Wow what a setting. A year ago he was an awesome if not yet Derby winning athlete, now standing beside the tree lined lake at Gilltown, he looks every inch a youthful potentate. 120 mares into his first season at stud Sea The Stars clearly relishes the challenge of leaving a legacy for the breed after making history on the track.
He still looks fit enough to run at Ascot rather than just dance and holler to the breeding shed and it’s a surprise to know that he has already added 60 kilos to the 538 he weighed on Arc Day. At this stage some horses show the strain of four months of intense amorous activity but Sea The Stars is not one of them and, if you must know, he had four mares on Wednesday including Vodka the £7.4 million winning Japanese record breaker.
“Yes,” says 33 year old stallion man Ray Moore a tall figure kept lean by the hours of walking his charges round the arboretum splendour of a stud whose beauty would melt even the hardest urban heart. “He had them every five hours, at seven in the morning, twelve noon, five pm and ten o’clock at night. That’s the maximum but he is very efficient and has really taken to his job.”
Stud men talk like that. Not for them the sniggering silliness and double entendre, for they have charge of something with literally millions at stake. Ray Moore started at Gilltown seven years ago after learning his trade at Coolmore before also serving in Australia and Japan and took over his present role on the sudden illness and death of his predecessor Liam Foley in January. The task involves the most glittering coupling list ever presented to a debut stallion. By the time the season closes in a few weeks time Sea The Stars will have covered 130 mares, over 90 of them either Group One winners or dams of Group One winners, at €85,000 a time. Do the maths.
They show that within 5 months under Ray’s handling Sea The Stars will have earned more than double the £4,350,000 he won through his unique six race sequence last year. His mates have included the classic winners Finsceal Beo, Speciosa and Lush Lashes, the globe trotting star Alexander Goldrun and one of his very first, and now well in foal, was Zarkava, the unbeaten winner of the 2008 Arc de Triomphe. Her offspring will have to start life with the burden of being the most blue blooded racehorse on the planet.
The first mare he got in foal was last summer’s Deauville Group One winner Alpine Rose but she was not actually his first mate. Early in February, as is the custom in the breeding world, Sea The Stars initiation in this arena was not with a flighty thoroughbred but with a the equine equivalent of a seasoned older woman. A fat, cobby, soup plate-hooved mare has her place in history as the female who taught the world’s most eligible equine bachelor the facts of copulatory life.
“Sometimes,” says Pat Downes whose duties as manager of the Aga Khan’s four stud portfolio in Ireland include Gilltown to where Mrs Ling Tsui decided last October to stand the apple of her family’s eye, “It can take a young horse a long while to get the hang of things. But on his first visit to the shed Sea The Stars was less than half an hour and the second time he was only five minutes. They always said he was a quick learner when in training and it is the same here.”
Downes smiles as Sea The Stars puts his head up and whinnies loudly into the summer sky. The horse was always something of a shouter when he first arrived at the racecourse stables but the holler then was very much the fighter’s challenge, this one has a clear touch of the sultan’s bed time call. But 45 year old Downes, whose early career was at the Irish National Stud where his present charge was later to be born, is too serious a professional to linger long on fripperies. He knows all too well that prowess on the track does not necessarily equate with success as a stallion
“The facts are,” he says, “that Sea The Stars is a first season sire. He has got the most unimaginable bunch of mares and that give him a wonderful chance. He has everything going for him, the looks, the ability, and the temperament but he now has to prove himself all over again.” The statue of Sinndar in front of his office is proof of the point.
The last horse to win the Derby and the Arc before Sea The Stars, Sinndar has been by no means a failure at stud as the achievements of his progeny Shawanda and Youmzain can testify. But after his slow opening years at Gilltown he was moved to the Aga Khan’s Haras de Bonneville in Normandy and this season it will take a major success from his talented daughter Rosanara to raise his next year’s fee above its current level of €12,500.
In such sumptuous surroundings it is hard to realise that it is still the market place that holds sway but without it even a man like the Aga Khan, indeed especially a man like the Aga Khan, cannot justify the investment which keeps this mighty show on the road. His own current stallions at Gilltown, Dalakhani and Azamour stand at €50,000 and €15,000 respectively and if the latter could read the figures he would probably be pressing his son Azmeel to guarantee his sire’s current circumstances by cutting a good dance at Epsom.
The two stallions are contrasting types, Azamour even bigger at 620 kilos than Sea The Stars, and the now almost white Dalakhani a much trimmer 550 kilos albeit some 100 kilos heavier than the willowy, iron-grey 445 kilos he pulled on Alain du Royer Dupre’s weigh bridge before he crowned his unbeaten career in the 2003 Arc de Triomphe. “If we let him,” says Ray Moore, “Azamour would get really heavy but Dalakhani is a very active horse even in the field.”
