It had all come to this, the Arc field sprinting for the line at Longchamp and the favourite trapped along the rail. Just six races, one wondrous summer and if Sea The Stars was to truly rank amongst the immortals he needed to do something mighty quick. What happened next was not just seared into personal memory but into racing history.
The top horses have a special punch, the ability to take a race by the scruff of the neck in one awesome move and declare it their own. In a perfect world this is done with the majestic smoothness of Piggott and Nijinky’s finest hour at Ascot. Sometimes there is the erratic, freakish brilliance of a Sea Bird coming up the Epsom straight like an eagle on the wing. But most exciting of all is when the galloping cards have suddenly been dealt against them so that only a true champion can win through. That’s what we got at Longchamp.
We’ve had it there before. In 1971 little Mill Reef had overcome the disappointment of being “chinned” by Brigadier Gerard in the Guineas to skip away from his rivals in the Derby, the Eclipse and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. But he had to win in Paris as no British trained horse had done in 20 year and turning into the straight he was hidden behind a wall of rivals and we feared the worst. Then, suddenly, we could see his white nose band like a ray of sunlight out of shadow and through he came to clock what was the fastest Arc then on record.
That moment came soon after the final bend. At the same stage 15 years later Dancing Brave was not so much trapped, as apparently being deliberately hidden, by the nerveless Eddery. As the world knows, it was not until a whole furlong later that the most brilliant horse of his time was pulled out to deliver a finish so spectacular that he actually lopped half a second off Mill Reef’s record.
Now Sea The Stars was going to produce a blow of equal importance. Flat racing is both so fleeting and so permanent. For two full centuries, the classic horse has been measured by what he can do in his three year old summer and whether he can crown it in the autumn. Even if he races on for several seasons, it is the classic campaign which is the anvil on which the dreams are fashioned. Those of us watching at Longchamp, and the millions viewing from further afield, sensed that we had only a few seconds left before what had seemed the perfect racing story would become flawed like all the rest.
Then it happened. A punch more brutal, more decisive, than any that had gone before. Mick Kinane moved Sea The Stars out behind the filly Stacelita and into a gap being rapidly closed by the older mare Da Re Mi. Anything less than instant acceleration would mean that the dream was over. But this colt has aggression to match his speed, power to enhance his balance. His hooves bit deep into the Paris turf as the great levers of his hind legs thrust him fast and forward to make this Arc his own.
As with all truly great performances,the more you look at it the better it gets. For this was no early escape or deliberate waiting for the final trump. This was a swift and brutal and complete assertion of one horse’s dominance over all the others. Because the final verdict was an eased-up two lengths over the weight conceding Youmzain, (which on paper actually makes that older colt the superior), it is easy to miss quite how extraordinary had been the move. But look at Sea The Star’s positions at the 300 and 100 metre poles (helpfully marked in white on the BBC replay)and you can see him take five lengths out of the leader. That’s a kick like Dancing Brave’s – only harder.
For you can’t argue with the clock. In 1971 Mill Reef set a new track record at 2 minutes 28.3 seconds. In 1986 Dancing Brave lowered it to 2 minutes 27.7. This year, in what was not a fast run Arc, Sea The Stars came home in 2 minute 26.3 seconds. In the Eclipse he set the fastest time in the 40 years of reliable clocking, and in the Juddmonte he set a new track record. Say what you like about the champions of today compared to those of the past, but don’t anyone pretend that they are getting slower.
Yet it was not statistics that John Oxx’s assistant “Slim” O’Neill and travelling head lad Jeff Houlihan were treasuring as John Hynes led Sea The Stars round in the stable area half an hour after the Arc was over. It was the thought of what this season had brought them, of the journey from Newmarket to Epsom to Sandown to York to Leopardstown to here at Longchamp in which they had been accomplices to some of the defining moments in the whole saga that is horseracing. “Jeez,” said “Slim” shaking his head in wonder, “he really is some machine. I just can’t believe it.”
And yet you knew that “Slim” knew that he had believed all along. That was what made this moment so special. It was the acceptance that even their wildest dreams had come true. That in the two years since Sea The Stars had first walked through the gates of their yard on the Kildare end of the Curragh the big bay colt had moved relentlessly forward on a trajectory with the sky as the limit. “Slim” and his team had handled many top horses before, Sinndar had actually won the Arc for them nine years earlier. But they had never had anything like this. They had been part of something that had seemed set for the heavens from the very beginning.
That sense of destiny resonates right through the story. Standing there beneath the falling autumn leaves at Longchamp was to think back three years to the green shoots of an Irish spring where on April 6th 2006 Urban Sea had delivered a bay colt by Ouija Board’s sire Cape Cross and all the memories become golden. “Of course Urban Sea was herself an Arc winner and was the dam of Galileo so there was quite a deal of expectation,” says Irish National Stud manager John Clarke smiling at the thought of what has happened, “and you can say that he has more than fulfilled it. As a foal and as a yearling he was a perfect specimen, well grown but well balanced too. So when he went on to John Oxx’s, our hopes were of the highest.”
