Friday, October 27, 2017

Underfoot with Winx: Meet Australia’s champion and her farrier, John Bunting

John Bunting farrier for Winx racehorse
This man has a lot to smile about: Meet Mr. John Bunting of Melbourne, Australia. He's the farrier and she's the world's favorite racehorse--and with good reason. Today she won her third consecutive Cox Plate, and her 22nd stakes win in a row without defeat. John reports that she is so good-tempered, he "could shoe her without a head collar (halter)." He hasn't tried that yet, though. (Photo courtesy of John Bunting)

If you could pick up the near fore of any horse in the world today, and have a look, whose would it be?

Frankel’s? American Pharoah’s? Valegro’s? Zenyatta’s?

Most people would probably choose the same horse: Winx. She's the horse of the hour. And the year. Maybe of the decade.

The  six-year-old Australian mare is #2 in the 2017 world standings for all racing Thoroughbreds, and many people believe she should be #1. Winx is both the world's #1 filly/mare in training and the #1 horse overall on turf. Only Arrogate is rated higher, based on his wins in the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup earlier this year.

She’s won 22 races in a row and just won the Cox Plate for the third consecutive time. Plans call for her to stay in training next year, and possibly to expand her campaign to Europe.

Chances are, you’re nowhere near Melbourne, Australia right now, so The Hoof Blog brought Winx--and her farrier--to you.

Winx with horseshoer/blacksmith John Bunting
Meet Winx. She posed for The Hoof Blog with her farrier: John Bunting of Melbourne. (Photo for The Hoof Blog provided by John Bunting)

John Bunting offered insight into working with this great mare during what must be one of the busiest weeks of his life. “There’s been a big buildup to the week,” he said. “But this is an unbelievable mare. She just travels right.”

In the stall shot below, courtesy of Getty Images, you can see John actually shoeing the mare for the race. He keeps a tidy shoeing box.

With the sensational buzz over Winx’s race on Saturday, Winx was shod on Thursday, in the middle of the day, and in her barn, in her stall, so it would be quieter. Even so, a photographer managed to catch John doing his job.

There aren’t many details to share about Winx that would raise any eyebrows. John says she has good feet, so we’ll believe him. What impresses him is how well-behaved she is. “I could shoe her without a head collar,” he said.

Changing the shoes for every race could mean wear and tear on the hoof wall, but John says he uses the same nail holes as he switches her from steel to aluminum, or back again. “I’m not trimming her every time I shoe her,” he said. “There’s usually two weeks between shoeings.”

After minimal trimming, John began shoeing the mare. Here you see him positioning the raceplate on her off fore.

Winx has been wearing the same raceplates: Kerckhaert Xtra Sound, size 7, for some time. What makes her shoeing slightly unusual is that John uses Mustad’s “HammerHead” race nails, size 1. The oversized, elongated nail head sits in the shoe crease and has added more options to the racing farrier’s toolbox.

John shapes the plate on his stalljack before he begins nailing.

Winx is not flaunting the latest fashion of copper-coated nails (or even copper-plated racing shoes), although John has used both before and knew they were an option. John said that he sees the copper HammerHead nails on some of the Godolphin Racing horses shipping to Australia from Europe or the Emirates.

One of the interesting aspects of Winx is her training regimen; her trainer, Chris Waller, takes her (and a crowd of photographers) to the beach to train and enjoy being in the salt water. The great Grand National winner Red Rum also trained on beach sand and trotted through sea water.

It's fun to watch Winx run; her ability to accelerate often makes it look like the other horses are treading water as she scampers by. It is not an illusion; it's really happening. As anyone who has studied equine locomotion knows, there are two ways for a horse to accelerate velocity: 1) by lengthening the stride to cover more ground with each effort and; 2) by increasing the frequency, or rate of strides.

Dr. Graeme Putt, co-author of Phar Lap: The Untold Story, attributes Winx's winning ways to the latter: She is capable of taking more strides per second as she accelerates, rather than depend on an extra long stride, and that she can maintain the rapid stride frequency. Compare her running style to Zenyatta, on the other hand, a big 17-hand mare known for her ability to stretch out and swallow the ground underneath her with her each long, powerful stride. She always started slowly and gained momentum and length to her stride as she raced.

Watch Winx win her second Cox Plate, in 2016

The same was true of the great Australian mare Black Caviar, whose stride measured 8.5 metres (28 ft); her stride length was equal to that of the legendary Phar Lap. But Winx simple works faster, instead of longer. Her stride measures out at 6.76 metres (22.2 ft).

Putt estimates that Winx is able to take 14 strides every 5 seconds, compared to only 12 for her rivals--or, most of her rivals, most of the time. She still has to win each time she races. A traffic jam could dash the dream.

About John Bunting
John is a very experienced racing farrier; he has been shoeing Thoroughbreds for 21 years, and heads a racing-specialist business that employs seven “qualified” (licensed) farriers and two apprentices. He said that 98 percent of his work is racing-related. He’s based at Flemington Racecourse, site of the Melbourne Cup, and at Caulfield Racecourse, also near Melbourne.

John's shoeing experience outside Melbourne includes three years dedicated to racing in Sydney and six months at the track in Singapore. In 2004, he spent six months in Great Britain. And, like so many Australians, he’s traveled extensively, including to the USA.

This sound file is a brief interview with John Bunting that was done for an article about him for The Australian newspaper earlier this week.

So far in her career, Winx has earned $13.7 million AUD (about $10.5 million USD). She is trained by Chris Waller and owned by Magic Bloodstock Racing, whose big white M is so highly visible on jockey Hugh Bowman’s silks. Her sire is Godolphin Racing’s Street Cry, the same sire as the legendary American mare Zenyatta. She’s out of Vegas Showgirl, which gave her her name of “Winx”. John explained that a wink is symbolic of a Las Vegas Showgirl.

When asked if he’d braved the crowds at the races on Saturday, John chuckled. It turns out he has no choice, he’s under contract to be there, within close range of Winx, in case anything goes wrong, although nothing did.

The only thing that was expected was that Winx wouls run right past the rest of the horses in the race, and just keep on running, adding another victory to her record. John Bunting must have breathed a sigh of relief and a cheer at the same time...and started getting ready to change her shoes.

Thanks to John Bunting, Getty Images, and Sam Hyland for their materials used in this article. And good luck, Winx!

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