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Irish Champion Stakes

Something extraordinary happened at Leopardstown yesterday. In one searing surge of pace, Sea The Stars transformed the Tattersalls Millions Irish Champion Stakes from a match to a monologue, and consolidated his position as the best horse of his generation, possibly of any generation.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but this horse has captured the racing public’s imagination like no other flat racehorse has in recent times. Perhaps it is because of his rider, the unflappable Michael Kinane, under-stated and unassuming, but irrepressible and riding as well as he has ever ridden now that he has got the business of his 50th birthday out of the way. Perhaps it is because of his trainer, the statesman that is John Oxx, modest as they make them, generous to a fault, but a snipe-shooter when it comes to the training of racehorses. Or perhaps it is down to the horse himself, speed to burn, stamina in abundance, the perfect conformation and the temperament of a saint – the best horse in the world, and that’s official.

We have had spine-tingling moments at Leopardstown before. There was Beef Or Salmon’s Hennessy in 2007, when he got up in the very last strides to collar The Listener, there was Best Mate’s Lexus, there was Danoli’s Hennessy, but all three of those belonged to the winter game. The Irish racing folk have never had any problem raising the roof to show their appreciation for a top class National Hunt athlete, regardless of that athlete’s nationality. Flat racing has never really done it for the Leopardstown crowd by comparison. Until yesterday.

The Irish Champion Stakes has played host to some of the most memorable flat racing duels staged on Irish soil in recent times. The Fantastic Light/Galileo match in 2001 is one of the most memorable, but there was also Grandera and Hawk Wing, High Chaparral and Falbrav, Dr Devious and St Jovite. The passage of time notwithstanding, yesterday’s race and yesterday’s winner left them all in the shade.

All week the feeling was that Sea The Stars would be a no-show. On Tuesday afternoon, as hopes faded with every drop of rain that embedded itself in the Foxrock terrain, Paddy Power went 1/4 that he wouldn’t run, 5/2 that he would, and we resigned ourselves to the possibility that we wouldn’t see the world champion, an Irishman to the marrow, race on Irish soil this season.

But the quick-drying nature of the Leopardstown ground, and John Oxx’s palpable willingness to run, provided hope. This time last year, the meeting had to be postponed on the Saturday because of a waterlogged pitch, and they raced on yielding ground, no softer, 24 hours later. So when Sea The Stars featured among the nine declarations for the race on Thursday morning, we geared up again for the race of the season.

For a great race, you need at least two competitors worthy of the billing. Yesterday, we had three. In Fame And Glory and Mastercraftsman, we had two of the top three-year-olds of this generation, winners of six Group 1 races between them. It was the Ballydoyle team players, Set Sail and Rockhampton, who took them along in the early stages through impressive early fractions. Mastercraftsman closed in on them three furlongs out as they rounded the home turn, while Kinane on Sea The Stars stalked. But he held back. The last thing Kinane wanted was to be in front three furlongs out. Johnny Murtagh seized the opportunity on Fame And Glory, his stamina guaranteed, and rounded the field to take up the running as they passed the two-furlong pole. Race on.

Kinane asked Sea The Stars to quicken, and he did. It didn’t matter that the ground was probably softer than ideal, it didn’t matter that he has gone to the well four times in as many months already this season and dug deep to land four Group 1 contests. He dug deep here again and produced a turn of foot that took him up to Fame And Glory’s withers, and past. As he did, a cheer arose from the packed grandstand, much louder than the cheer that had issued forth, sporadically and unusually, when the stalls had opened. The heartfelt applause in appreciation of the horse continued as the son of Cape Cross careered up Leopardstown’s punishing climb and into the history books.

“We always wanted to run,” said Oxx afterwards. “We would have been disappointed if we hadn’t been able to run, but I walked the track on Friday night and I was pleasantly surprised by how much it had dried out. He’s just a phenomenal horse. He has had five Group 1 races in five months, each one better than the previous one. Today was his best.”

There was a round of applause for Fame And Glory and Mastercraftsman when they returned – no disgrace to be beaten by the horse of a lifetime – but it was nothing like the reception that greeted Sea The Stars and Michael Kinane when they returned. In a rare moment of emotion, Kinane punched the air. If Frankie Dettori ever did a double back somersault and landed on his feet, it wouldn’t mean as much.

“I was never worried,” said the jockey. “I was happy to allow Johnny go on when he did, I was happy to follow him. When we got there I asked him to stretch. He is never a horse who does too much when he gets to the front, but he said okay, a couple of lengths, but don’t be getting carried away.”

Sea The Stars himself took the celebrations in his stride. He hardly turned a hair, hardly blew a breath, as all those around him huffed and puffed the accolades upon him. Next up will probably the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, as long as the ground isn’t too soft in Paris in early October. The owners, the Tsui family, won that race with Sea The Stars’s dam Urban Sea in 1993, and it is surely a race that they would like to win again. After that, the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on 7th November has to be a possibility.

All that is a long way away, however. For now, we need to take a breath and celebrate an exceptional equine athlete. Extraordinary.

© The Sunday Times, 6th September 2009