Year in review: All eyes turned to Winx
WHO would have thought the two-way argument about Australia's greatest horses this century would so quickly turn to three?
Or that they would all be mares?
We were blessed to have witnessed Makybe Diva's three Melbourne Cup wins from 2003-05, enchanted by unbeaten sprinter Black Caviar's remarkable 25-start winning run from 2009-13 and simply blown away this year by the brilliance of Winx.
She started eight times in 2016, extending her run of victories to 13 when she demolished her rivals in the Australasian weight-for-age championship, the WS Cox Plate, winning by eight lengths.
She blew them away in the 2015 edition, too, winning by 4¾ lengths and breaking the track record, but it was meant to be different this year with top-class Godolphin performer Hartnell in the field.
He had won his three previous starts by a combined margin of 17 lengths - and went on to finish a gallant third in the Melbourne Cup - but Winx was in a different class as she left him for dead on the home turn.
The word "freak” keeps bobbing up - usually from rival trainers who have decided discretion is the better part of valour in bypassing races for which Winx has been set.
Not that official confirmation was needed, but it was received on November 10 when the latest global rankings rated Winx the best mare and best turf horse in the world, with her ranking of 130 beaten only by American pair Arrogate and California Chrome - both dirt track gallopers.
There's another great thing about Winx - she's coming back next year and will be chasing a third Cox Plate victory in a row.
Man for the big stage
JOAO Moreira lost the Melbourne Cup by a nose, but the Brazilian 32-year-old, regarded by many as the best jockey in the world, won a heap of fans in Australia.
A man for the big stage, Hong Kong's premier rider gave foreign raider Heartbreak City a peach of a ride, making his way from barrier 23 to sit midfield, one off the fence, 200m before the winning post the first time around.
From there, Moreira bided his time, enjoying cover behind horses while the leading division engaged in a battle of speed in a fast-run race, before angling wider on the home turn and weaving his way through runners.
When a gap opened with 400m to go, Moreira shot Heartbreak City to the lead. Almandin immediately joined in and the pair shot away in a two-way go to the line, locked together in one of the most stirring finishes in Cup history.
Heartbreak City fell short by a nose and Moreira could have been excused for showing disappointment, but instead there seemed to be only joy as he patted victorious jockey Kerrin McEvoy enthusiastically on the back metres past the post.
A simple act of good sportsmanship - a scarce commodity nowadays - had elevated even further Australian sport's premier event. Gotta love a real role model.
Flying the Aussie flag
EAGLE Farm trainer Robert Heathcote was on the hunt for an Australian flag in Dubai just in case grand old sprinter Buffering happened to win the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night back in March.
"We forgot to bring one and it is something we should have thought of,” Heathcote told Fairfax a couple of days before the race.
"If he brings his A game, I'm sure they will know he is there, but they are all telling me it is the toughest race on the program.”
Having raced in the Black Caviar era, there was a time when Buffering was a perpetual bridesmaid.
Ten times he was placed at Group 1 level before finally breaking through in the Manikato Stakes (1000m) at Moonee Valley in September 2013.
Two more Group 1 victories followed in his next two starts - and another three before he lined up at Dubai. There he did indeed bring his A game in accounting for a top-class field of international sprinters, running a career-best 56.34 seconds for the straight 1000m.
"I'm just so damn proud to be here representing Australia,” Heathcote said.
It's almost certain we've seen the best of Buffering, who failed next start in Hong Kong and in two Melbourne runs in the spring, but fans will remember him for his durability, bravery and brilliance.
Stars align in Sydney
DERBY Day at Randwick was a cracker this year - highlighted by Winx's comfortable win in the Doncaster Handicap, a remarkable last-to-first finish by Chautauqua in the TJ Smith and the emergence of two-year-old filly Yankee Rose as a star of the future.
Then rated the world's top sprinter, Chautauqua was tardy out of the gates and having trouble staying in touch with the field for much of the 1200m dash.
He was still last as he went wide on the home turn - about 12 lengths off the leaders - and at the 400m mark. With 300 to go he had caught the second-last horse, but victory seemed out of the question, even for a horse with such a reputation for storming finishes.
In the end he did it on his ear, thrilling racegoers with incredible acceleration to take the lead with 50 to go and win comfortably by 1 1/4 lengths for back-to-back victories in the Group 1.
Managing part-owner Rupert Legh summed up Chautauqua beautifully, telling reporters: "Only a horse like this can stir the emotions in your body and you think, 'Can he do it again?' But he does it every time ... he just picks himself up and comes from impossible positions and does it time and time again.”
About an hour later it was Winx's turn.
Chasing her ninth win in a row, the mare was sent out a $1.80 favourite but had her backers worried as she straightened for home with a wall of horses in front of her.
Hughie Bowman needed some luck and he made it, angling between horses, finding a narrow gap and bursting through. With clear air in front of her, Winx quickly reeled in the leader and won running away.
Sure, we already knew she was great, but finding a way to win when circumstances are against you is the mark of a true champ.
Yankee Rose may never reach the heights attained by Winx, but the Golden Slipper runner-up was simply brilliant earlier in the day in winning the Group 1 Sires Produce (1400m) by 2½lengths.
Midfield for most of the race, she went five wide as they rounded the home turn, gathering momentum and taking the lead with about 250m to go.
From there it was a procession with jockey Zac Purton easing the filly down in the last 50 for a soft win.
It looked like a great form pointer and so it proved to be next campaign when she took out the Group 1 Spring Champion Stakes (2000m) at Randwick and finished third behind Winx and Hartnell in the Cox Plate.
Yankee Rose went on to fail in the Group 1 VRC Oaks (2500m), but was later found to have a bone chip in the knee and underwent surgery.
I'm sticking with her in 2017.