returns or fast-track their journey to reflected glory.
Debbie Kepitis’ interest in racing was inherited from two of the most passionate supporters the sport here has ever seen, her father Bob Ingham and his brother Jack.
The eye-catching purple hair, which has helped make her such a recognisable public face, reminded me of the vivid cerise colours the Ingham brothers made famous, while her enthusiastic demeanour and lively personality recall the days when Australians knew how to be boisterous without being arrogant.
Humility is evident in Winx’s other two owners, Peter Tighe and Richard Treweeke. Not only did the trio allow Waller to chart the mare’s journey to the stratosphere without interference, all three seem to delight as much in the good their miracle mare has done for racing, and the enjoyment she’s brought the public, as their own personal satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Winx’s jockey, Hugh Bowman, has seen his profile grow to celebrity status, but the laconic personality typical to race riders is still firmly in place, including the trait that must be the envy of footballers everywhere – the ability to use as few words as possible to say something genuinely worth listening to.
Another figure we’ve come to know is the one I think has the best job, Winx’s strapper, Umut Odemislioglu, who gave up the glamour of an acting career in his homeland of Turkey so he can spend his days communing with horses.
Add in the connections’ photogenic families, and it brought home to me another positive about racing I hadn’t recognised before – the industry is a flag-bearer for the harmony that can be achieved when people of different backgrounds unite in a shared passion and work together toward a common goal.
As to the moment when I realised my own passion had overtaken me and resistance was meaningless? It might have been the first day I sneaked out to Randwick to see her in person and left exhilarated with half a dozen WINX flags stuffed in my bag.
Or the first time my blood boiled when I read an article implying she was somehow ‘less than’ because our champion mare would continue to do what champions everywhere earn the right to do – ply her trade in the place of her choosing and let her rivals come to her.
Or the night I was so engrossed watching one of her replays I missed my train stop and spent the next hour happily watching several more while I waited for one back the other way.
Whenever it was, somewhere along the line I realised there was no escaping it. This affair was happening and I was helpless to do anything but enjoy it while it lasted and reap its rewards while I could.
Those rewards have been both plentiful and unexpected. Love may not be rational, but loving Winx has improved my life immeasurably in important practical ways. The timing was perfect for one thing.
I first became aware of Winx when I was floundering in the depths of a debilitating depression. For months I felt so broken I couldn’t function at the most basic level – I couldn’t work, I couldn’t face anyone, most days I struggled to haul myself in the shower.
The first thing to put a smile back on my face, and joy in my heart, was watching Winx pull off one improbable victory after another. After another. After another.
As other long buried feelings awoke on love’s emotional roller coaster, the numbness of my depression started to lift.
Elation warred with fury when a fired-up Kapitis delivered a much-deserved serve to English commentator Matt Chapman for his vacuous jibe implying the colonial Winx was a second-tier superstar.
I was gripped by the fervent enthusiasm of a nodding-dog reading an insightful article by Rule explaining exactly why Winx deserves her status as one of racing’s greats.
As Winx’s reputation grew, so did my head-shaking bewilderment, as I watched hundreds of thousands of dollars in place prizemoney go unclaimed when rival owners and trainers became increasingly unwilling to test their charges against the champ.
I still find this attitude inexplicable. If I’d owned a donkey, I’d have plonked a saddle on his back, pulled a hood over his head and tried to sneak him past the stewards for a chance to experience the privilege of competing against a legend.
And if I’d managed to pull off this miracle feat of horse-substitution, I’d have spent the rest of Mythical Donkey’s days telling anyone who’d listen how proud I was to watch him run stone cold motherless to the greatest horse I will ever see.
I would, however, have presented a genuine threat in the post-race tissue stakes.
After one recent win at Randwick when a teary Debbie K flashed up on the big screen, I heard an incredulous voice near me say, “Why is she still crying?” With my own eyes streaming, and too choked up to speak, I could only shake my head in wonder at how men, excepting Winx’s famously emotional trainer, can be such philistines when it comes to love.
So the super mare’s retirement will leave a big hole. While the steadfast Waller is reportedly considering counselling to help his staff make the transition, I’ve been making my own preparations for life post Winx.
I decided to follow the timeless self-help advice to disregard the negative and focus instead on what makes you feel good.
Which meant forgetting the tosh I’d read about rival trainers not wanting to expose their horses to the “trauma” of being beaten, and simply be grateful there are at least two real men left in racing, Pat Webster and Blake Shinn, trainer and jockey of the venerable Happy Clapper whose audacious attempt to unseat the Queen in the recent Chipping Norton Stakes will live in my memory as long as Winx does.
Similarly, the “prove her overseas” knockers who had so enraged me faded into the background as I thought about fans the world over who share my love for the mighty mare; the Kiwis, South Africans and Europeans I’ve met on the bus back to Central after race days, the American racing fans who made a ritual of “Winx Friday Nights”, and our own Bruce McAvaney whose emotional calls are a mirror for the feelings so many of us experience when we watch her race.
When I felt it was time to engage with life again but still struggled to pull myself back together, I found myself asking, “What would Winx do?” I studied her 400-page biography to uncover the secrets of how an unremarkable filly became a worldwide phenomenon, learning that even those with unique talent tread a well-worn path to success.
Becoming Winx meant rising early each morning, ready to start her day’s work; fulfilling a disciplined daily schedule by doing exactly what was required, when, with a minimum of fuss; and committing to a larger plan so thoughtfully structured she met each breathtaking new target effortlessly, making it all look so easy many will forever underestimate her greatness.
As I thought about the behaviours that took Winx from wallflower to legend, I realised they weren’t exclusive to champions. And when I started embracing them in my own life, my spirits revived along with my energy, until eventually I felt ready to step out my front door and face the world again.
Which was just as well, because the finish line was looming for this extraordinary love affair and I knew soon I’d be going it alone. The reassurance I was strong enough to handle it came as Winx was about to launch her farewell campaign.
Before the first race, my Dad voiced many people’s doubts about whether a seven-year-old mare would still be interested and told me he wouldn’t be going because he didn’t want to be there if she lost. I understood his sentiments, and wondered whether it might not be wiser for me to sit it out too.
In the end, love made the decision for me. This was the horse who owned a piece of my heart and if the unthinkable happened, no matter how much it hurt, the only place I wanted to be was by her side giving back a tiny fraction of the support she’s given me through some of my darkest moments.
Like everyone who loves her, I’m praying that resolve won’t ever be tested and Winx will achieve one last victory to claim one final milestone, this one so fitting it sent a shiver up my spine when I first heard it mentioned – the same number of wins as Australia’s most iconic racehorse, the legendary Phar Lap.
But whatever happens on Saturday, I’ll be there smiling through my tears and giving thanks for a love that, although I may not remember exactly how or when it started, is one I know I’ll never forget.