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OCTOBER 6, 2009

A horse for all seasons

by Vance Hanson

I've never had the privilege of meeting or speaking to legendary Irish horseman John Oxx and I suspect I never will. If given the opportunity, however, I would personally thank him for his role in reassuring me not once but twice over the past decade that an affliction that's lasted with me for nearly a quarter-century is best left uncured.

Admittedly a hard person to please when it comes to the relative merits of the modern Thoroughbred, few runners of recent years have left with me the impression of being the equal of, or better than, the champions I witnessed during my formative years as a spectator in the mid-to-late 1980s. Indeed, I've been more apt to marvel and wax poetic about the immortals whose careers ended long before I drew my first earthly breath. Thankfully, 21st-century technology has allowed me to escape the often dreary American racing landscape in search of equine heroes from far distant lands, rejuvenating my compulsive love for the Thoroughbred sport.

The first foreign-based runner to win my heart was Sinndar, Oxx's first superstar colt whom I selected to win the 2000 Epsom Derby (Eng-G1). As exhilarating as it was to watch the Aga Khan's homebred come through in the Blue Riband via live satellite transmission at Keeneland, crass commercialism dampened the mood somewhat as no wagering on the race was available and the sweetest 7-1 prime bet of the year had passed me by like a thief in the night.

Despite not being paid for my profound forecast, there was something about Sinndar's performance that suggested he was more than just an average Derby winner. He was now "my" horse and I faithfully followed the remainder of his brief career with gusto, bragging to anyone who would listen how I spotted greatness earlier than most. My bravado was vindicated following Sinndar's tour-de-force romp in the Irish Derby (Ire-G1). After an easy prep in the Prix Niel (Fr-G2), the mighty bay was a smart winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1), a race I was able to wager a few bucks on. He was nowhere near 7-1, but at least he wasn't the favorite.

I still hold firm to the belief that Sinndar is one of the more underrated European champions of the past generation. Unfortunately, a lot of the headlines that would have gone his way that season went instead to Giant's Causeway, who reeled off five consecutive Group 1 wins and won the admiration of American racing fans with his life-and-death stretch duel with Tiznow in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) in his one and only start on dirt. There's still no doubt in my mind who the better three-year-old was, though in reality it's an apples-and-oranges debate. Was the 12-furlong specialist better or the "Iron Horse" who was tough as nails in the eight-to-10 furlong range?

There is no debate in the year 2009. SEA THE STARS (Cape Cross [Ire]) is the horse for all seasons and distances.

While most American horseplayers were trying to make heads or tails of the Kentucky Derby (G1) in the days leading up to the event, in retrospect a futile endeavor for most, I blocked out time in my busy schedule to study the Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1). Enlightened business practices in the United States now allow wagering on nearly every important English horse race, and it has now become ritual for international racing fans to focus in on Newmarket on the morning of the first Saturday in May.

You can probably guess where this is going. Yes, I was on the Sea the Stars bandwagon early. As in 9-1 in the Two Thousand Guineas early. Since honesty is the best policy in such matters, I must admit to betting another horse in addition to Sea the Stars, hedging as a result of being somewhat indecisive. But I have witnesses who can confirm I verbally committed to Sea the Stars 12 hours or so before post time.

Besides the value on the board, what did I like about Sea the Stars? Two things. It's hard to overlook a pedigree like his, being out of the blue hen Urban Sea (Miswaki) who had already produced a superstar in Galileo (Ire) (Sadler's Wells). Here was a colt who, though not guaranteed to stay, had the genetic hoofprint to be absolutely any kind. The clincher for me was that he was trained by Oxx, a hero from the Sinndar days. Sea the Stars could not have been in more capable hands.

My love affair with Sea the Stars this season has followed the same course as that of Sinndar nine years ago. Though it was no longer possible to profit financially from him following the Epsom Derby, commercialism ultimately yields to sport when we're talking about horses of this caliber. Fans of Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d'Oro), of which I am also one, should understand this clearly.

I can debate the relative merits of major American champions from about 1950 onwards, but will defer to the more knowledgeable with respect to where Sea the Stars belongs in the pantheon of European champions of the past half-century. I'm familiar with the accomplishments of Mill Reef, Nijinsky II, Dancing Brave and *Sea-Bird, and a consensus is developing that Sea the Stars has joined that exalted company following his victory in Sunday's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

It's been a certainty for many months that Sea the Stars would not race beyond this year. While I can accept the point that he has nothing more to prove, it would be great fun to see him add his name to the roster of such races as the Coronation Cup (Eng-G1), Prince of Wales's S. (Eng-G1), King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S. (Eng-G1) and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (Fr-G1), or become a two-time winner of the Arc.

If the retirement of Sea the Stars is imminent, it is suggested here that he exit the stage on top rather than run in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). For months, American commentators have been clamoring for the presence of Sea the Stars in a Classic already devoid of probable Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and potentially comprised of what can be delicately labeled a subpar group of older males. Some went so far as to pray for a deluge of rain before the Arc, hoping Oxx would then forfeit Europe's year-end championship and send the colt instead to California. To wish that Sea the Stars' legacy not be decided on Longchamp's famous French turf in what is annually the best race on the European continent was parochialism of the worst kind.

Other than for material gain, there is virtually no reason for Sea the Stars to contest the Breeders' Cup Classic. Some have taken the results of last year's Classic contested on Pro-Ride, which was dominated by Europeans, and proclaimed the surface and distance tailor-made for Sea the Stars. Besides being purely speculative, that belief overlooks the fact that Sea the Stars' reputation would not be appreciably enhanced by defeating several of the same foes he's already proven himself superior to in Europe, or American runners nowhere near his level of class. After all he's accomplished this year, would it be fair to Sea the Stars to ship him thousands of miles to run over a surface he has no experience over?

This is not to say I'm totally against clashes of an international flavor. But there has to be a modicum of common sense about when and where these should occur. For example, running Giant's Causeway in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs made sense as he was a son of Storm Cat and Mariah's Storm (Rahy), who captured the Falls City H. (G3) over the same track. In contrast, neither attempt at the same race by George Washington (Ire) in 2006-07 seemed proper given the lopsided amount of turf blood flowing through his veins (outweighing the presence of his broodmare sire Alysheba) and his relative inexperience at 1 1/4 miles. Regardless of a single afternoon's results on Pro-Ride last October, there is absolutely nothing in his pedigree to suggest that Sea the Stars should run on anything but turf.

While every race won by Sea the Stars this season will forever be emblazoned on my mind, perhaps the most indelible memory of this historic campaign were words uttered by Oxx that described the character and majesty of this special colt. Speaking to Racing Post's Brough Scott in July, Oxx said:

"As everyone has seen, he has a terrific big-race temperament, but when he goes in to the racecourse stables he will roar like a stallion. It's a territorial thing. Once he has established who is boss, he's all right."

That's Sea the Stars. Truly the king of the herd.



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