He’s an idol not a pet. As Sea The Stars walks through – big, proud, strong and handsome – a strange frisson runs through the John Oxx yard. The people there are too sensible to say it out loud and too busy to spend time gawping, but as the morning progresses the truth become obvious. They are not just in charge, they are in awe of their Derby winner.
Classic horses do that to you. For they hold out the promise of being “the chosen one”, the reincarnation of all the greatness that has gone before. Being with them makes you part of racing’s history. But sustaining brilliance is more difficult than showing it. Many have threatened to rank amongst my personal pantheon that numbers Sea Bird, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard and Dancing Brave but none, as yet, has truly made it. So when a new contender emerges there is the wish to worship, to hold your breath and above all to make the pilgrimage while the dream still lives.
That’s why we were travelling through the mist to the far side of The Curragh on Wednesday.
At ten to seven the brightest thing at Currabeg was Alex Da Silva’s smile. Alex’s first experience of anything like a racehorse was in three and a half furlong “bush races” back home in Northern Brazil. Well I think that is what he said for his command of the English language is somewhat less than the cool, feline prowess in the saddle which sees him atop Sea The Stars every morning. The smile, a wonderful, wide, teeth-flashing, central-casting coffee seller of a smile, comes the moment we mention his horse’s name. “Very, Very, Good,” says Alex.
Inside the yard John Oxx is talking to his long time assistant “Slim” O’Neill whom John, uniquely, still always addresses as Jimmy. At the racetrack John’s public persona is so much that of the quietly spoken, sober-suited, bespectacled, professorial diplomat that it is easy to forget that every morning he and “Slim” are grafting through all the bumps and pains that make up the daily grind of having 140 volatile young equine athletes in your care. John is a spare, purposeful presence in tweed cap, zipped-up, body warmer and gumboots. Tuesday had been his 59th birthday and he has been here as the official trainer since 1979, and was assisting his father before that. There is no shouting or arm waving histrionics but there is no doubt that he is in charge. Especially of that horse over there.
Outside Sea The Stars’ box there are two brass plaques; one for Alamshar, winner of the 2003 Irish Derby and King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the other for Sinndar, in 2000 the hero of the English and Irish Derbies, the King George and The Arc – two fine horses he must eclipse if he is to be a great one. Inside the box John Hynes is calmly clearing the droppings and checking the feet with a long face just as unmoved as it has been in those pictures of him and travelling head lad Jeff Houlihan leading his champion in at Newmarket, Epsom and Sandown. Sea The Stars may have become a Derby winner, but first and always, he remains a horse.
And what a horse. At 16’1 and a half (five foot five and a half inches) at the shoulder, 524 kilos on the weighbridge Sea The Stars cuts a tremendous figure; a truly magnificent, masculine, king of the herd. Here is that perfect mixture of power and poise that every thoroughbred conception aspires to. In purely physical terms he ranks easily amongst the great ones we mentioned – bigger and more stable than Sea Bird, a shade more quality than Sir Ivor, a lot less volatile than Nijinsky, two sizes larger than Mill Reef, easier to handle than Brigadier Gerard, a touch more powerful than Dancing Brave. The last Guineas winner who looked as good as this was Nashwan. At this stage of the year he had been even more impressive than Sea The Stars and was to top it in the King George which the new contender will by pass next Saturday. But Nashwan did not last the season. As John Oxx is all too well aware.
“People do not know how tough it is to do what this horse has done and will have to do,” he says as we drive slowly across the gorse and grass landscape of the Curragh with Sea The Stars and his stable companion Mourayan walking beside us. “Those who complain that classic horses are wrapped up in cotton wool don’t know how hard they are being tested. Sea The Stars started cantering again two weeks after the Beresford (run on 28th September last year) and then cantered 6 days a week right through the winter. He began his fast work in March, ran a temperature on March 17th , did not get back working until a fortnight that Friday (April 3rd), got up for the Guineas, had five weeks to the Derby and was in fast work the Tuesday week after Epsom. He may have won the Guineas, The Eclipse and The Derby but he is only half way through.”
