Winning streaks: how does Winx rate?

8 min read
John Berry looks at the great horses who have strung together picket fence formlines throughout history.

It’s a bit like having Don Bradman back at the crease: Winx (Street Cry {Ire}) just keeps the first-class score-board ticking over.

Her triumph in Saturday’s G1 Chipping Norton S. at Randwick has prompted the latest upward revision of her mind-boggling statistics as she is now on a winning streak of 31, while her Group One haul now stands at a world-record 23. Her permanent place in the upper echelons of racing’s pantheon is rock-solid. Just where she sits, though, in the ranks of the all-time elite is harder to say. Can we rank her prima inter pares?

"Can we rank her prima inter pares? On the face of it, the simple answer is ‘No’." - John Berry

On the face of it, the simple answer is ‘No’. The record of the legendary Hungarian mare Kincsem (Hun) (Cambuscan {GB}) will almost certainly never be under threat. Between her debut at Berlin’s Hoppegarten as a two-year-old in June 1876 and her swansong in Budapest as a five-year-old in October 1879, Kincsem contested 54 races and won them all. Her shortest win came over 947m; her longest came over two miles and five furlongs (4022m). She raced in Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France and England. (That is, of course, by the standards of the current atlas, as obviously the map of Europe looked very different in her day, with the Austro-Hungarian empire welding what we now regard as several different countries into one single jurisdiction).

Kinscem

However, Kincsem was racing in a much less competitive era. The pool of horses against which she raced in eastern Europe was not a deep one. But it would be wrong to downplay her record, particularly because of her stunning achievement within a few weeks in the summer of 1878 when she won the Goodwood Cup, the Grand Prix de Deauville and the Grosser Preis von Baden, which were at the time just about the most prestigious races in England, France and Germany respectively. And this was, of course, before the development of motorised transport. Merely being a spectator at all three races would have been hard enough.

The Kinscem of the modern era

The nearest we have come to a Kincsem in the modern era has been Black Caviar (Bel Esprit), winner of all her 25 races between April 2009 and April 2013. She, too, showed that she could overcome the rigours of long-distance travel, taking the G1 Diamond Jubilee S. at Royal Ascot in June 2012 on a day when seemingly she had everything stacked against her.

Black Caviar’s racing career overlapped that of the mighty Zenyatta (USA) (Street Cry {Ire}) who won her first 19 races prior to losing her unbeaten record on her final appearance when going down by a rapidly-diminishing head to Blame (USA) (Arch {USA}) on her swansong in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November 2010.

Watch: Zenyatta's 19 wins

Zenyatta’s winning streak matched that of Pepper’s Pride (USA) (Desert God {USA}), who compiled a perfect 19-from-19 in the USA between 2005 and ’08. That feat, though, has to be viewed in the context of the fact that Pepper’s Pride only raced in her home state New Mexico, and only in races restricted to New Mexico-breds.

The unbeaten brigade

Of unbeaten horses who, like Black Caviar, have competed consistently at the highest level, the records of the Italian champion Ribot (GB) (Tenerani {Ity}) and the peerless Frankel (GB) (Galileo {Ire}) stand out. The former won 16 races from 1954 to ’56, while the latter racked up 14 wins between 2010 and ’12. Nearco (Ity) (Pharos {GB}) also put together an unblemished 14-from-14 in 1937 and ’38, dominating Italy’s best races before coming to France on his final outing to win the Grand Prix de Paris with his head in his chest.

"They all graduated from supreme racehorse to top-class sire." - John Berry

In Great Britain, Ormonde (GB) (Bendor {GB}) stands tall among 19th century champions in an unbeaten 16-race career; while Eclipse (GB) (Marske {Ire}) was so dominant in the 18th century that his 18-from-18 might well have been 118-from-118 had his connections desired. The other common denominator between Ribot, Frankel, Nearco, Ormonde and Eclipse, of course, is that they all graduated from supreme racehorse to top-class sire.

