Published by Trevor Marshallsea, 26th October 2018 on foxsports.com.au
IS Winx better than Phar Lap?
Would Tulloch have beaten them both? Or maybe Kingston Town? And where do we put perfection, in the unbeaten Black Caviar, when she was exclusively a sprinter?
Would Kincsem have left them all for dead?
It’s one of the most worn clichés in sport – it’s hard to compare champions of different eras. But, to use another one, it’s stood the test of time for a reason.
So much changes with time and increased knowledge – such as with nutrition, supplements, training tools and regimens – to complicate comparisons. It partly explains why Usain Bolt ran faster than Jesse Owens. Modern racehorses are faster than before, but they’re finer physically as well, and can stand up to a lot less punishment than their predecessors.
The arguments over where Winx sits in the chamber of the greats are complex. If she takes her fourth Cox Plate on Saturday, she will definitely be alone among that rich list of winners, shaking off her tie with Kingston Town to become the only horse with four wins in what is essentially Australia’s top-quality race.
There are some ways to compare the greats of the ages. Winx wins in some of them, over even Phar Lap, but not in others. We’ll look at that later.
But there is one basic stat that’s hard to look away from: good old successive wins. The length of the picket fence (all those 1111111s).
And, strange as it sounds for something that happened 131 years ago, there’s good news on that front for Winx’s standing. And Black Caviar’s for that matter.
With 28 on end, which should become 29 (from 39 starts) on Saturday, Winx — officially — sits sixth among winning streaks worldwide. Black Caviar, who unlike Winx was unbeaten, is seventh on 25.
No cultural superiority here, but we can safely ignore four of the five above Winx. They all raced in the decidedly second-rate jurisdiction of Puerto Rico, between the 1920s and the 1950s.
Camarero actually holds the world streak record, having won the first 56 of his 77 starts in the ‘50s. Then there’s Cofresi with 49 straight, Condado with 44, and Galgo Jr, with 39. Why should we be a touch cynical about the depth of opposition? Cofresi won 119 races. Condado won 151! And Galgo Jnr retired on 136. We’ve seen plastic ponies in casinos win less.
Doing a Donald Trump and dismissing the Puerto Ricans leaves one horse more genuinely above Winx: Kincsem.
Another mare, she came from Hungary in the 1870s, and won 54 out of 54. Famous for never going anywhere without her stable cat Csalogány, Kincsem (which roughly translates as “My Precious”, all you Gollum fans) is a Hungarian folk hero. Budapest’s main racetrack is called Kincsem Park. And as we did with Phar Lap, they made a movie about her, only last year.
Immediately, you question the quality of Hungarian racing in the 1870s. Then again, that was the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so they probably weren’t short of a quid.
Plus, Kincsem won in six different countries. Mind you, while her one English win – the 1878 Goodwood Gold Cup – is cited as a mark of quality, she only beat two rivals. Still, so did Winx in the 2016 Caulfield Stakes. And then again, in Kincsem’s last season her average handicap was a massive 69.5kg.
Nevertheless, three months ago, a German racing website put together a detailed list of all Kincsem’s starts.
It turns out that of her 54 wins, six were “walkovers” – a “race” in which no one else bothered taking her on.
With her first one at start 25, one view could be to say that if walkovers don’t count, her longest winning streak was 24. This would of course give Winx the No.1 streak in world racing history, with Black Caviar No.2 (again, dismissing the Puerto Ricans).
Tempting as that may be, since the walkovers weren’t Kincsem’s fault it would probably be fairer to just delete them, leaving her streak at 48.
You could play hardball with the numbers some more. There were also eight occasions when Kincsem beat just one other runner. Hardly a race, really. She won those by an average of around eight lengths.
If we delete those too, the all-time scorecard would paint Australia’s mares in a far more prominent light: Kincsem 40; Winx 28; Black Caviar 25.
And if Winx wins this Saturday, and wins her standard four next autumn – retirement seeming off the table for now – she could bow out next year with an adjusted table looking like this:
BLACK CAVIAR 25
It looks a lot different to today’s scorecard, of Kincsem 54, Winx 28. It’s also not bad considering racing has been going for 300-plus years. And that Winx will have come the closest, and got within just seven, of a colossus who raced more than 130 years ago, and will have had 11 more starts.
For my book, Winx – Biography of a Champion, I assessed other manners of plotting Winx’s historical standing.
England-based international horse ratings body Timeform insists you can compare champions of different eras, using a formula weighing factors like strength of opposition, margins, weights, times, etc.
While Winx sits atop the rival World Thoroughbred Rankings of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, she’s currently equal-third for Timeform, with England’s Cracksman and Baattash sharing top-rating with 136, and Winx 134.
Winx is still short of the 136 that made Black Caviar the highest-rated horse in the world at one point. On historical Australian Timeform rankings, she’s equal-13th, on a list headed by Phar Lap (141), Tulloch and Bernborough (138), and Kingston Town (137).
On this, Winx has partly been a victim of her success. It’s harder to build her rating if only small fields show up to challenge her.
In terms of beating what’s put in front of her, pre-eminence above her contemporaries, Winx scores a lot higher.
Sydney statistician Michael Ford applies an American points system to the four tiers of stakes races. In Group 1s, horses get six points for a win, five points for second and four points for 3rd. In Group 2s it goes 5-4-3; Group 3s 4-3-2; and Listed races 3-2-1.
On average points per start, Black Caviar tops the list with 5.00.
Winx sits second on 4.85, ahead of past greats Ajax (4.72), Carbine (4.35), Kingston Town (4.34), and Sunline (4.25). Tulloch sits only seventh (4.21) and Phar Lap just 11th (3.92), but their pictures are clouded, by factors including how their stakes wins were categorised when the four-tier system started in 1978, replacing the old “Principal Race” categorisation which clumped all four tiers as one.
Phar Lap won more stakes races than any horse in that list’s top 20, with 36 from 51 starts. So he ranks a lot higher on another table – stakes wins per starts – with 70.6 per cent. But he still sits only fifth.
Black Caviar is top again, with 96 per cent for 24 out of 25. Winx is second, on 78.9 per cent (30 out of 38), with Ajax third (33/46 or 71.7%), and many other greats below.
Yes, it is tricky to compare different eras. It’s safer just to enjoy them all, and, for contemporary fans, to revel in the fact we’ve had two such extraordinary horses to in our time, in Winx and Black Caviar.
By several markers, though, Winx deserves to be at or near the top.
Four Cox Plates? No one has done that.
Successive wins? You’ve got to go back 131 years, to Hungary, to find one better. And even she perhaps wasn’t as far ahead as we thought.