Hugh Bowman: How my life has changed since Winx retired and everything went back to some degree of ‘normality’

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Source: Fox Sports /

August is like pulling teeth for a jockey, but spring is in the air and the better racing is on its way.

I took two months out of the saddle to refresh myself physically and mentally after Winx won her 33rd and final race in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes on her home track, Randwick on April 13 this year.

Jockeys don’t tend to take breaks from racing unless it’s to do with injury but, after Winx retired, I decided I needed time away from the sport to refresh and reflect on what was such a huge part of my life.

It was tiring — not just the expectation, but it’s the emotional toll it takes on you.

There is such a special bond and love between jockey and horse, and you never get sick of winning races, particularly the big Group 1s. Winx took me on a journey. In fact, she took so many on a journey. It’s the people behind the scenes, particularly our families that support us in so many ways to do what we do, and that’s a lot of the reason why I took time off. I was exhausted.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but now that I’ve taken the time away I’m just trying to rebuild my own vision of, well, what’s next? What’s to achieve? Now I’m just looking for that next good horse.

Having Winx, it was a double-edged sword — it was guaranteed success really. Guaranteed reward and guaranteed winning big races. It’s a matter of fact, but that’s just how it was.

If Winx was racing this spring, she would be my first-picked horse in SuperCoach Racing — and I’d leave her in for the whole season. A Group 1 winning horse who can maximise your SuperCoach winnings is hard to come by in SuperCoach.

This year will be the first spring carnival in five years where Winx won’t go around, and although I miss her, without her there there’s not that constant pressure to be an ambassador for the sport like I once was, even though I thoroughly enjoyed it.

When Winx rolled into town, the media circus rolled in with it. Photos, press conferences, interviews — the scrutiny that came with being her jockey, the media, public and punters wanted to know about her every moment, every day. That’s to be expected with a horse who endeared herself to so many over such a long period of time.

Nowadays, the peace and quiet to a degree has been welcomed. I live a much more relaxed life these days in comparison to the one I did when I was riding Winx.

A family photo of jockey Hugh Bowman's childhood. Source: Bowman Family
A family photo of jockey Hugh Bowman’s childhood. Source: Bowman FamilySource: News Corp Australia

Without her, I don’t feel like I have that guarantee or security of a horse who is just going to take me through the carnival that I can look forward to riding every two weeks and not worry about too much in between.

Coming into the carnival this year, I wouldn’t say I’m feeling a lot more pressure, I feel as though I need to get my game back to a level that I expect from myself after a stint away from riding in order to get the best out of the horses I’m riding.

Really, I just don’t have the security that Winx gave me.

People often ask me if I remember the first time I saw her. And I do, but she was just another horse back then. I remember the first time I rode her, but I didn’t come away from that first ride thinking it was going to be the amazing journey that it turned out to be.

Funnily enough, the first time I rode Winx was in the 2014 edition of the Furious Stakes five years ago, which coincidentally enough was run just this past Saturday at Randwick.

I knew I was riding something special after her first Cox Plate win because she broke the track record that day and it was a world-class field. It was her first major victory and, from then on, the legend of Winx grew.

It wasn’t until she came back the following year and repeated that same feat that we started to think, wow, she might be something special. Even then, Chris Waller and I never envisioned that we would have a horse that would go on to rival the great Black Caviar’s record.

It was never something we thought of — or something that we really aimed for. It was something that just quite simply grew with her.

It wasn’t until she beat Hartnell on her way to her back-to-back Cox Plate victories that I realised I might be sitting on a legend.

After the second Cox Plate win the media interest around her skyrocketed, and understandably so.

As I continued to ride her, I was always confident in Winx’s ability but throughout the journey, my mindset changed. In the beginning we were hoping we’d win the Epsom, and we did that. We were hoping we’d win the Cox Plate next start and she did that — but in 2015 nothing was a certainty because she was a four-year old.

When she came back for the next carnival as a five-year-old, we were hoping she’d win the Doncaster and she won that too and chalked up her ninth consecutive win. Even then, I was never sitting around thinking “gee, I hope she wins 32 races straight and never loses again!”.

People tend to ask me as well if I ever thought there might’ve been moments in races where I thought Winx might’ve gotten beat. And, I’ll be honest, there were stages where I thought circumstances might be against us.

The Warwick Stakes was the first scare — we missed the start by four lengths and we were dead last until the field ripped around into the home straight where she unleashed her trademark speed and hit the lead at the 300m mark after being about six lengths from the lead at the final turn. That was win No. 18.

In the Chelmsford at her next start, Red Excitement led all race and went into the home straight eight lengths clear, but Winx just responded when I asked her to, and we chased down Red Excitement 50m from the line to win by over a length. It was an exhilarating 19th consecutive win.

Every time I thought there might be a concern, she’d come through with flying colours. And that meant I stopped thinking that she could be beaten. In the end I knew circumstances couldn’t beat her. All I had to do was get her out of the barriers and she couldn’t lose.

The only way she could’ve been beaten was if I let her get into a position where other jockeys could dictate where I was in the field — and that did happen at Flemington in the 2018 edition of the Turnbull Stakes at Flemington in what was her 28th consecutive win.

She got caught on the fence in dead last position and stayed there until the straight. She did a mountain of work to weave through the field but once she got a nose clear, she just exploded down the outside.

Winx winning the TAB Turnbull Stakes on October 6, 2018
Winx winning the TAB Turnbull Stakes on October 6, 2018Source: Getty Images

When I’m asked what my best or favourite ride on her was there are a few that stand out from the others, but as far as gritty rides go, that race in particular sticks out for me over my career riding her.

It’s not because of what I did do, it’s because of what I didn’t do; I didn’t panic when I was in a position where I could’ve easily done so. At the 1000m mark, I was absolutely worried. I was concerned because of my position in the field. In fact, I’d go as far to say it was probably the only time since her Doncaster victory that I was not in a position where I could dictate the race which is never a good place to be for a jockey.

There was just so much faith in her that even when you’re hard-up against it, thinking you might get beat, she always found a way to persevere and win — that was one of her best qualities. I knew that she could outsprint any horse if I needed her to, therefore, I backed her in every time.

It’s still surreal to have people come up to me and talk to me about Winx. Often it’s a sporting crowd, either at the races or at the footy or even if I’m at the local pub having a quiet beer. They ask for a quick photo but sometimes they just want to shake hands; other times they’ll want to have a casual chat and I think it’s great. Winx has really become folklore in racing, and she attracted so many non-racing people into the sport.

I don’t get stopped at Westfield or anything, but I am very proud of what Winx brought to my life, and how she enriched the lives of so many others and that’s the great part of it.

Riding Winx to a win was like a footy team winning the grand final eight times a year
Riding Winx to a win was like a footy team winning the grand final eight times a yearSource: Getty Images

Perhaps the magic of Winx comes down to what she’s taught me. She’s helped me understand what I am capable of as a jockey. How to cope with pressure and expectation on the bigger stage.

The best way I can describe what it was like to ride Winx — it’s like you’re a football player playing in a grand final every two weeks. I had to mentally and physically prepare myself — but emotionally, to get up and do that it’s the relief, the elation, excitement, and release of that pressure valve. You could celebrate for one week, and then you’re building up for the next one a week later.

Really, it was like a footy team winning the grand final eight times a year — that’s what it was like to ride the wonder mare that is Winx.