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Sea The Stars

It wasn’t a great surprise when it was announced on Tuesday that the racehorse that was Sea The Stars would race no more. The vibes had been there. Trainer John Oxx, who had managed the horse’s racing career for the last two years with Tag Heuer precision, had been fairly lukewarm about the prospect of going for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on 7th November in the aftermath of victory in the Arc de Triomphe. “My instinct is that it’s late in the year and that it’s probably a big ask,” he said at the time. “It could be a bridge too far, so we’ll have to be prudent.”

In the end, prudence prevailed.

While it wasn’t surprising, it is still disappointing to have to say goodbye. Of course, as a greedy racing fan, you want to see the best horses race. There is always an element of regret when a racehorse is captured by the clutches of the breeding shed, from where, for your average racing fan, he becomes just a reference point, just a name on a pedigree. Common consensus is that Sea The Stars was one of the greatest racehorses that this generation has seen or is likely to see. When a racehorse sparks a debate that involves Sea-Bird and Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef, then you know that you are on to something big. Alas, the debate will not progress now. The racehorse that was Sea The Stars has entered the chrysalis from which he will emerge next spring as a stallion, metamorphosis complete.

Of course you cannot question the decision. Nobody knows the horse like John Oxx and his team do, and Oxx’s decision-making with the horses that he trains is rarely flawed. It is why, when he sends a horse to race in the UK, all the British pundits sit up and take note. His first ever runner in the Epsom Derby was Sinndar, the 2000 winner. Alamshar, third in 2003, was his second, Sea The Stars his third. He sent Ridgewood Pearl to Belmont Park to contest the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1995, and she came back with the trophy. Oxx is not apt to send a horse to contest a top grade race overseas unless he is confident that the horse belongs in the grade and is capable of performing to the best of its ability.

The decision was, of course, taken in the best interest of the horse, and you cannot argue with that either. Oxx said that it would have been unfair on the horse to ask him to contest a seventh Grade 1 race on the far side of the world after the tough schedule that he has had this season. However great the potential upside to running in the Classic, and however unlikely the potential downside, there still was a potential downside, and that was the issue.

The common thread that ran through all of the conjecture for the last 10 days was that connections wanted to do what was right by the horse. Owner Christopher Tsui said that it would have been unfair on the horse to ask him to go any further. Michael Kinane asked, rhetorically, if he needed to achieve any more. “You’d hate to do anything wrong by him.” Oxx himself may have been thinking Arc or Breeders’ Cup, not Arc and Breeders’ Cup, that he would only make the trip to Santa Anita if something happened – like a Parisian deluge – to cause him to miss the Arc. It may be that, when the horse left the parade ring at Longchamp on 4th October, the trainer knew that it was the very last time that he would send him into combat.

Interestingly, when it was confirmed that Sea The Stars would not race on as a four-year-old, nobody within racing turned a hair, that was fully expected, and we clung to the hope that we would see him one last time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yet, from a sporting point of view, that should seem a little odd. In no other sport to we celebrate our juniors like we do in racing. Sea The Stars is only three, he probably hasn’t yet reached full maturity as an athlete, he received 8lb from his elders in the Arc de Triomphe to allow for that immaturity. Depending on which of the notional scales you use, he is somewhere between 11 and 23 years old in human terms. He is the minor who has taken on the seniors, and won.

Did he need to achieve any more? How much is enough? Back to the greedy fan. When a young sports person stops competing, there is always a sense of unfulfilled potential. Sea The Stars’s Timeform rating of 140 is still 5lb below Sea-Bird’s. Given his style of racing, of only just doing enough, it is probable that he could have gone higher. Also, there is a highly lucrative and competitive programme of races for middle distance older horses during the European summer these days. Alternatively, he could have had his programme geared towards a late-season campaign, when his targets could have included any combination of the Arc again, when he could have given weight to the next clutch of whipper-snappers, the Breeders’ Cup Classic or Turf (the Classic will be back on dirt next year), the Japan Cup and the Hong Kong Vase. But that kind of wishful thinking is just way off the scale given the norms of flat racing.

As a marketing tool for racing, Sea The Stars was the Superbowl sponsorship. It is rare that a racehorse makes the front pages of a national newspaper, and he did. Of several. The pity for Racing Inc (and it needs all the help it can get these days) is that, now that he has burst through racing’s borders and into mainstream, it will not be able capitalise on the interest that he has generated in drawing more would-be racegoers in.

The thing about flat racing is that there is a depth to the breeding side that is not immediately apparent to the masses. It may be more Football Manager than FIFA 2009, but it is why top racehorses like Galileo and Cape Cross and Montjeu continue to live long on the racecourse as sires through the exploits of their progeny. There is a great chance that a similar fate awaits Sea The Stars. He has the ability, the pedigree, the conformation and the temperament to be a top stallion, and it will be fascinating to monitor the mares that he gets and the foals that they produce. The difficulty is that, all things being equal, we will have to wait more than three years now to see the first of his offspring on the racecourse and, for the average sports fan, in these days of shortened attention span and transient appreciation, that is a long time to have to wait.

Kieren Fallon described Sea The Stars as just a baby when he rode against him in Paris, Michael Kinane said that his run in the Arc was his best ever, and common consensus among the racing cognoscenti was that he would have made a smashing four-year-old. Chances are, he was only getting going.

© The Sunday Times, 18th October 2009