Next Sunday everyone should concentrate. Everyone who has ever handled a horse should think of what is going through the minds of John Oxx and his team at Longchamp as their superhorse Sea The Stars tries to become the first animal ever to complete the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby and Arc de Triomphe treble. For this will be the ultimate, not in hoping things go right, but in trying to ensure that they do not go wrong.
Just because, as in Sea The Stars case, your horse seem on all known form to be better and faster than the others, does not mean that it is immune from getting cast in its box, slipping on the road, or rearing over in the paddock, and all that before it gets bumped sideways in the race. Murphy’s Law that you should expect the unexpected just when you least appreciate it applies to top horses just as it does to our hacks in the field. It even applied to Shergar.
No not the doomed, dumb and never recovered kidnapping that ended Shergar’s life and stallion career almost before it had begun, but the chuckling, oft-repeated Newmarket tale of how he got loose weeks after his runaway win in the 1981 Derby. Of how that one instant of bad luck and inattention that we all dread had seen the then most famous (and expensive) horse in the world shed his pilot and disappear at a rate of knots up the Bury Road plantation only to be recaptured unharmed outside, of all places, the Warren Hill yard of Michael Stoute’s great rival Henry Cecil.
Trainers don’t just want to avoid this, they will do everything short of a “D Notice” to prevent the news getting out, and only last week did I finally get the full story of what happened to Arc de Triomphe hero Dancing Brave in his glorious summer of 1986. “One morning in July,” remembered trainer Guy Harwood , “his lead horse slipped up at the top of the gallop and Dancing Brave fell over him. He seemed right as rain so we had all the staff in and told them we would say nothing. Fat chance – the press were on within the hour!.”
Guy can laugh about it now but he was not chuckling then and a recent visit to John Oxx’s stable at the Kildare end of the Curragh revealed even that steadiest of men had a frisson of tension running through his habitually cool, professorial calm. “Of course you worry,” said John as we drove alongside Sea The Stars and his stablemate Mourayan on their way back from exercise. “I have been at this game long enough (amongst many other great things he won the Derby and Arc with Sinndar in 1970) to know it can always kick you in the teeth. This horse has a rock solid temperament on raceday but he is a big, bold, masculine animal and if he gets fresh he could be off with you. Everyone has to take care.”
As if on cue Sea The Stars gave a buck and plunge of huge well being. On his back work rider Alex da Silva rode the wave with prehensile skill before giving a smile of reassurance as wide as if he had clocked another winner back in his native Brazil. On Sunday it will be the experienced hand of his lad Jim Hynes who will fingers clenched firm on the lead rein whilst the small, cheery but hyper attentive shape of travelling head lad Jeff Houlihan will be walking shotgun on the other side. The ultimate responsibility will always lie with John Oxx and with jockey Michael Kinane, but let no one underestimate what Jeff and Jim will be going through in the paddock.
“I am really looking forward to it,” said Jeff at Ascot on Saturday. “Himself is wondrous well. We think he is still improving and everything has gone like clockwork. But fingers crossed.” Anyone who has ever had a horse should be crossing them too.