Winx – The horse that stops the nation

I’m happy to watch sport for its own sake and I’m not really one for betting on it or gambling of any type. Most of the time I can’t really see the point of it or indeed the fun. It seems to me that however you go about it you can never really win in the long run, so why bother?

There is, however, something thrilling about the day at the races. The combination of the muffled thunder of a dozen or more sets of hooves racing by at high speed, combined with a wager or two, is just part of the sensorial experience if not the pleasure of a day at the races.

Even if you do prefer to keep your wallet in your pocket it’s quite possible to get caught up in the back stories of racing. We all have the capacity to be taken in by romance and drama.

In recent times there was a horse from Tasmania that was almost impossible not to love. His name was The Cleaner and he was trained in the northern Tasmanian hamlet of Longford. His trainer, Mick Burles, was the battling type who lived simply, smoked heavily and late in his working life found a gem of a race horse. The Cleaner’s racing style was very simple as well: jump out of the gates, get to the lead and then go faster. The formula worked and the home-spun Tasmanian method yielded $1.35m in prize money, seven wins in Melbourne and, most impressively of all, two top 10 finishes in the WS Cox Plate, which is widely regarded as the Thoroughbred championship of Australia.
Throughout history Australians have always had a somewhat unique relationship with their equine companions and a fondness for the bond that can exist between human and horse. Even when the idea of winning any money back wasn’t very likely I was happy to put a few dollars on The Cleaner when he ran his biggest races. It was a tangible way of buying into the dream and sharing in something irresistible – a trainer who regarded his horse as his best friend.

This weekend the incomparable Winx is running for a fourth straight Cox Plate win, an achievement that would surpass that of another horse that captured my imagination at the height of my youthful sporting fancies – Kingston Town. KT was more than a Thoroughbred horse; he was a noble athlete. Well worth spending a few dollars on here and there.
It’s said the Melbourne Cup is ‘the race that stops the nation’, though these days that well-worn line seems more a marketing slogan than a statement of fact. Without the Mick Burles and The Cleaners of this world, the Cup and its international field seems more like a travelling show for the uber-rich owners’ trainers and jockeys of the racing universe. And of course, the punters.

But Winx has become a different case to me and, it seems, the rest of Australia. When the gates fly open at Moonee Valley at the start of the Cox Plate on Saturday there’ll be a large part of the nation watching the spectacle of an undisputed champion, maybe for one of the last times. It will be enough to hold the breath of the most casual of observers.

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