The morning after Winx’s Warwick Stakes victory two weeks ago, Chris Waller sat in front of his television at home and realised great horses don’t always win.
“That could have been me,” Waller thought as the trainer of the world’s best horse Arrogate, Bob Baffert, had to explain the unthinkable for the second run in a row – losing. Although it was bittersweet for Baffert, as stablemate Collected won the race.
“He said it laid an egg and took the attention away from the horse straight away,” Waller said.
Waller picked up his phone and wrote a text. He sent it to the man who would understand the pressure on Winx.
“Congratulations on win and Arrogate went better,” he wrote.
The pair had met for the first time at the World Racehorse Awards in London in January. Arrogate took the top award, while Winx was named the world’s best turf horse and world’s best mare. Waller and Baffert have a lot in common, great trainers with great horses.
It started a friendship. Baffert had sent Waller a message before Warwick Stakes – “good luck I hope everything goes well and how’s the family”.
Baffert will probably send him another one on Saturday and stay up to near midnight in California to watch Winx attempt to continue her phenomenal winning streak in the Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick.
“I’m a fan,” Baffert said. “I follow horses. Like Frankel, I never missed one of his starts, and I don’t miss Winx.
“Following a horse like Winx or Arrogate is like following Usain Bolt or Tiger Woods.
“You just want to see them do the spectacular.”
But there is another side to that.
“With Arrogate it showed what we are all preparing ourselves for,” Waller said. He leaves off the word defeat.
Winx hasn’t had that bitter taste for nearly three years, a run of 18 wins on end.
However, for the majority of the Warwick Stakes Waller was preparing himself for that moment where he had to explain defeat. It would have been easy as everyone had seen her blow the start by five lengths before reeling in stablemate Foxplay in a display of sustained speed and will to win.
Waller likes to watch Winx’s races alone and then composes himself for the raft of interviews that will follow. In Baffert, Waller has someone who is at the same level. He is a more relaxed version of Waller, who often talks of the intensity around racing.
“It is not just appreciating the horse, he appreciates what you are going through and how different it is,” Waller said. “We don’t have to say too much to each other in the messages. It is good to know he is there.”
Baffert trained American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown, the first horse to do so in 37 years. It made him a household name in American sport in 2015. Next he found Arrogate, which won the Breeders Cup Classic last year as a three-year-old like American Pharoah, then the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup.
He knows the pressure that comes with greatness.
“I know what Chris is going through and I see how emotional he gets after the wins because it is a lot of pressure. You are dealing with greatness,” Baffert said.
“You don’t want to let the fans down and you don’t want to let the horse down.
“I know what he is going through. It has been nice to stay in contact.
“He is a great horseman and he has a great mare. It is neat to watch it.”
When Waller took a couple of days off to take in the Kentucky Derby earlier in the year he somewhat nervously sent Baffert a message asking if they could meet up. They met at Ashford stud farm, at the barn of American Pharoah, before Waller and the silver-haired Baffert spent the morning at the track.
“I haven’t really asked him too many questions but there is a general calm feeling when you are around him. I think he is a great example,” Waller said. “We just talked about our horses.”
It is not something that can happen in many sports but horsemen are generally willing to learn from each other.
“I’m a very curious person,” Baffert said. “When you have a great horse people are scared to talk to you but we just had a normal conversation.
“They train totally different to the way we train here.
“When I saw him at the Ashford stallions, we just got to talking about racing here and racing there and picking each others’ minds.”
Baffert admits he didn’t know Winx or Waller before the awards in London, but is now the leader of Winx’s American fan club.
“When I saw her races at the awards, I became a fan of hers. All the wins and the way she moves and everything,” Baffert said. “She is a wonderful filly. I love watching her race. She moves like nothing else.
“I’m like anyone in racing when there is greatness out there, I follow it. They follow Arrogate now, they followed [American] Pharoah. I follow Winx.
“When I watch the golf I root for the guys I have met. Knowing Chris, of course, I’m rooting for him and Winx.” – Chris Roots, SMH