Of course in hindsight there is always the danger of sentimental anthropomorphism, but although John Clarke is a willowy, well dressed figure, he is a highly regarded professional in the thoroughbred game. So too is our next witness Gary Witherford, although not perhaps so much the “willowy, well dressed” bit. Gary is the rugged, Wiltshire-based, former stable lad whose Monty Roberts style, fifteen minute “pressure and release” breaking system was used for the first time to educate the John Oxx yearlings in October 2007. And the big, inquisitive bay colt by Cape Cross was the one he picked to start.
“He had this look about him” says Gary with an infectious passion, “he was athletic and inquisitive and he got everything really quickly. With our method we get horses going and ridden away in under twenty minutes. But with him it was under fifteen. My son Craig was the one who rode him and it is no word of a lie to say that afterwards he told me that this was the nicest young horse he had ever sat on.” There is no doubt that by the time what had now been called Sea The Stars moved across from John Oxx’s breaking yard to Currabeg, he was already in the scholarship stream.
But exams would not come early. Sea The Stars was obviously talented but he was also big, his mother had won the Arc and his half brother the Derby. He would not be tested too highly as a two year old. “He was always outstanding from the day he walked into the place,” summarized John Oxx in a voice whose meticulous, almost academic assessment only just hides the passion bubbling beneath. “He did everything we asked, had perfect balance and a great temperament and when Mick first rode him he said ‘this is the real deal.’ He had the ability all right but with a big horse like him we did not want to train him hard as a two year old. You have to tread a careful path.”
Especially when it comes to be tempted into stirring, “this could be the best I have ever trained” hostage-to-fortune predictions which John Oxx’s emotional side must have longed to risk. In the last few years it has been my privilege to ride out at Currabeg when visiting Ireland but on the morning of 2008 Irish 2,000 Guineas last May my back was playing up and I was confined to the trainer’s car. “That’s a nice colt,” he said pointing to the leader of a bunch of three, “his dam was the Arc winner Urban Sea so he is Galileo’s half brother. He does everything right.” That’s as far as it went but if I had acted then I could have made whole empires of bookmakers crumble.
So it was that Urban Sea’s latest son did not emerge until the elaborately named ‘Jebel Ali Stables and Racecourse Breeders Fund Maiden’ over 7 furlongs at the Curragh on July 13th to finish a close, slightly unlucky but sensibly un-hustled, fourth to a grey colt called Driving Snow who was last seen this summer when winning a decent race across the Atlantic at Indiana Downs in July. For Sea The Stars it was a promising if unspectacular start and the same two adjectives could be applied to both his subsequent victories albeit his closing one in the Beresford Stakes had been the path trod earlier by the Oxx classic winners Alamshar and Azamour.
That record and the fact that the so accurate trainer had declared an intention to aim at Newmarket was enough for our savant “Pricewise” to flag up Sea The Stars as an early selection for the 2,000 Guineas. But for everyone else, even for people who had been granted an audience from the J.Oxx car, this was just another “nice colt.” In trying to explain why Sea The Stars took so long to really grab the public imagination compared to the likes of Mill Reef or Nijinsky, it’s worth remembering that both of those were Group One winners as a two year old. Mill Reef won at Royal Ascot and Nijinsky was the latest weapon in the all conquering days of Lester Piggott firing the armoury assembled by Mr O’Brien at Ballydoyle.
These days, of course, there is a new Mr O’Brien at Ballydoyle, but his own present all-conquering successes mean that his horses also lead the pack when it comes to ballyhoo. The media concentration on “what will Aidan run in the Guineas” (it turned out to be Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman) in part explains the lack of support for Sea The Stars. More so did John Oxx’s openly stated concerns after a disappointing, heavy ground work out with his colt whose preparation had been briefly but crucially halted with a high temperature in Mid march. But when we finally saw this handsome, strapping, composed young athlete in the Newmarket paddock representing a stable who never travel over on whims, it is still a matter of public dumbness and private irritation that the penny did not drop.
In fact no less than five other horses were preferred to Sea The Stars in the Guineas betting, but it is perhaps even more surprising that he did not even start favourite at Epsom for the Derby after his decisive defeat of Delegator at Newmarket. Of course statisticians could point out that eight Guineas winners had failed since Nashwan did the double in 1989, and that Fame and Glory, the actual Derby favourite was treading the Derrinstown Stud – Epsom route taken recently by High Chapparal, Galileo and Sinndar.
