Science says Winx’s ‘extraordinary ability’ to lift stride rate the key to stunning winning run
April 7, 2017
She is slowly inching into the debate about Australia’s greatest racehorse, but how does science comprehend the almost unrivalled dominance of Winx? And just what makes her so good?
Starting as a little “Elle Macpherson who was all legs” at birth to having “all the athletic attributes of a greyhound” as a lean yearling, anyone who has had anything to do with Winx will tell you why she is on the cusp of winning a 17th consecutive race in the $4 million Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick on Saturday.
But physics has its own reasoning why the mare can so effortlessly breeze past rivals on the track.
A theoretical study by University of Auckland physicist Dr Graeme Putt, who wrote a research paper for Australian Physics on unbeaten mare Black Caviar in 2013, has identified Winx’s rapid stride rate as the key to her winning run, which has helped the mare bank more than $10 million in prizemoney.
While many outstanding horses and human athletes have relied on their ability to cover ground in excess of their rivals with each stride as a point of difference – Black Caviar’s stride during her Lightning Stakes win in 2012 reached 8.42 metres – amazingly Winx’s can often be inferior to her opposition.
Dr Putt analysed Winx’s thrashing of her rivals in the George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill last month and found what he described as “an extraordinary ability” to quicken stride and keep increasing that frequency towards the end of a race as the rate of other horses either reached a plateau or dipped.
So much so that Winx was measured recording 2.7 strides a second towards the end of the race as the two placegetters Le Romain and Chautauqua – both multiple group 1 winners in their own right – were below the 2.4 strides a second mark.
That was despite Le Romain, at least, traversing more ground than Winx with each stride on average (6.88 metres to Winx’s 6.76 metres), perhaps figures diluted by the fact the race was run on testing heavy ground.
Dr Putt has also conducted research on Phar Lap and the great American horse Secretariat. He said both were known to have boasted stride lengths measuring in excess of 8.2 metres.
Winx’s rapid-fire action gives her the advantage of clocking close to 14 strides within a five second period nearing the end of a race when her rivals struggle to muster 12.
“Many think the biggest strider automatically wins the race,” Dr Putt said.
“This arises from the fact sensational sprinters like Black Caviar and athlete Usain Bolt had huge strides; Bolt something like 2.44 metres to his opponents 2.3 metres on average and Black Caviar about 8.42 metres on a fast track to her opponents often loitering in the 7.5 to 8-metre league.
“However, the largest stride length does not win a race. Winx clearly has the smaller stride length by about 5 per cent [compared to Le Romain and Chautauqua in the George Ryder Stakes].
“Winx reveals an anomalous ability to quicken stride and sustain it to the finish in a way that increases steeply as the race proceeds. Jockey [Hugh] Bowman is sitting astride a freak galloper with a stride rate and range capability that surprises.
“This horse goes faster than others not because of her stride length, but because of her freakish stride frequency.”
Winx’s stride frequency curve resembled a similar plot on a normalised graph to that of stayer Our Ivanhowe, who won the Ranvet Stakes at Rosehill on the same day as the George Ryder Stakes.
But what Dr Putt said was so stunning was Winx’s ability to increase that frequency exponentially towards the end of an event, while Our Ivanhowe’s lifted only slightly.
“She can settle near the rear, work her way forward then accelerate like a rocket and steam home towards the finish and win,” Dr Putt said. “This suggests to me that she could go further, like 2400 metres, and win.”
Perhaps Winx’s ability to string together strides so quickly might partly be explained by the time she stunned stud staff shortly after her foaling for breeder John Camilleri, the chief of Baiada Poultry.
The daughter of handy New Zealand mare Vegas Showgirl did something Segenhoe Stud general manager Peter O’Brien hasn’t witnessed in almost 10,000 foalings.
“It’s unusual in its own right, but she foaled about half-an-hour in the morning [after sunrise],” Mr O’Brien said. “And within 10 minutes she was up on her feet. Normally it’s about 45 minutes. She is the first and last horse I’ve seen do that.
“The unique thing about her is that every time we saw her in the paddock she was always galloping doing circles around her mother. That’s not bullshit.”
Winx’s whippy stride is perhaps borne from her ability to reduce her centre of gravity when accelerating to a position lower than her rivals.
“With her I see a more cat or lever-based animal – almost like a leopard,” Winx’s trainer Chris Waller said. “She has these long back legs which have an amazing reach that extend forward and back. That seems to be a lot of her driving power.
“She’s an athlete. She doesn’t look like she’s doing it any easier than any other horse, she just does it more effectively.”
Sydney bookmaker and racing student Rob Waterhouse remembers seeing Winx as a yearling before she fetched $230,000 at the Magic Millions sale on the Gold Coast in 2013 for Waller’s bloodstock guru Guy Mulcaster.
Waterhouse has analysed Winx’s action and that of many horses he regards as champions and thinks there is one characteristic they all share in common.
“As she extends she drops more at the wither than nearly all other horses – which is a sign of a champion,” Waterhouse said.
Mulcaster doesn’t employ genetic testing – which is becoming more commonplace in racing before yearlings go through a sales ring – and instead trusts his eye for potential buys.
“When we bought her she had the athletic attributes of a greyhound,” Winx’s part-owner Peter Tighe said. “She was long and thin.
“[But] it’s not about buying the absolute perfect horse on the day.” – Adam Pengilly