Winx seeks Cox Plate grand slam over European challengers from Coolmore, Godolphin
The world’s highest-rated horse and a history-maker riding a 28-race winning streak, wondermare Winx bids for an unheard-of fourth victory in Australia’s weight-for-age championship – the Cox Plate (G1) – at Moonee Valley late Friday night at 2:00 a.m. (EDT).
Winx, who equaled the legendary Kingston Town’s feat of a Cox Plate three-peat (1980-82), has rewritten the record book each time. She set a new 2,040-meter course mark in the 2015 edition, romped by a stakes-record eight lengths in 2016, and when holding off #2 Humidor (15-1) last year, she bettered her own track record in 2:02.94.
Trainer Chris Waller has continued to report that the seven-year-old Street Cry mare is at her peak. Indeed, all preparation Winx has been more in the zone than at the corresponding time in 2017. She extended her skein by turning three-peats in the newly renamed Winx S. (G1) (formerly the Warwick) August 18 and the George Main (G1) September 15, and by defending her title in the Turnbull (G1) at Flemington October 6.
Drawn in post 6 with Hugh Bowman, Winx is obviously the overwhelming favorite to retain her crown as queen of the Valley.
Her odds likely would have been affected had her stablemate, budding star The Autumn Sun, lined up to challenge her supremacy. But the smashing Caulfield Guineas (G1) winner has declined to sally forth, leaving a “what-might-have-been” that figures to grow with the passage of time – especially if The Autumn Sun conquers Royal Ascot next June.
Global superpowers Coolmore and Godolphin, however, are sporting enough to try.
Aidan O’Brien won the last Winx-less Cox Plate with Adelaide in 2014, and Highland Reel was third to Winx here as a still-developing sophomore in 2015. Now he dispatches another three-year-old in #7 Rostropovich (40-1). Their situations are not analogous, as Rostropovich is explicitly tuning up for the Melbourne Cup (G1). Yet the son of Frankel has a tactical card to play: a colt with early speed, proven stamina, and ability to whip around tight left-handed tracks could attempt a bold front-running gambit in this small field and play catch-me-if-you-can.
On paper, of course, Rostropovich must step up from his European resume highlighted by a near-upset of the Irish Derby (G1) at 25-1. His stakes wins have come versus lesser, and he was well beaten in both the French Derby (G1) and the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1). Still, knowing how some Europeans improve beyond all recognition Down Under, Rostropovich could be in the mix at a big price – assuming that Ryan Moore makes use of him early. His far outside post 8 ought to force his hand.
Godolphin is double-handed with #1 Benbatl (17-2), the clear second choice who shipped in for Saeed bin Suroor, and European transplant #4 Avilius (18-1), unbeaten since joining James Cummings.
Benbatl was a star of the 2018 Dubai Carnival, capping his Meydan winter with a brilliant score in the Dubai Turf (G1). The Dubawi colt has had mixed fortunes since, running below par in both the Queen Anne (G1) and the Juddmonte International (G1). But in more congenial venues, Benbatl has thrived. He stamped his class with a front-running coup in the July 29 Grosser Dallmayr-Preis – Bayerisches Zuchtrennen (G1), and made a successful Australian debut, over Godolphin comrade Blair House, in a hard-fought Caulfield S. (G1). Benbatl is also eligible to go forward early from post 3 with Oisin Murphy.
Avilius was useful last year for Andre Fabre, placing in a trio of Group 2s including a second to Cracksman in the Prix Niel (G2). Since being gelded and moving to Australia, he’s gone four-for-four, most recently annexing the Bart Cummings H. (G3) at Flemington (appropriately enough in light of his trainer). Avilius therefore enters this Group 1 debut on the upswing.
New Zealand shipper #8 Savvy Coup (50-1) brings a poignant story, as trainer Michael Pitman literally just got out of the hospital after undergoing colon cancer surgery in order to be on the scene. Although only fifth to Winx’s stablemate Unforgotten in the Australian Oaks (G1) back in April, Savvy Coup is reportedly in better physical shape for this trip across the Tasman Sea. Last season’s New Zealand Oaks (G1) heroine comes off another top-level victory in the Livamol Classic (G1) at Hastings.
The rest have all been beaten by Winx already. The crafty Darren Weir sends out Humidor, who gave fans a brief scare with his fast finish in the 2017 Cox Plate, and #3 Kings Will Dream (25-1). Both add blinkers – Humidor puts them back on, while Kings Will Dream dons headgear for the first time.
Both have shown good form in the lead-up. Humidor captured the September 1 Memsie (G1) with Kings Will Dream a near-miss third. After the Makybe Diva (G1), where Kings Will Dream was runner-up and Humidor checked in seventh, they’ve gone their separate ways. Humidor topped off his preparations at Caulfield, flashing home for third in the Underwood (G1) and finishing third again to Benbatl. Kings Will Dream, a fine third to Winx in the Turnbull two back, closed for sixth as the favorite in a tactical Caulfield Cup (G1), and the gear change could help.
Waller goes in search of the exacta with #5 D’Argento (40-1), the Rosehill Guineas (G1) hero who was third to Winx in their reappearance. Just denied in the Epsom H. (G1) two starts ago, D’Argento was fifth to Benbatl as the favorite in his latest.
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