Frankel has made the graduation from top racehorse to top sire

Mighty records

Are we right, though, to focus too strongly on an unbeaten record or a lengthy winning streak? Manikato (Manihi) never won more than four consecutive races, but put together a mighty record, winning 29 of his 47 starts including, memorably, five consecutive runnings of the William Reid S. at weight-for-age at Moonee Valley (1979 to ’83 inclusive).

In one sense, Winx is still three top-level wins short of Manikato’s tally.

He was racing when the Pattern was inaugurated in 1980 and prestige was handed out far less liberally in those days; and 26 of his victories came in races which have now been granted Group One status. Similarly, Phar Lap (NZ) (Night Raid {GB}), Tulloch (NZ) (Khorassan {GB}) and Kingston Town (Bletchingly) had maximum winning streaks of 14, 12 and 11 respectively in careers which contained 37 wins (from 51 starts), 36 wins (from 53 starts), and 30 wins (from 41 starts).

"Defeat was not seen in those days as a disaster to be avoided if at all possible." - John Berry

By modern standards, it is slightly hard to understand how all those horses came to be beaten so many times, but that was merely a consequence of the fact that horses were campaigned much more fearlessly by previous generations. Defeat was not seen in those days as a disaster to be avoided if at all possible.

As Arthur ‘Bull’ Hancock, having already sealed the deal which would see 1970 British Triple Crown hero Nijinsky (Can) (Northern Dancer {Can}) stand at Claiborne, philosophically observed when the champion finally lost his unbeaten record when pipped by Sassafras (Ire) (Sheshoon {Ire}) in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, “We all know that if you run them often enough, they’ll get beat eventually.”

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott

A similar comment could be made about the mighty Secretariat (USA) (Bold Ruler {USA}) whom many regard as the greatest three-year-old the world has ever seen. His brilliance is shown by the fact that he still holds the race-record for all three legs of the US Triple Crown – yet he had his colours lowered three times during that sublime campaign. The winner of 16 of his 21 races, he never won more than four times consecutively.

It was a similar story with Kelso (USA) (Your Host {USA}), US Horse of the Year a staggering five years in a row, 1960 to ’64 inclusive. In each of those seasons he landed what was then the United States’ most prestigious weight-for-age race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Winx has another Cox Plate to win before she matches that achievement. Kelso, though, while winning 39 races, was beaten 24 times, again the consequence of the fearlessness with which he was campaigned during his 63-race career. When Kelso was eventually retired, the feeling among New York racegoers was that “Saturdays won’t be the same without Kelso.”

Impossible to compare champions

The truth is that it is not merely impossible satisfactorily to compare champions from different ages; one cannot even satisfactorily compare champions from the same generation. Brigadier Gerard (GB) (Queen’s Hussar {GB}) and Mill Reef (USA) (Never Bend {USA}) were born in the same year and trained in the same country (and raced against each other once) but nobody could give a definitive answer as to which was the greater racehorse.

"All one can say is that any lengthy winning streak, particularly when compiled at the highest level, is a remarkable achievement." - John Berry

Was it a greater achievement to win 54 consecutive races in the 19th century when there were far fewer potential opponents but when the logistics of racing horses were far more taxing, or to win 31 consecutive races in the 21st century when we have technology on our side, but a massive pool of horses against whom any champion must have his/her merit tested? There is no right answer.

All one can say is that any lengthy winning streak, particularly when compiled at the highest level, is a remarkable achievement. It speaks volumes not merely for the horse’s class, but also for his/her genuineness, the skill of the trainer, the consistent ability of the jockey never to be a ‘certainty beaten’ and, arguably the most important of all, the toughness of the horse to withstand the rigours of training and racing over an extended period.

The thoroughbred is the Formula One car of the horse world: the fastest but also the most fragile. It is not just Winx’s supreme ability which makes her the horse of a lifetime, but her soundness, genuineness and durability too.