Winx - Are they gifting her the 2018 Group 1 Cox Plate?

Jockey Hugh Bowman looks at the 2017 Cox Plate after winning for the third-straight year on Winx. Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

"Utter nonsense."

That is how trainer Chris Waller responds to the question of his great mare - arguably the greatest horse to grace the Australian turf - being 'gifted' a victory in the 2018 Group 1 Cox Plate (2040m).

Winx will face a field of seven opponents as she takes to the Moonee Valley circuit for the fourth time on Saturday to claim as many wins in this famous race, and etch her name above the great Kingston Town who won the race in three successive years from 1980 to 1982.

A Cox Plate field often attracts a 'full gate' of 14 runners. Not this year, however, and speculation prior to the announcement of the final field being well below that number had many in the racing world asking whether any credible opposition was just conceding defeat before the gates had even opened.

At $1.20 with TAB, most punters would regard Winx to be the 'surest of things'. Second-placed in 2017, the Darren Weir-trained Humidor will be there once again after pushing Winx to a fast-finishing, perilously close margin twelve months ago. Even this highly regarded weight-for-age performer rates as a $16 chance in 2018.

The constant question hovering over this year's edition is whether Winx has literally scared any opposition off?

"She's just so superior to anything else", says Sky Racing tipping guru, Tony Brassel.

"I wouldn't say that it (the race) is being gifted to her, but there are just so few serious opponents here to draw upon.

"When you reach the top of the pyramid like Winx has, there's then just a certain strata of competition that can go into battle against her. If that level doesn't have the numbers to provide that competitiveness, then you just won't get the full-gate field size that you might expect otherwise."

This event does have an element of intrigue outside of Winx. There's a rising young hope from Ireland, Rostropovich ($34), Group 1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) winner Benbatl ($8.50) from the global breeding and racing giant Godolphin stable, and the unplaced favourite in last Saturday's Group 1 Caulfield Cup (2400m), Kings Will Dream ($26), all lining up against Winx over Saturday's 2040m trip.

"Any race is hard to win. The Cox Plate is the best (race) in Australia and the field that it can bring together, and horses from the other side of the world have the opportunity to travel here," Waller adds highlighting the challenges of shuttling elite racehorses across globe.

"A lot of people have respect for the Cox Plate and how hard it is to win each and every year. Then you've got a horse like Winx, and it does make it harder for horses who could look like they're there making up the numbers."

"It's (also) a good chance for the three-year-olds to fly their flag if they think they're good enough", which Waller adds as an interesting aside as he also trains The Autumn Sun, who was a slashing winner of the Group 1 Caulfield Guineas (1600m) for that age group two weeks earlier.

Channeling the performances of dual-hemisphere topline performer So You Think (winner in 2009 and 2010) and Shamus Award (2013), a good, lighter weighted three-year-old can make for a harder task to chase down even for the best fields assembled in a race like this.

As breeding supremo, John Messara, and part-owner of The Autumn Sun told Radio RSN 927, "I don't want to be the one to shoot Bambi", with reference to the possibility that the talented colt might be have been able to beat the wonder mare. As it turned out, it was more that The Autumn Sun wasn't yet mature enough as an athlete to take on a race like the Cox Plate.

So what then of the small field?

"From our perspective, the smaller the better", Waller concedes. "That means that only two things can beat her: bad luck or a champion. The next champion is sitting there waiting in the wings waiting to pounce."

From another gifting angle, UK racing pundit and television presenter, Matt Chapman, has flown into Melbourne just to see Winx create her piece of history on Saturday. He also made a flying visit to Adelaide in 2012 to witness Black Caviar's 21st -straight win.

"Back home, we feel that Winx is beating fairly moderate horses", Chapman told a full house at Moonee Valley's 'Breakfast with the Best' held in the Cox Plate lead-up.

"The only thing that I would tell (jockey) Hugh Bowman is that he doesn't want to be sitting ten-lengths (away from) Benbatl", who Chapman references as another moderate performer in the UK but "is strange because he tends to run better when he is abroad".

The fact that Winx hasn't faced the 'best' from England and Ireland is as much a matter of geography, and prizemoney, than anything more. Overseas travel is taxing on horses - seemingly more so on the good ones - and the relatively poorer levels of big race purses on offer in the UK compared to those at home sees the want to 'prove' Australia's best middle distance performers less attractive. In reverse, timing is also a factor.

"We run the Cox Plate all the way in Melbourne" Brassel continues. "It's the tyranny of distance, and that we run the race a week before the Breeders Cup races in the US so we are 'flat out' getting the best from the northern hemisphere to come here to take her on."

So are you willing to take the $1.20 on offer for Winx to snare her fourth Cox Plate? Tony Brassel puts those odds into perspective.

"There's so few that can test her. It's not that she has scared them off. There is no opposition."

The 98th running of the Group 1 W.S Cox Plate is set to jump at 5pm AEDT on Saturday.