Azamour, of course, spent his racing days in the same John Oxx academy and indeed in the same box as Sea The Stars and it was to those stables at the Kildare end of the Curragh that we had earlier journeyed to try and grapple with the perennial problem of flat racing losing its stars almost as soon as the wider public have registered them. A week after Sea The Stars was born at the Irish National Stud on the 6th March 2006, Kauto Star fell when hot favourite for the Two Mile Champion Chase, the first of what were to be five visits to Cheltenham with next spring beckoning for a sixth. In jumping there is time for a relationship to develop.
So for us there was an element of emptiness as we went to where Sea The Stars’ brass plaque gleams above that of Azamour and Irish Derby winner Alamshar in that box over in the far corner of the yard. Out across the Curragh and the first horse we see is the high stepping Arazan who a week before last year’s Two Thousand Guineas so clearly outpointed Sea The Stars that John Oxx’s confidence was temporarily dented. A sickness, which briefly returned this spring, has prevented him even making the track since then. One horse goes on to glory, the other remains a footnote of what might have been.
Up towards the corner of the gallop John Oxx sits in his car, as studious and bespectacled as he always was. He takes us with him and within minutes there is the strongest feeling of déjà vu as with the window open he drives alongside the string and gently interrogates each member of the string. This what he would do last year before driving on to where Sea The Stars and his lead horse would be making their seperate way home. Surely John must be withdrawal symptoms now?
“No,” he counters firmly, “there is no sense of withdrawal symptom. A horse comes and he goes. That’s the way it is and now we can look forward to seeing how he does at stud. In truth there was a sense of relief when he went away and someone else could take the responsibility. People go on about racing being the only thing but flat racing and breeding go hand in hand. Sure, racing can’t survive without breeding and anyway everyone still talks about Nijinksy and he retired at three.”
At the front of the string is the light, lean figure of Keredari who was yesterday set to carry the Aga Khan’s colours in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. John Oxx looks at him and adds ruminatively, “starting the season we knew we did not have any big names unless that fellow steps up on Saturday. But you can see that he is no Sea The Stars to look at.”
And of course nothing will be. In Oxx’s meticulously kept gallops-log it records that on the Tuesday 19th last year Sea The Stars did his first post Guineas work in the hands of Mick Kinane and repeated the effort on the Friday going a healthy seven furlongs with the talented Tarankali who was later sold to last week make his debut in Singapore. To think that twelve months ago some still had their doubts about Sea The Stars and he would not even start favourite at Epsom.
These were never doubts shared by his rider who still appears every work morning despite sensibly deciding that post Sea The Stars retirement was the best option. “Mick says he doesn’t miss the race-riding at all,” says John Oxx, “and I believe him. He is fit, happy and enthusiastic at being a part of it all. And I think he wants to be around when we see the first of the Sea The Stars come through.”
Ah yes, the young ones. Exasperating though it may be for a sport to have its stars disappear after just one comet-like season, the possibility of so soon linking up a new generation offers a fascination quite unlike other activities. “So the foals will appear in 2011,” Oxx ponders owlishly as Keredari and the others continue their walk past the great golden-splashed, sweet-almond smelling gorse bushes which are such a feature of the Curragh plain at this time of year. “That means they will be yearlings in 2012, two year olds in 2013 and by 2014……..”
His voice trails off at the sheer pleasure of the thought. In four years time some of those horses beside him will be sons of the great one who walked there before. They may have parts of him; his head, his colour, his frame, even that bold look in his eye, but will any of them have even half the physical and mental perfection that pulled it all together.
“This is one of the great attractions of the game,” says John Oxx. “At the moment I think you can stress too much on betting, betting, betting. We need to push the horse and its background and all the fascination that this brings. Sure it is often just one blazing summer but because it is short does not lessen it. You don’t need them to go on and on. They have another career to see if they can leave any mark on the breed. I think it will be very interesting to follow that.”
He is not alone in his view and the fact that the BBC cameras also made the trek to see Sea The Stars at Gilltown last week means that the millions of Derby Day viewers will also be bewitched by the glorious location and mind boggling economics of this attempt at reproducing magic on the hoof. We racefans may still feel bereft that true tests between the generations can never consistently happen in flat racing where an all conquering superstar can become what one famous American sportswriter eloquently dubbed –“that ultimate absurdity, a racehorse too valuable to race.” But the game is what it is and we all have to make the best of it – and that includes the horses.
Pat Downes is not prone to silly statements which is a good thing considering the potential for endless archness in his position. However there was a moment when he raised an eyebrow last week after Sea The Stars had been returned to his box and then Azamour and Dalakhani were each led gently back past the lake to ready themselves for that night’s Casanova session. “If only,” Pat said quizzically, “if only horses knew the rewards on offer.”