What does it feel like to own the world's best horse? Debbie Kepitis and Peter Tighe share their journey.
Friends Peter Tighe and Debbie Kepitis had been racing horses together for several years when they fronted up to the Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale in 2013, dreaming of finding the next champion.
Tighe, who runs Magic Bloodstock Racing with wife Patty, and Kepitis, the daughter of late chicken king Bob Ingham who experienced the dizzying highs of racing through the feats of Octagonal and Lonhro, whittled down the crop of yearlings and prepared to open their wallets.
The pair, who own a third of Winx along with racing acquaintance Richard Treweeke, inspect all their purchases but place their faith in bloodstock agent Guy Mulcaster, who liked a bay Street Cry filly out of New Zealand mare Vegas Showgirl that would fetch $230,000. His choice that day would change their lives.
“I like to look at their eyes and have them have a kind eye and want to participate in looking at you,” Kepitis explains of her thoughts when selecting horses. “But I don’t get too set on a horse at a sale because you can get carried away or you miss out.”
Tighe, who races about 60 horses with his wife Patty, jokes his role in choosing Winx amounted to doing the bidding. “We bought her on the prospect that she’d furnish into a nice middle-distance staying type of horse and lo and behold that’s what happened.”
It’s a colossal understatement, with Winx evolving into the undisputed queen of the Australian turf who now boasts a winning streak of 30 races, 22 of them Group 1s.
But her future dominance was unimaginable during her early career, where Winx was highly promising but by no means exceptional.
After winning her first three starts, Winx finished second twice in 2014 in Randwick features the Group 2 Tea Rose Stakes, then the Group 1 Flight Stakes, where she was soundly conquered on both occasions by the John Thompson trained First Seal.
Winx's next five starts would yield three unplaced runs, a second, and culminate with victory in the Group 1 ATC Australian Oaks (2400m) before she was given a freshen up.
This is when the penny dropped, with Winx returning in 2015 to take out the Sunshine Coast Guineas and kick off her winning streak.
Kepitis considers the barnstorming last-to-first victory the moment she knew the horse "had something special".
Watching Winx’s heroics on the racetrack triggers a rollercoaster of emotions, she says. “It’s quite tense. It’s quite stressful. But none of that makes a difference on race day with her. She just goes out and does the job that she knows and loves and does so well.”
Kepitis admits momentarily thinking Winx would get beaten several times, especially in the 2018 Turnbull Stakes at Flemington when caught behind a wall of horses, but then marvelling at her uncanny ability to find extra gears and prevail.
"In the Turnbull when she was caught behind everything it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be it [the time she loses] we better just think about this and just watch it. It’s fine, it doesn't matter, she has done her job and we’re just pleased that she’s alright’. And then she just steps out and comes home,” said Kepitis.
It’s a feeling Tighe has become familiar with while watching his mare grow into a superstar.
“It’s gone to a new level and I don’t know how many levels it can go to,” he reflects. "We look back very fondly on what she's done and the achievements she's made but the most recent achievement (four Cox Plates) probably hasn't sunk in yet," Tighe said last year, a month after the milestone. “She seems to be able to defy the odds and keep winning. We have a great build-up before each race, a spectrum of feelings and things like that, but after the race you can sort of look at it and go, ‘I don’t know what we were all worried about’ because she just goes and does what she likes doing.”
Tighe, who fell in love with racing of all codes as a teenager, counts sharing Winx with his family, including two sons and a daughter, as one of the most satisfying parts of the journey.
“They weren’t involved initially but as things have gone along they’ve grown into it and loved the excitement and thrill of having a horse of this magnitude; they’re involved in the story and we want them to be involved. We want our family to enjoy her and let them see it for what it is and how great racing can be.”
Kepitis, who owns shares in about 30 horses, racing many with her brothers and sister, is still pinching herself over the enormity of what has unfolded.
“It still feels totally surreal. Kingston Town’s record has stood for a long time and to equal it was absolutely wonderful, and then the prospect of her going on and racing in a fourth Cox Plate was just a dream. But for Chris Waller and his wonderful team, farriers, vets, the kids that work with her constantly, [strappers] Umut Odemislioglu and Candice Persijn, for them to get her to be maintained, healthy, fit, and get to a fourth Cox Plate was enormous. So winning it was just unbelievable.”
Away from the racetrack, Kepitis describes Winx as an “independent soul” who likes to go about her business.
“In the early days she didn’t want to be brushed and she just pushed them [Umut and Candice] off, but she was never nasty about it. She is a really happy and content horse who doesn’t want a lot of affection, doesn’t want a lot of cuddles or pats or anything like that, but if she’s in the mood for it, she’ll let you nuzzle up next to her and that’s a beautiful feeling.”
Kepitis tries to visit Winx every few weeks but often just driving past and seeing her mare in the paddock is good enough.
She is convinced Winx knows she’s different.
“She realises people are looking at her and she knows she’s special because she stands and looks at you and has that presence. When you have intelligent horses, that’s what you see. Lonhro and Octagonal were absolutely the same.
“She’s got an air about her that’s different to our other horses so she’s certainly got something that the others don’t have. I’m pretty sure she knows what’s going on to a degree.”
Based in Brisbane, Tighe and his wife visit Winx regularly. “You wouldn’t say she’s a playful type of horse. She’s a very sensible woman who knows what she likes and she does what she likes, so she looks after herself very well and knows what’s going on around her,” he said. “We go down [to the stables] and my wife enjoys her time with her; she might feed her a couple of carrots and an apple and give her a pat and a little bit of a talk, and just watch her and be with her.”
Now a seven-year-old mare, Winx, who was recently voted the world’s most popular racehorse by winning the Secretariat Vox Populi Award, is nearing retirement.
The finale to her glittering career is still to be written, but trainer Chris Waller and connections say that she will follow the path of past preparations under a race-by-race scenario.
“In my heart I think she loves racing so much that I don’t want to stop her racing if that’s really where her heart wants to be. But look, we’ll just have to let her talk,” Kepitis said.
When the curtain does fall, both Tighe and Kepitis acknowledge there will be a hole without Winx in the spotlight but trust their vast racing interests will keep them occupied, not to mention the prospect of her progeny to look forward to.
“I don’t like to dwell on it too much. I think it’s just amazing to have watched the progression of her and to have been part of this unbelievable magic carpet ride,” said Kepitis. “Luckily we’ve got a business and we’ve got horses to focus on and it’s always brilliant to have more animals to focus on because animals are a great leveller. I’m sure I can throw myself into all the other horses we have.” Tighe and Kepitis won their first Group 1 together when Preferment took out the AAMI Victoria Derby in 2014 and Tighe stills holds ambitions to win other feature races on the Australian racing calendar like the Melbourne Cup and Golden Slipper.
“That’s the thing we enjoy, is finding not necessarily the next Winx, but whether it’s going to be a sprinter or a stayer or who knows,” Tighe says.
“When she [Winx] has a spell we have so many other horses racing, so we have a pretty full life of horseracing. I know it will be different. I know there won’t be the pressures and the expectations that we now live under but it’s all been good. There’s no downside. It can’t go on forever ... we realise that.”
Images by Lisa Grimm, Racing Photos and Karon Photography.