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Sea The Stars

Strange the twists that life takes. Thirteen months ago, John Oxx sat in his office and spoke about Katiyra’s prospects of landing the 2008 Irish Oaks three days later. He spoke about the exploits of some of his equine stars past, about Ridgewood Pearl and Sinndar and Azamour and Alamshar. He looked wistfully up at their photos on the wall behind him with a smile and declared: “We’re due another good one!”

He barely mentioned the two-year-old who was also set to run that Sunday, a half-brother to Galileo who would be making his racecourse debut in the seven-furlong maiden. Sea The Stars didn’t win that maiden, as it turned out, but Oxx wasn’t too disappointed, he had a nice introduction and he came out of the race well. Then he hit the stratosphere. Sea The Superstars. He hasn’t been beaten since. A Guineas, a Derby and an Eclipse later, and it is safe to say that this is a good one, officially the best one in the world, actually.

Sea The Stars was a yearling before John Oxx ever saw him. The colt’s owners, the Tsui family (say: Choy), owned and raced his dam Urban Sea, a top class racemare who won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1993, and who spent the last eight years of her life as a broodmare at the Irish National Stud because her owners wanted the mare to have access to the best Irish stallions. The late Brian Grassick played a huge role in advising Ling Tsui on stallion matches for the mare, and the decision to send her to Cape Cross in 2005 was borne out of lengthy discussions and Mrs Tsui’s high opinion of the stallion’s best daughter Ouija Board.

Expectations of Urban Sea’s latest colt foal were high. In the thoroughbred world, the bar of expectation is set by the siblings that have gone before. Urban Sea had had three individual Group 1 winners, Galileo, My Typhoon and Black Sam Bellamy, before Sea The Stars came along, and she was already being acclaimed as one of the outstanding broodmares of her generation.

The Tsuis decided not to sell the yearling. It was a brave decision, a foolish decision from a commercial point of view. It is impossible to know how much he would have made had he been sold as a yearling, but Urban Sea’s daughter, My Typhoon, became the most expensive filly foal ever sold at public auction when she was sold for 1.8 million guineas in 2002. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the decision to keep him and race him was bang on the money. Estimates that he will be worth upwards of 50 million as a stallion may not be too far wide of the mark.

At the time, however, it wasn’t a commercial decision. This was beyond commerce. Ling Tsui wanted to race him, so they asked John Oxx to go and have a look at the yearling at the Irish National Stud. Oxx had trained a couple of horses for Mrs Tsui in the past, including Sea The Stars’s year-older half-brother, a Green Desert colt, who never saw a racecourse, and he was delighted to get this fellow.

“He looked beautiful from the start,” recalls the trainer. “A lovely yearling, a big strong well-put-together horse, lovely action. When we got him here then, he was easy to break, he did everything perfectly all his life. He was a real stand-out specimen all along.”

The other thing about the colt that was in evidence from the beginning was his laid-back attitude to life. Nothing fazes him. Even on Epsom Derby day, a warm day, as almost every one of his 11 rivals worked themselves up into a sweat, he sauntered around, unruffled, the equinification of his trainer.

“He’s a big fresh masculine colt,” says Oxx. “In training, you have to watch him, you can’t let him get too fresh, you have to have a good rider on him. He’ll trick around a bit at home, but at the races he seems to take it all in his stride, very relaxed, very cool. So far, his temperament has been one of his strong points. Of course, it nearly always is with the best horses. The really really good ones are always tougher than the rest. That’s a big part of what they are, it’s a big part of their ability.”

Oxx didn’t wind him up too much before his racecourse debut on Irish Oaks day 2008. Even so, he ran really well to finish fourth behind Driving Snow in what was probably the best juvenile maiden run last season. The Oxx philosophy says that it is not a disaster if you don’t win on your racecourse debut as it gives you the opportunity to race in another maiden before you have to step up in grade. Like a lot of things that John Oxx does, it is a philosophy that makes perfect simple sense.

An easy maiden win was followed by victory in the Group 2 Beresford Stakes, in which he beat his stable companion Mourayan and the Ballydoyle favourite Masterofthehorse on ground that was softer than ideal. After that, it was time to start thinking about this season’s Classics.

“I was keen to give him his chance in the Guineas,” says the trainer, “because I felt that, being by Cape Cross he wasn’t sure to stay. There’s no point in saying that because he’s a brother to Galileo he’s a Derby horse. You can pigeon-hole them too early.”

The stepping stones of Sea The Stars’s season have been well re-traced by analysts: Guineas, Derby, Eclipse. Three arrows, three bullseyes. The first horse since to win the Guineas and the Derby, and the first Derby winner to win the Eclipse, since Nashwan also won all three races 20 years ago. The sub-text has been papered over – the viral infection that he had on St Patrick’s Day, just six weeks before the Guineas, and his remarkable rate of recovery that enabled him even run at Newmarket; his absence from the Irish Derby because of the ground, all bit-part players now in the season’s narrative. If he had run in the Irish Derby, he couldn’t have run in the Eclipse a week later, and his performance in the Eclipse against the older horses was the best of his life. Sometimes these things happen for a reason.

The next stepping stone, assuming the rains don’t scupper plans, is the Juddmonte International at York on Tuesday. Lying in wait there, regardless of ground conditions, will be the Ballydoyle colt, Irish Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes winner Mastercraftsman, who races like he will improve for stepping up to 10 furlongs. Oxx remains unperturbed.

“You expect good opposition every time you turn up for these good races,” he says. “Mastercraftsman is a good horse, he has plenty of speed and he looks tailor made for a mile and a quarter. Tartan Bearer is there as well. It will be a small field but it should be a good race. But our fellow is in good form, he’s in great order, he’s done his work and he’s clear and fit and well. We’re just waiting now on the weather because he has to have it good or faster.”

After that, all things being equal, it’s on to the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on 5th September, and then possibly the Arc or the Breeders’ Cup Classic or both.

This is a good one all right, Mr Oxx. He may yet be the best one ever.

© The Sunday Times, 16th August 2009