Winx factor stretches far and wide
SHE is the freak with the streak. Winx's mesmerising winning sequence is like a highwire act: the longer it goes the more the fascinated we got, watching and willing her not to fall.
The world champion's regular farrier Jason Brettle, expert at nailing on horse shoes, nails the truth about why she has so many devout fans.
"People are coming to the races not to see her race but to see her win," Brettle said. "She defies the odds every time and that gets harder and harder for Chris and (for) Hughie Bowman."
The Winx fan club reaches far and wide. Two of her owners, Debbie Kepitis and Peter Tighe, went to Canberra to meet Thoroughbred Breeders Association members during the week - and were ushered into the Prime Minister's office to hand over an autographed copy of the new Winx biography.
And her fame goes well beyond Parliament House.
When Chris Waller attended last year's Kentucky Derby with a group of Melbourne friends, and word got around that Winx's trainer was in the room, he was instantly the centre of attention. The Winx factor opened doors in the world centre of blue blood thoroughbreds.
Then there's Martin Wickins, the high-flying Canadian tax accountant who jets across the world to see Winx every time she runs. He has so far flown around 400,000 kilometres - more than the distance to the moon.
This qualifies as an obsession, but no more bizarre than that of Lloyd Menz, the retired Canberra public servant who followed Winx faithfully even before she started her winning streak.
Menz, who fell in love with racing as a boy in Ballarat, wears an alarming combination of blue hat and two-tone blue shoes to her races, teamed with homemade badges sewn on his blue suit - one badge for each win, so the outfit is getting a little busy.
He cuts a mildly eccentric figure but is reassuringly normal to speak to, as is his smartly-dressed daughter Angela, also a victim of the Winx bug. As are tens of thousands of other Australians - and Kiwis, who have lodged a claim on her because her mother Vegas Showgirl was bred over there from a line of New Zealand mares stretching back to the 19th century.
Jockeys are not immune to the Winx factor, even international ones who have seen and ridden the best in the world. Take Kerrin McEvoy, two-time Melbourne Cup winner and a polished senior rider here and overseas. At Rosehill races on March 11, 2017, McEvoy stood in for Bowman on Winx in an exhibition gallop because Bowman was committed to ride in the Australian Cup in Melbourne.
McEvoy admits he was as delighted as an apprentice kid getting his first ride "in town". He had a full book of rides, including some good ones, but couldn't concentrate on them because of the thought of galloping Winx alone in front of the crowd.
Piloting Winx solo in front of fans pushed everything else from his mind. McEvoy has seen punters and owners and racegoers all over the world - but fans are different. Real fans, as in the tragics who queue up all night for tickets to see Collingwood or Bruce Springsteen.
One person knew how McEvoy was feeling. As he pulled into the Rosehill carpark, his mobile telephone pinged. It was a message from Bowman, whose thoughts were straying from the Australian Cup.
Good morning. Winx - very straight forward. She will want to roll from the 500m, however if you keep a good hold until 350 she will really quicken for you & don't be frightened to give her a good squeeze inside last 75.
McEvoy the consummate professional won two races that afternoon, including the Phar Lap Stakes on Foxplay, but two years later he admits that riding the exhibition gallop on Winx was better.
"The first thing that struck me … was how much 'bigger' she rides than she looks. She has balance and length; she's so smooth and well-balanced when she's galloping, she's like a snooker table. In human athletes we say core strength …"
It was that inner strength - the quality you can't see in a racehorse - that she had shown the morning she was foaled on Coolmore Stud in 2011, when she surprised watchers by standing and walking within 10 minutes. She looked much like any other leggy filly foal, but there was something special inside.
Her breeder, businessman John Camilleri, and his bloodstock adviser Peter O'Brien liked the filly well enough to set a reserve price of $200,000, meaning they were happy to keep and race her but would let the market decide.
This meant the appraisal of bloodstock agents, who are a little like football talent scouts who look at young players for signs they will make it in the big league. They are not fans but seasoned professionals, resigned to the knowledge that even if they manage to find a champion or two, they will recommend hundreds of the other sort to their clients.
Bloodstock agents are part anatomists, part salesmen, part soothsayers and, in the case of the Irish subspecies, possibly part horse. Many are passably honest.
The relationship between trainers, owners and their bloodstock advisers is close, right up until it's not. Things can change when the money runs and the horses don't. Until that point, they have to trust one another in a business that can shake people's faith in human nature and horses' legs.
Chris Waller describes his adviser Guy Mulcaster as "the best judge of a horse in the world" and means it. But the relationship runs on results.
Just before Christmas 2012, Mulcaster wasn't lazing on a beach. He was on the road, inspecting yearlings at Hunter Valley studs.
By the time he reached the Magic Millions venue on the Gold Coast, ready for the January yearling sale, he'd spent days looking at hundreds of yearlings. One of them was Lot 329, Vegas Showgirl's filly, raised by Coolmore Stud for the breeder. She didn't stand out but she'd passed the first of several auditions.
He pruned the 900 available yearlings to a long list of 100 then to a short list of 61. Of those, Waller's trusted vet Tim Roberts passed 40 as sound.
Waller doesn't buy the "best in show" for the biggest money. He buys like a farmer, not a promoter. He wants good value and sticks to the middle of the market, which experience shows is a safer place to be.
Most buyers want big, shiny, well-muscled, loose-walking yearling colts that look like their sires, preferably in bays or browns with not too much "white paint".
That winners actually come in all shapes, sizes and colours doesn't alter the fact that at the Magic Millions sale, where most buyers want "early speed", a lanky filly like Lot 329 looked like a 15-year-old netballer in an under-18 rugby team.
She was never likely to be a sale topper and that suited the Waller crew. They saw nothing to alarm them and plenty to like: nice-enough head, kind eye and generous nostril, long rein (neck), deep girth, powerful hindquarter, good walk. And, importantly, flawless legs and unflappable temperament.
But the most important bit was invisible. The new owners wouldn't know for more than a year if she could out-run a fat man. Turns out she could.