Making and Breaking a Champion Racehorse
How did Winx rise to become the champion that she has?
The short answer is that she runs faster than any of the other horses, such that more than a few savvy trainers plan the campaigns of their horses to avoid racing Winx. A few will take her on, but those that do unabashedly admit that the reason is that the races Winx enters offer top prizemoney.
A typical Group 1 race, such as the one Winx won last time out, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000 m) at Randwick, had a prize pool above $4 million.
Gailo Chop, almost four lengths back at the finish, picked up three quarters of a million dollars, while third place runner Happy Clapper made $395,000. Even the last place runner in 10th, Success Days, earned $27,500.
The longer answer behind the success Winx has enjoyed is a bit more complicated.
While it is true that trainer Chris Waller played a role and Hugh Bowman has done his riding chores quite adequately, there would be little argument that another trainer or another rider could have accomplished the same thing, given care of Winx.
So, we fall back on her DNA.
While this is easy enough to trace, and in fact, her ancestors are more traceable than are ours (we cannot go beyond our grandparents and even that information is sketchy and relies on faith), there have been many champion racers that were duds in the breeding shed.
We hope Black Caviar is not reading this.
Winx’s sire was Street Cry of Ireland. He was a credible runner, with his biggest win as a four-year-old in the 2002 Dubai World Cup, the race that accounted for a very large portion of his $5.1 million in career earnings. The exact figure eludes us and the race was boosted to $10 million in prizemoney in 2010, so all we can say is that when Arrogate won in 2017, he took in $6 million.
Like many successful stallions of the current era, his connections ran him on a limited basis, in Street Cry’s case, 12 starts, and then sent him to stud, where he could and did earn big fees for many years. He was good enough as a sire to be named Champion Australian sire for 2015/16, even though he was dead, euthanised in 2014.
Winx was out of New Zealand’s Vegas Showgirl. That mare was a capable racer at the lower levels, with seven wins and nine placings from 35 jumps.
It is four generations back where one of the true greats makes his first appearance. That was Canada’s Northern Dancer. He won 14 times and was never unplaced in 18 starts. The list of accolades for Northern Dancer as a sire is long, but the digested view of his career of being paid for what most of us gladly do for free is that his progeny to date have earned over $30 million.
By the fifth generation back, all of Winx’s lines are from the northern hemisphere, save a Kiwi mare named Gay Abandon with just the slightest tinge of New Zealand blood in her.
In the case of Winx, her ancestors, some of them at least, were not just good but great racers.
Returning to Waller as the trainer, he deserves a lot of credit for managing Winx’s career well. He chose her distances well, spelled her properly and even held her back from a trip to England in June, abandoning the chance for Royal glory by turning down the chance to race at Royal Ascot and have his mighty mare bend the knee to Her Majesty.
To sum all that up, there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to producing a champion, even one more modest than Winx. Pedigree is no guarantee, and racing luck has been capricious on many occasions, so it requires luck of the good kind, along with good lines and excellent preparation, to turn out a Winx, a Black Caviar, a Maybe Diva, a Tulloch, a Phar Lap, a Kingston Town, or any of the other greats you might care to consider.
What is the flip side to that equation - how do you break a champion?
Unfortunately, that has been done far too often. Just consider the number of horses that had good parents, but whose names remain anonymous, due to an injury that was not properly tended, racing too frequently or at unsuitable distances.
Consider Kingston Town. One of the greatest milers in the history of Australian racing and more than capable up to 2000 metres, his connections saw fit to run him in the 1981 Melbourne Cup and we can only wonder what T J Smith was thinking when he made that decision. It could have been pressure from the owners, or simply a matter of there was really nothing else for Kingston Town to win.
Kingston Town was raced 41 times, an elevated figure by today’s standards. It may have been 10 races too many, but such as that is pure speculation on our part, other than to support our argument that up to 2000 metres, few of the day could beat him, but when they tried to take him out to the 3200 metres of the Melbourne Cup, it was simply the case of a middle distance horse outclassed by the stayers.
Another thing that can break a champion is foul play.
Someone took a shot with a pistol at Phar Lap in 1930. The shooter missed and Phar Lap was unfazed and continued to win, but Big Philou was not nearly so lucky.
Considered the prohibitive favourite to win the 1969 Melbourne Cup after already having won the Caulfield Cup, going for the rare Cups double, Big Philou was illicitly dosed with a large dose of the laxative Danthron and trainer Bart Cummings was forced to scratch the horse in the final hour before the race.
There is the short version of what it takes to make a champion racehorse and what it takes to break one.
Making one is the far more difficult of the two undertakings and while expert training, skillful riding, and good breeding are essential, without a little racing luck, “The best laid plans of mice and men…"