The racing world is shrinking. We have seen horses from Europe come to the United States on a regular basis for years and win our top turf races, and on occasion top dirt races. This year alone we saw the sensational filly Enable become the first horse to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and Longines Breeders' Cup Turf in the same year, and we also saw the Irish-trained Mendelssohn go to Dubai and win the UAE Derby by a staggering 18 ½ lengths and then make an unprecedented six transatlantic trips in 2018, running in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, and then finishing on the board in the Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Cigar Mile Presented by NYRA Bets, and Dwyer Stakes, and also finishing a respectable fifth, beaten only four lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Classic after setting a rapid pace. And he made his first transatlantic trip last fall, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
But that bridge between the U.S. and the rest of the world expanded to 10,000 miles this year, not because of a foreign horse's heroics on an American racetrack, but because of what a remarkable mare from Australia named Winx was able to accomplish in the minds and hearts of American racing fans.
The Secretariat Vox Populi Award, created by Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery in 2010, annually recognizes the horse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the general public and gained recognition for Thoroughbred racing. With approximately 80% or higher of the votes coming from the States each year, it was not a surprise that the award had been won every year by an American horse... until now.
The thought of a 7-year-old Australian mare being more popular with American racing fans than the undefeated Triple Crown winner boggles the mind, and made the Vox Populi Award truly a global award, expanding horizons even Penny Chenery couldn't have dreamed of.
So just how did Winx, winner of all seven of her starts in 2018, including her fourth consecutive victory in the prestigious Cox Plate, bridge such a wide chasm, especially with her races being run at approximately 1-2 a.m. in many parts of the U.S.? How did she beat out Triple Crown winner Justify in America by 11 percentage points? In short, how did she manage to win this award with only 6% of the votes coming from Australia?
Australian-born Murray Johnson, who trained in America for 20 years, saddling Perfect Drift to a number of major stakes victories and earnings of more than $4.7 million before moving back to Australia several years ago, hit the proverbial nail on the head.
"It is surprising that she would win," he said. "I think it shows how the Internet has changed things. Winx is a freak and (trainer) Chris Waller and his team have done an amazing job to keep the streak going. My list of great horses I've seen race grows longer, and Winx is right up the list."
To demonstrate the following Winx had in the States, seconds after one of her victories, Twitter would light up with congratulations, despite the hour. Many would just post Winx's name in capital letters followed by numerous exclamation points, while others would express their joy with an array of superlatives.
On Aug. 17, at 1:08 a.m. Eastern, immediately following Winx's victory in the Winx Stakes, TVG, which televised Winx's races live, posted the following tweet: "#WINX makes history with 26 consecutive wins in the race named in her honor." That tweet remains TVG's top tweet of the year in analytics with 888 likes and 327 retweets, according to senior producer Becky Witzman-Somerville.
This is a mare Americans never saw in person, racing in a country we have little connection with. We witnessed a similar worldwide affection several years ago for the great Australian sprinter Black Caviar. And Winx has been able to build on that, especially competing in major distance races and displaying a late burst of speed that was unlike anything seen before.
Johnson provided one example of her spectacular closing punch. "For any horse to break 44 seconds for the last 800 meters of a 2,000-meter race while running 1,200-meter, 1,000- meter, 800-meter, 400-meter, and 200-meter splits faster than the Group 2, 1,200-meter race run that same day was truly remarkable. She did that in the Turnbull Stakes, the race before the Cox Plate."
We are well aware of Winx's extraordinary talent and her astounding 29-race winning streak, surpassing Black Caviar's 25-race winning streak. But that isn't what the Vox Populi Award is all about. It is more about popularity, combined with achievement and the impact a horse has on the sport itself. After all, Vox Populi means "Voice of the People." The 2011 winner, Rapid Redux, won 22 consecutive races, 19 of them coming the year he won the award, but he competed mostly in low-level claiming races around the Mid-Atlantic region. His nationwide popularity enabled him to beat out top-class fillies Goldikova and Havre de Grace for the award.
But this is the first time the Vox Populi Award went far beyond nationwide popularity. Perhaps this was the American public expressing their feelings about horses remaining in training for a number of years and rewarding Winx and her owners, Magic Bloodstock, Debbie Kepitis, and Richard Treweeke, for keeping her in training for so long and racing at the highest level, well beyond anything we normally see in America for a non-gelding.
Peter Tighe of Magic Bloodstock, who will be at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 12 to accept the award along with Kepitis and a representative of the Treweeke family, said, "We are excited and thrilled to win the Vox Populi Award. Winx has truly been an amazing horse to all of us that have been involved with her since the day we bought her. We are truly humbled and honored, firstly to have been nominated. But then to actually win is something else."
Kepitis added, "We, as the lucky connections of this mighty mare Winx, are excited that the general population as well as worldwide racing fans voted her as the Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner. We are humbled that Winx is so loved around the world and thrilled that people were captivated by her remarkable feats and will to win."
So, for the first time in the brief history of the Vox Populi Award, we have the Internet serving as a pipeline stretching all the way to Australia. This now opens a whole new avenue for the award, bringing an awareness of equine heroes from far-off lands we might never have known much about.
Although Winx raced solely in Australia, her persona and her remarkable feats resonated all the way to America, thanks to the Vox Populi Award and the powerful aura she was able to emit. As a result, she is now part of American racing, showing that heroes need not be seen in the flesh if their spirit can be felt halfway across the world.