Trainer Chris Waller’s reactions to Winx’s success help put a human face on a piece of potential equine history. (AAP: Simon Bullard)
As Geoff Boycott might enliven an Ashes series with a caustic comment about the Australian batsmen, the equally opinionated English racing pundit Matt Chapman lit up the Cox Plate with his scathing assessment of Winx’s opposition.
At the Cox Plate breakfast, Chapman ventured: “Back home we feel Winx is beating fairly moderate horses”.
In a room filled with Australian racing heavyweights, media and enthusiasts all hyperventilating about Winx’s quest for a fourth Cox Plate, this was the proverbial passing of wind at the royal garden party.
Thus Chapman’s seemingly calculated taunt drew inevitably patriotic — even jingoistic — responses from local observers keen to protect Australia’s patch of turf.
World’s Best Horse tweet: Winx, the world’s highest rated racehorse, looks to add another Cox Plate (G1) to her collection on Saturday.
Yet beyond the predictable Anglo-Aussie to-and-fro, Winx’s heart-on-sleeve trainer Chris Waller provided both the most forceful rebuttal and the best insight into why this horse — and, particularly, this race — means so much.
“I’ve taken those comments in and I was very, very surprised and disappointed to the fact that I think he’s a bit of a dickhead for saying it really,” said Waller, sounding more like a chivalrous husband defending his partner’s reputation than a horse trainer arguing against a dubious assertion.
To those of us who have watched Waller almost as closely as Winx during her incredible winning streak, the trainer’s trenchant defence was as true to form as his mare’s performances.
As Winx won 28 consecutive races including 21 group ones and almost $20 million in prizemoney, Waller’s very public face has been a window to her story and, for those of us who know more about batting averages than sectional times, the best connection to the horse itself.
There are many and varied reasons why some Australians with little or no affinity for racing attach themselves to racehorses as avidly and emotionally as those in other countries attach themselves to footballers, basketballers or baseballers.
It might be an evocative name. Personally, I retain a completely irrational love for the Melbourne Cup battlers Earthquake Magoon and Waikikamukau.
It could be a brilliant call of a breathtaking finish: “And Bonecrusher races into equine immortality …”
If gentlemen prefer blondes, racegoers prefer greys — the brilliant sprinter Schillaci or the “Goondiwindi Grey” Gunsynd are abiding favourites.
Sometimes pure brilliance in performance — like Makybe Diva’s three Melbourne Cups — grab the public’s attention. (AAP: Joe Castro)
Most obviously like Makybe Diva, Black Caviar and Winx, together the Destiny’s Child of the Australian turf, there is just sheer breathtaking brilliance.
Trainer thankful for once-in-a-lifetime run
But Waller’s emotional commitment to his job, and to this history-making horse, has invested Winx’s story with something beyond mere equine excellence; something more relatable.
Chris Waller is aware of his good fortune to have charge of one of Australia’s greatest ever horses. (AAP: Julian Smith)
Waller’s emotion seems partly attributable to his self-conscious gratitude for what racing has given him, now encapsulated in this once-in-a-lifetime thoroughbred.
The son of a New Zealand dairy farmer, after lobbing in Sydney Waller followed the stereotypical training path — sleeping on sofas at friends’ houses and maxing out credit cards while filling a few boxes at Royal Randwick and building his business.
For most, this story ends with the odd country winner or, as likely, back mucking out the stables of another trainer who had better connections, superior business sense or just more dumb luck.
Waller, you sense, knows he is that rare exception, and the sense of gratitude is obvious during the many interviews he has given singing Winx’s praises and, in his enthusiasm and emotion, betraying his own deep personal investment.
Judged by his almost fragile race-day demeanour, Waller doesn’t just take Winx to the track. He prepares her to fulfil a national responsibility.
The weight of this task is etched on his taut face, the strain evident in his quivering voice and the relief palpable in the tears that flow when she crosses the line.
Waller strikes rare popular note in elite racing game
Waller’s emotion is as poignant as Winx’s barnstorming finishes because it provides a welcome counterpoint to what racing has become — or, perhaps, what it has always been.
As the old saying goes, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. Never is that more true than during the spring racing carnival when we pretend racing is a sport of the people, not an increasingly cynical and elitist industry.
The recent debate about the use of the Opera House sails to advertise The Everest was, in essence, a petty squabble about 15 minutes of controversial screen time.
But as much as the use of the Opera House itself, the posturing of the chief protagonists provided a reminder of the stark gap between the sports ruling elite and the punters and partygoers who are very much on the fringes.
Last year’s Melbourne Cup was an Irish 1-2-3, as the “international raiders” dominated the great race. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
At the same time there is the now annual debate about whether the Melbourne Cup is too heavily tilted in favour of what were once called “foreign raiders”, but are now better known simply as “the field”.
You might agree that the Melbourne Cup’s international domination has enriched the race. But it is inarguable the cost of this transition is the shattered dream of the so-called “bush battlers” whose locally bred stayers are virtually excluded from what was once the most egalitarian of races.
“The romance of the turf”? Now more likely what happens between drunk partygoers in Flemington Portaloos than anything that takes place on the track.
Which is why it will be as much Waller’s emotion as Winx’s performance that exalts this seemingly predictable yet historic Cox Plate.
Regardless of what you think of racing, it’s hard not to care about a horse when you see someone care so much.
Full coverage of the Cox Plate on Offsiders at 10am Sunday on ABC TV.