As wonder mare Winx galloped to glory in a relentless display of power, strength, speed and grace at Moonee Valley on Saturday, one man could have been forgiven for affording himself a slight, if rueful, smile.
Life is made up of what-might-have-beens, sliding door moments when one decision, one action or one set of circumstances, if slightly changed, could have made a huge difference.
For John Thompson, trainer of another first-rate mare in First Seal, Winx is an eternal reminder of what could have been a very different future.
As younger fillies, it was Thompson’s charge that was considered to be the superior of the two.
The daughter of Fastnet Rock had seen off Chris Waller’s then not-so-wonder horse in the group 2 Tea Rose Stakes and group 1 Flight Stakes, both at Randwick, in the spring of their careers in 2014.
Her performances then, and in the autumn, were enough to have the filly, who runs in the colours of the China Horse Club, named NSW horse of the year, and as the spring of 2015 approached it looked as though if any four-year-old mare was destined to be a headline maker it was she, not Winx.
First Seal was the standard-bearer for Thompson as he rebuilt his career following the high profile fall from grace of principal owner, Patinack Farm’s Nathan Tinkler. But fate took the sort of twist he could have done without.
First Seal developed a serious and rare hoof condition – keratin – which threatened to end her days on the racetrack before she got the chance to show how good she could become.
Thompson could only look on and marvel as Winx developed into an outstanding racehorse, and while there are no guarantees that his filly would have made the same progress – horses are notoriously fragile physically, and mature and improve at different rates and different ages – he could only ponder on the possibilities.
First Seal eventually made it back to the track and is now looking to make up for lost time.
She won the Tristarc Stakes on Caulfield Cup day and will front up at Flemington on Saturday as a strong fancy for the group 1 Myer Classic, a highly competitive race for fillies and mares.
Is she as good as she could have been? Who knows? Certainly not Thompson. But he is simply glad to have her back in one piece and racing so well.
Whatever she does now First Seal will forever occupy a special place in Thompson’s memory because of the pivotal role she played in helping him rebuild when the Patinack adventure dissolved.
“She’s been through a lot. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, she’s a special mare to us and the stable. She came to us at a time when we had no horses after all the Patinack horses left, and she helped us fill the stable back up.
“We have had a couple of serious injuries since then. I dare say she’s not what she was back then,” said her trainer.
But he is optimistic that she has taken plenty of heart from the Caulfield win.
“She had a blow there. You could see her physically tighten up between runs, she seems to have improved since then, she’s brighter in the coat.”
Thompson has spent a lifetime in racing – his father Vic was a leading Sydney trainer while he also worked as a stable foreman for Bart Cummings – but he had never seen anything like the injury First Seal picked up.
“I had to Google it. It’s the only horse I have ever seen have it. She had to have an operation to have it cut out. That put her out for a whole carnival, then last preparation second up, when she ran second to O’Shea’s sprinter [Holler in the group 1 Canterbury Stakes] she got galloped on badly.
“At the end of the preparation two runs later the wound was not healing, we X-rayed it and she had shattered the splint bone underneath it,” Thompson said.
“Most horses would pull up, but she is just a good horse that really tries. That was taken out, then she was given her time and now she seems to be fine.”
Does he think of what might have been?
“[Winx] has gone from strength to strength, you never know with horses. First Seal is a good horse, a group 1 winner, she has nothing to prove so hopefully she can do it again in the mile. It was a 50-50 call coming into the spring, so we take it one run at a time.
“Blake Shinn [her winning rider at Caulfield and the jockey who has partnered her most often] and I thought there was improvement in her after the first run and the owners showed faith in us.
“It was heartbreaking at the time what happened, but what can you do about it,” Thompson said.
“I had no horses … I had a completely empty stable, I had about four horses there, I was blessed and lucky enough that she was one of them, and she helped fill the stable again.
“There are lots of ups and down in the game, probably more downs than ups, but you have just got to ride the waves and treat it as it comes, that’s all you can do.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.