The day before had seen the decision to sidestep the King George for the York International in August and Irish Champion Stakes in September. Beside us Sea The Stars gives a movement of quick, plunging well-being which receives a pat from the phlegmatic Da Silva and a rueful reflection from his trainer. “Maybe we should run in the King George after all,” he says teasingly. “But York is four weeks on Tuesday. Missing Ascot gives us the chance to ease off a fraction. Then Leopardstown is 18 days after York, the Arc four weeks after that. Of course it could all be sabotaged by the weather. He won’t run if it is soft, he won’t go to the Far East but with the new surface we could consider the Breeders Cup although November 7th is a long way off. We shall have to play it by ear and see how the horse is.”
The details have such a meticulous, clinical exactitude about them that it is almost a shock to hear the bubbling, uncontained enthusiasm with which John Oxx talks of the horse in front of us. “He was always outstanding from the day he walked into the place,” says John as Sea The Stars and Alex da Silva swoop smoothly past us at the canter. “He was so easy to break in, did everything we asked, had perfect balance and a great temperament. Then when Mick rode him his first bit of work he said ‘this is the real deal.’”
Sea The Stars first ever race, a close and slightly unlucky fourth in a maiden race at the Curragh, had been exactly a year ago on the Saturday. “We were thrilled with him,” says John. “For with horses it is not so much what you do as what you don’t do. If they have ability, they have ability but with a big horse like him we didn’t want to train him hard as a two year old. You have to tread a careful path.”
This year that path was made more difficult first by the unwanted infection in March and then by a laboured work out with stable mate Arazan on very soft ground a week before the Guineas. “The other horse went better than him,” remembers John. “But in hindsight the hard blow probably set him right and it did show us that it would be wrong to ask him to match his present level on soft ground. It also showed us how good his constitution was . I learnt with Sinndar that these real classic horses need the ability to take a bit more than the others. They need to be really healthy and sound and this horse is all that and a quite exceptional eater.”
Oxx’s bright student son Kevin is in the back of the car just like John used to be with his father John Oxx senior all those years ago. The current trainer now runs an extremely expensive, highly competitive, internationally targeted operation. He deals alike with crowned heads, stable staff and business potentates. But the well spring of it all walks on four hooves over there.
“I love this,” he says looking across at Sea The Stars profiled against the emerging expanses of County Kildare. “This is the real pleasure of training racehorses. Most of the time it is a nightmare of a job but the joy you get is from being around exceptional horses like that, of just watching him walk, of minding him, of seeing him at evening stables, of being able to look at him not just as an athlete but as an individual.”
The significance of that last phrase comes through as Oxx adds “this is a big strong, masculine horse and if you don’t work him he gets too fresh. Those two weeks trotting we gave him last year were all we could allow or he would have had his rider off. As everyone has seen he has a terrific big race temperament, but when he first goes into the racecourse stables he will roar like a stallion. It’s a territorial thing. Once he has established who is boss, he is all right.”
Back in the yard the question arises not just of Sea The Stars schedule but of his future ownership with racetrack rumours ever swirling of massive bids from both Sheikh Mohammed who already owns the sire Cape Cross and John Magnier who stands the dam Urban Sea’s son Galileo at Coolmore. John Oxx opts for no political obfuscation. “There are people in this world,” he says quietly, “whose sole motivation is not money. And these people (speaking of the owning Tsui family) are in that category. Which is great for me, the rest of us could not afford not to sell him.”
“As regards his stallion career, we can talk about all that later. First we have to remember that he is only half way through. He has been very good but he hasn’t yet done what Sinndar did and he is not yet rated even as high as Alamshar. To be rated up there with them and above with Nijinksy and Sea Bird he has to go through to the end of the year, to be tested as the Bible says ‘like gold in the furnace.’ But I guess I have to think that he is the best horse that I have ever had.”
