Leading the charge to Moonee Valley on Saturday was my slightly Winx-obsessed 8 year old son, and a close friend visiting from Townsville, in town to tick the big race off her bucket list. Whilst I would have been happy to view it from my couch, we donned the hats and heels, soaked up the trackside atmosphere and watched history unfold before us.
There are days when I am critical of the horse racing industry and its administrators; days when I worry about its future and the future of my family and friends in it.
*Longing for the days when large racing crowds were the norm.
But then I have days like Saturday, where I see the passion and excitement racing brings to others -
My friend from Townsville, who despite having worked in Sydney's racing scene for a number of years, was thrilled to be amongst the action again.
The group of mates on the adjoining table who use the Cox Plate as their annual reunion.
The gentleman captured on video dancing around the public lawn to 'Horses." (view HERE)
Benji, hanging over the mounting yard fence, getting as close to his raceday heroes as he could. One of the mare's owners handed him a Winx badge. He shook hands with both Chris Waller and Hugh Bowman as they walked past after the win.
No material item I give Benji for his upcoming birthday will match the pure joy I, and others around us, saw in his eyes on Saturday. But how long will it last?
Reflecting on all of this, I had to remind myself of the reasons why I do what I do and why I started this blog. I then came across a heartfelt piece by media commentator, Mick Sharkie. Mirroring my own thoughts, Mick's story resonated so much that I just had to share it:
Winx: Saving Racing Starts at Home - Michael Sharkie, 29/10/17.
I turned to a colleague in the grandstand and confessed to him that Winx had never really got me going. He looked at me wide eyed and he shook his head. Over his shoulder the great mare stepped onto the track to the rapturous applause of the crowd.
I wondered how many of them would stagger out the gate the moment that the race was over and whether any would truly remember the race or realise the significance of what they had witnessed. Or if any of them cared. Or how many would return next year when Winx was just another hazy memory of a day at the track. And how racing didn’t know how to do anything about it.
Everything that I love and hate about this sport was there in front of me. I watched the race. The villain in me willed Humidor to run her down. I was relieved that he didn’t.
I left the track feeling numb. Cynical, sober, and frustrated.
At the gate, I stopped and took two Winx flags from a smiling lady to give to my daughters when I got home. They were sound asleep so I put the flags in the arms of a teddy and a pony on their bedside tables.
Early on Sunday morning the youngest of those girls, a rumbly tumbly three-year-old named Nella plonked herself down on my chest with excitement.
“Daddy, is this a Winxy flag?” she grinned.
“Yes darling,” I replied through bleary eyes.
“See, I told you it was,” said her sister, a leggy five-year-old named Hazel.
And then I remembered the time that Winx did get me going.
It was a sunny April afternoon when Hazel and I had watched Winx win the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at home on the telly between mowing lawns and painting fences. Her sister slept on the couch. Hazel watched as the horse rounded up her rivals, and dashed clear for a five-length win. She was full of questions and I happily answered. It was a joyous little moment when a child takes interest in a parent’s passion, but it was one that I had forgotten.
“Winx is blue and white,” Hazel added.
“Do you remember why Winx is special?” I asked.
“Because she’s a very fast runner – but why did you bring us home a flag?”
I explained that Saturday was a very special day because Winx had won a big race called the Cox Plate three times so everyone had a party for her.
“How many people went to the party?” she asked.
“30,000 people. Would you like to see it?”
My wife handed me her phone and the four of us lay in bed and watched the race.
“Winx has a pom pom because she’s fancy, and I like fancy,” said Nella.
“Daddy, is Winx a girl?” Hazel asked.
“Yes she is.”
The race finished and my two girls beamed. Bruce McAvaney said “she takes us to a place that makes us happier” and I saw that in my girls.
I am the son of a punter and a racing lover and I can thank my Dad and his love of the sport as the spark for that passion. I’d suggest the majority of racing fans would offer similar thanks to older kin for introducing them to the sport way back when.
Time will tell whether or not my daughters share my love of the sport in years to come but at least there will be moments in their lives when I can expose them to great horses, with each one an opportunity for them to fall in love.
For all its heroes like Winx, racing has its problems. Declining attendance, wagering threats, participant scandals, media presentation, audience engagement, and mainstream relevance; there is much to criticise and lament over.
We blame administrators, media, and marketers for the shortfalls of the sport. We hang on the have nots and the used to be-s. Just like a punter that backs a losing horse, the state of thoroughbred racing in Australia is everyone else’s fault but ours.
In reality, the health of this sport is the responsibility of anyone who has ever fallen in love with it. We are the advocates, the explainers, and the introducers; instead of complaining about what could be done better we must show those closest to us the things that are already great.
The answer is not the punt or its promotion, the answer is more soulful than that. Winx was not a punting proposition on Saturday, dominant champions rarely are, they are food for the soul.
As I write this piece my two girls are waving their flags and lining up toy ponies and teddies for a Winx party; there is hope for them yet.
And through kids like them, this sport has hope for the future.
When not wrangling his two girls or cooking up a storm in the kitchen, Mick Sharkie is a media specialist, race form analyst and Director of creative consultancy The Steam Room. Follow and find out more on Twitter LinkedIn Facebook
*Nella and Hazel Sharkie. Image courtesy Mick Sharkie.