Hugh Bowman was a gun jockey and fine horseman before he rode Winx, but man and horse were good for each other.
Bowman got to live every jockey’s dream of riding a one-in-a-lifetime champion. It’s the dream that gets racing people out of bed before dawn every day.
Other riders rode Winx early in her career but after four Cox Plates and all but two of her 33 straight wins, Bowman’s name will always be linked with hers. Like Phar Lap and Pike, Tulloch and Moore, Kingston Town and Johnston.
Chris Waller’s decision to make Bowman the champion’s permanent partner was validated — not so much because “Hughie” is one of the world’s elite jockeys but because he is as calm out of the saddle as in it. His great attribute was handling the huge interest in the “freak with the streak”, something that could distract otherwise brilliant riders.
Once he put his feet in the irons, he shut out the pressure cooker of hype, hope and expectation that turned every race in Winx’s streak into a mixture of high wire act and heavyweight title fight.
Not everyone can keep that up. Some rise to meet pressure while others melt. In Bowman, Waller saw another level-headed “country boy” with his own low-key and logical approach to a business that is often anything but.
There is no secret as close as the one between rider and horse, the saying goes. Bowman (like Winx’s track rider Ben Cadden) still marvels at how poised and athletic she was, and tells the story of how she once hurdled a stray “witch’s hat” in the dark on the track without breaking stride
Bowman, who has ridden since he could walk, happily repeats his statement that he never rode anything — show jumper, stock horse or hack — with her natural agility. She would have excelled at any horse sport, he says.
In his Cox Plate podcast for News Corp, Bowman reveals he did not grasp how good Winx was until well after her first stunning win at The Valley in 2015.
He knew she’d set a track record but it was only after the well-beaten horses like Criterion and Highland Reel went on to international success that the truth hit him.
“You had to pinch yourself and say, ‘Am I really associated with a horse that good?’”
Her second Cox Plate win was the easiest of the four, he says. He was confident she had the field covered — and the public was not yet hanging on every extra win. That changed.
The pressure surrounding her third Cox Plate, equalling Kingston Town’s hat trick, intensified for the unparalleled fourth win. The nearest comparison is Cathy Freeman facing her life-defining final at the Sydney Olympics.
“It’s Winx’s longevity that gives her the legacy,” Bowman says. “There are horses that come along at her level around the world — but I can’t think of one that raced as consistently or as long as she did.”
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Originally published as Podcast: Hughie had doubts, Winx too good to be true