The sun has burnt through the mist and over on the other side of Kildare Town, the Irish National Stud is welcoming some of the 150,000 visitors who can now add “birthplace of Sea The Stars” to the place’s famous walks, horse museum and unique Japanese Gardens. “Yes, he was the most wonderful looking looking foal,” says stud chief executive John Clarke. “Of course you can’t remember every foal but with Urban Sea being an Arc winner herself and being the dam of Galileo we definitely remember him. He was never sick in his life and had done absolutely everything right by the time he went to John’s in the autumn of 2007.”
John Clarke has been half a lifetime at the National Stud and stood, tall and elegant, on the winners podium to receive the trophy on behalf of the Tsui (pronounced Choy) family at Newmarket. His role as representative to owner Christopher Tsui and his remarkable business tycoon mother Ling Tsui makes him particularly adamant when Sea The Stars future is discussed. “The horse,” he says almost sharply, “is not for sale. I speak to Ling Tsui a lot and everyone is enjoying the fun of an unbelievably good racehorse and I just feel privileged to be part of what is a great adventure for the Tsui family.”
The feeling of personal involvement has a poignant but playful expression out in the paddock behind us. In March Urban Sea died suddenly within minutes of foaling a bonny chestnut colt by Invincible Spirit. That night a slightly tubby roan mare called Minipen welcomed the little orphan to her matronly bosom. On Wednesday, the headlines on the Irish papers predicted further economic catastrophe but out on the grass of Kildare, one little family gave something to lift the spirit.
There was one more visit to be made on this pilgrimage – to the handsome home fifteen miles away near Punchestown, of Sea The Stars jockey Mick Kinane. On the way there, the logic of the horse’s future becomes inescapable. Mrs Tsui, who has the Chinese government as not the least of her international clients, does not need the money. The Irish National Stud has both John Oxx as a former chairman as well as John Clarke as the current chief exectutive . It is not just Sea The Stars birthplace but would be a perfect neutral stallion base for the Tsui family to relish the delights of vicarious stallion hood away from the competing might of Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operation and John Magnier’s Coolmore. But if that is the horse’s destination when will he go there, and can he really achieve the extra miles on the track to give him the immortality for which we all yearn?
The fittest fifty year old in racing has been mowing the lawn and that, if you are Michael Kinane thirty four years, 13 championships and 4 Derbies into one of the greatest of all riding careers, means a lot of lawn to mow. He sits in the state of the art kitchen and ponders the possibilities. “Honestly,” he says, the lines of the face ageing in emphasis, “I think this horse can do anything. I just could not believe the ease with which he came up to them in the Eclipse (and win in record time). And as for anything being unlucky in the Derby, that is nonsense. He gets the trip, he has incredible pace. I have been very lucky to have ridden some wonderful horses but I can say this is the best I have ever sat on. I have only seen the likes of Sea Bird Nijinsky and Mill Reef on the television, but I was around for Dancing Brave. I think this horse is in that bracket.”
It’s that feeling of awe again. We are alone in the kitchen but Kinane drops his voice as he describes the thrill of being on board the ace in every rider’s pack. But a cloud of doubt comes across the face when we talk about the horse running as a four year old. “I am not privy to anything,” he says. “But if he were to get through these other races he becomes the most amazing stallion prospect ever. You have to wonder if it’s worth the risk.”
As we leave his words produce familiar competing thoughts: disappointment at the possibility of an equine super hero not being tested against a junior generation, and acceptance that one full season can still deliver greatness. None of Sea Bird, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky or Dancing Brave ran as four year olds and we don’t decry their claim to immortality.
Above all, one day with Sea The Stars and all his County Kildare constellations reaffirms the crucial excitement of what lies ahead. “We are only half way through” John Oxx had said on parting and as we leave Kinane Towers another small figure gets off a mowing machine. It is Tommy Kinane, hero of Monksfield’s 1978 Champion Hurdle and self appointed guardian of his son’s estate. “Ah yes,” he says, eyes wide with enthusiasm when asked about Sea The Stars. “He’s the best, the very best. Mick says he would win The July Cup.”
Not much chance of that now but yes, Tommy is in awe too.