Donn's Articles » Breeders’ Cup or breeding shed?

Breeders’ Cup or breeding shed?

With the passage of time comes perspective. Those who – in the steaming heat of the winner’s enclosure at Longchamp last Sunday – proclaimed Sea The Stars as the greatest racehorse that this generation has seen or is likely to see, were undermined by the raw figures that the statisticians produced in the ensuing days. Timeform left him on a rating of 140, 5lb below the 1965 Arc winner Sea-Bird, and still inferior to Brigadier Gerard, Ribot and Mill Reef. The Racing Post Rating of 132 that he earned for Sunday’s performance was just the third best of the season. Statistics, damn lies.

What the bare figures don’t tell us is the ease with which Sea The Stars won Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the energy that he had left as he crossed the line. He came from an unpromising position, showed a devastating turn of foot to go three lengths clear, then dossed the final couple of hundred yards to win by just two. That’s his way. He only just does enough. In eight wins to date, he has never won by more than two and a half lengths.

When Sea-Bird won the Arc in 1965, he beat the French Derby winner Reliance, a horse who basked in a rating of 137, by six lengths, thus earning his zenith-rating of 145. There was no horse in Sunday’s race who could push Sea The Stars to go faster than he did. Michael Kinane said that Sunday’s performance was the colt’s best yet, and I am happier to believe that assessment than the bare figures that a two-length defeat of Youmzain produce.

So where next? Breeders’ Cup or breeding shed? It’s the five million dollar question. Listening to connections during the week, you get the feeling that he is more likely to skip the Breeders’ Cup Classic than to run in it. Christopher Tsui said that it was 50-50, John Oxx wondered aloud if it would be fair on the horse to ask him to dance one more dance, Michael Kinane asked, rhetorically and legitimately, what the horse had left to prove.

Of course, if he doesn’t make the trip, you have to respect that decision. As well as training him to perfection, John Oxx has managed Sea The Stars’s campaign with a competence that makes Don King look like David Brent, and it is a slight concern that Kinane reported that the horse was a little woolly in his coat before Sunday’s race. However, as a racing fan, as a sports fan, you desperately want to see him take his chance.

The potential downside of making the trip would be minimal. Obviously the sickening blows that befell George Washington and Mr Brooks and Go For Wand at Breeders’ Cup meetings past immediately come to mind, but they were freak occurrences. Accidents and illnesses happen in the paddock as well.

While you can understand connections’ desire to protect an unblemished record this season, defeat would surely be instantly forgivable. Six Group 1 wins on the bounce are infinitely more memorable than defeat at the end of the season. You rarely hear references to Dancing Brave’s defeat in the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Turf. All you ever hear about or read about is his brilliance in the Arc a couple of weeks earlier.

Conversely, the upside of victory for Sea The Stars in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is immense. He has already pushed the boundaries of this sport with his six Group 1 wins in six months, the only horse ever to win the Guineas, the Derby and the Arc, but if he were to go and add the Classic to his CV, in a different country, a different continent, on a different surface, half way across the world, a seventh win at the very highest level in seven months, well that would just blast the boundaries to pieces. That feat would surely never be equalled.

Apart altogether from the financial angle – the prize money is colossal and victory would ensure that he would be as sought-after as a stallion by the top American breeders as he will be by European breeders – it doesn’t get much bigger in terms of prestige than the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the Americans. The winner is often an automatic for Horse of the Year. Victory in the race would make Sea The Stars an instant hit Stateside.

So could he win it? Of course he could. The surface on which they run the non-turf races at Santa Anita, Pro-Ride, is similar to Polytrack and it favours the European horses much more than it does the Americans who are used to racing on their traditional dirt. There were five European winners at last year’s Breeders’ Cup meeting, the first year that the non-turf races were run on Pro-Ride, bettering by two the best ever previous total. If the race was to be staged on traditional dirt, John Oxx wouldn’t even be considering it as an option.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained Rip Van Winkle will be a huge danger. He is the horse who gave Sea The Stars his greatest scare this year, and he has had a more suitable run into the Classic. Even so, if the current betting is an accurate guide, if Sea The Stars were to make the trip, he would be an odds-on shot to win it.

And as a spectacle, Sea The Stars v Rip Van Winkle, Oxx v O’Brien, Kinane v Murtagh, a wholly Irish duel on American soil in one of the most prestigious races in the world of thoroughbred racing – that would be some climax to a phenomenal season.

© The Sunday Times, 11th October 2009