This column was never intended to be a “Sea The Stars Diary”. But what can you do when you are despatched to Curraghbeg for farewell interviews and find both the lad and the trainer ending up in tears?
The Derby and Arc winner’s retirement had been announced on Tuesday and by our visit on Friday the stable was beginning to realise quite what a presence would be removed from their midst. John Hynes’ upset was the simplest. Every day of the year he had been first into Sea The Stars box as he went to muck out and groom him of a morning. Every race he has been the man holding the bridle as the champion goes out to do battle. But it was the thought of the empty afternoons that got to him.
“What I will miss most,” he said, his craggy face looking out across the Curragh where Sea The Stars’ talent has been honed, “is when we have finished everything here and I can go over and give him his apple. And now” – pause – “he won’t be there anymore.” There was a sudden, strange choking noise as John welled up and turned away with a “sorry lads” as the moment overcame him. We all choked too.
That John Oxx, that calmest and most professorial of trainers, should also be swamped by his emotions was even more instructive. Because to the outsider, however great are Sea The Stars’ achievements, they have come in too short a timespan to really register. Although he was quoted in the Derby betting this time last year, only serious pundits would have even known his name. Although he swept all before him in his unique six race 2,000 Guineas to Arc de Triomphe sequence, this season the wider sporting public were only now starting to realise the true significance that – say it slowly – many of us now believe that this is the greatest thoroughbred that ever lived.
John Oxx gets it. John Oxx has realised the possibility for quite a while and now it’s over sometimes finds even the thought of it overwhelming. Because John Oxx can put it in context. The rest of us may rail about the breeding implications that make Sea The Stars that most oxymoronic of creatures, the racehorse too valuable to race. We may contrast his fleeting career with that of Kauto Star who next month starts his 7th racing season and his 4th tilt at the Gold Cup. But John Oxx sees Sea The Stars as part of history.
“My father was a great reader,” he said as the cameras rolled for the film commissioned by the Tsui family to commemorate their wonderhorse, “he was always telling me of the great champions of the past, and then more recently of Ribot and Sea Bird and I sat with him at the Curragh and saw Sir Ivor and Nijinsky walk round as two year olds. When I started training I always dreamt of having something in that category. I have had some really good horses like Ridgewood Pearl, Sinndar and Azamour but not perhaps a great one.”
As he sketched out Sea The Stars “annus mirabilis” John was as cool and lucid as ever. Indeed when we had finished talking about the Arc he analysed why the factors of pedigree, stature, soundness, speed, stamina, and temperament combine to put his horse above all those that have gone before. But then came the moment.
Asked when he really believed his horse’s status, he halted and then went all confidential. “After Mick Kinane got off at Epsom,” said John, “he leaned in and whispered to me ‘this is one of the greats.’ It was something I kept to myself, the thought that……” In a BBC interview before the Arc he had broken down telling the same story and now this soberest of men was swamped again.
It was the realisation of a fleeting, fulfilling, comet that can never come again – tears of parting, but also of simple, unrepeatable, precious joy.