Doubters could try and turn Oxx’s cautions as to stamina “with that speed you cannot be sure he will stay” into pocket-shutting worries. They should have listened to Mick Kinane. “They said he could not win the Guineas because he was a Derby horse,” quipped the man who was to ride his third and greatest Epsom hero, “now they are saying he can’t take the Derby because he is a Guineas winner.” In private Kinane was much more direct – “of course he will stay” was the five word comment.
What subsequently happened at Epsom on this year’s glorious sixth of June gave us the first of the really defining images of Sea The Stars which we all now need to horde into the memory. The very fact that these classic colts have just one summer to define themselves compared to the recurring campaigns of the jumper which next month sees the great Kauto Star sixth British campaign, makes these moments all the more important. They are what subsequent heroes must be measured against.
At Epsom the moment was when the field cut for home in the straight and the camera closed on Sea The Stars coasting over his rivals in a way that brooked no argument, in a manner that filled the eye even more completely than that of Galileo in full sail in 2001. Sea The Stars at Epsom was an unequalled image of the power and balance of the galloping thoroughbred perhaps only matched before Longchamp in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown. There, unforgettably, Kinane deliberately let Murtagh and Fame and Glory have first run before picking him up with a ruthlessness which produced the Derby winner’s most impressive performance yet.
Yet Sandown and York are seared into the retina too. In their own way they defined for us what Sea The Star’s greatness was all about. Whilst Sea Bird flew, Nijinsky cruised, Mill Reef floated and Dancing Brave sprang, Sea The Stars was the one you really wanted in a fight. Sea Bird won races by 6 lengths, Mill Reef by 10 and Dancing Brave ran away with his Arc trial by 12. But Sea The Stars, in 8 career victories and those unmatched 6 consecutive Group Ones this season never won by more than two and a half lengths. He would only did enough. But if you got him into a corner, boy, did you know it.
At this stage it is necessary to pay tribute to the challengers from Ballydoyle. For it was their tough and super talented trio of Mastercraftsman, Rip Van Winkle and Fame And Glory who took their turns along with assorted pacemakers to answer the bell. At Sandown it was Rip Van Winkle whom Jimmy Fortune lined up for the perfect shot at a champion who had arrived a bit soon in the uphill Sandown straight. For a few strides it looked as if he might have him, then Kinane’s stick cracked left-handed, those massive quarters bunched, that big strong neck stretched and we knew and Rip Van Winkle knew that he would not get past till doomsday.
At York we even had a “crowd gasper”, a moment when to the naked eye Sea The Stars seemed to roll in behind the fully committed Mastercraftsman and the commentator’s voice suddenly switched from pomp and circumstance to shrill, almost shrieking concern. At the furlong pole the Kinane stick was up and Mastercraftsman was still a length and a half ahead and not receedng. At the line Sea The Stars had finally swept a length to the good, but as I came off the stand I remember wondering whether the fairytale might be flawed after all, whether the horse might be beginning to have second thoughts about his duties. It took several looks at the replays and a talk with the jockey before conceding that Sea The Stars had lost momentum and initiative after being checked to stop his “through-the-eye-of-the-needle” passage between the pacemakers putting him in front too early. And that his response, when wanted, was awesome enough.
But that frisson encouraged Ballydoyle to lay everything on the line in the Irish Champion, to put both Mastercraftsman and Fame And Glory back in the ring with no less than three pacemakers to help them. When they too were swatted brutally away, Aidan O’Brien was forced to say how proud he was to race against Sea The Stars and to hope, a trifle vainly, that Fame And Glory would be more of a match in the Arc. The trouble was that John Oxx was now close saying the unsayable. That SeaThe Stars was not just the best he had ever trained but the greatest he had ever seen.
He tried to restrain himself by repeating that his horse still had to do what Sinndar, did but those at Currabeg could sense what he was feeling. “I have been with him forty years” says “Slim” O’Neill and I have never seen him as wound up as he was before the Arc. He knew what this meant to everybody. He knew what the horse could do. It just had to happen.”
A week after it had, we all gathered for DVD interviews at Currabeg. John Oxx, now unrestrained, quietly and firmly ticked off the reasons of speed and stamina, stature and temperament, pedigree and constitution, that had, in his firm opinion, made Sea The Stars the finest product yet of three hundred years of the thoroughbred’s development.
As he talked he conjured up images of fine horses he had trained, great horses that he and his father John Oxx Snr had seen, and in a quiet, almost academic way demonstrated why this horse deserved to take his place at the very top of the pantheon. There was a very real sense that he was explaining that this is what he had been living for. But when asked when he finally realised that he was joining the immortals his composure cracked.
“As Mick took the saddle off at Epsom,” said John going slightly pink behind his glasses, “he leant in and whispered ‘this is one of the greats’. I kept it to myself but……..” John Oxx, the calm professor turned away and burst into tears.” Great horses do that to you. They place a comet of one unmissable summer forever in the memory. Sea The Stars was the greatest.