James Lawton: If only sport's two-legged competitors would take a lesson from Sea The Stars

You cannot get a horse to crash into a wall of its own will, or to fake an injury
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The Independent Online

What is it about a horse, especially one like Sea The Stars? It is not just that he is the ultimately improbable miracle of creation, a running machine of such beauty and efficiency that the strongest of men have been known to weep not just for his glory but also the vulnerability of his extraordinary existence, one in which a random mishap might end everything.

There can be no compromise in fitness or nature for Sea The Stars and all the other great horses who decorate equine history.

They have to be perfect and when they are, as Sea the Stars was in the sculpted beauty of the Bois du Boulogne on Sunday, it is as though they hold up a great mirror to the rest of us.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to be so constant in the application of every gift, to go out before a great boiling crowd which has eyes only for you and then deliver everything within your power, so regularly, so brilliantly that when the great competitive year of your life is, probably, over and you go away to an existence of pampered hedonism it can be said there was no one ever of your like.

That was the achievement of Sea The Stars when he picked his way so faultlessly to victory in the Arc and it was no stretch, surely, when you think of all that has happened across the spectrum of sport this last year, to be reminded of those poignant words of Oscar Wilde when he declared that even from the gutter it is possible to see the stars.

The racing business may not be the gutter but heaven knows it has known its share of skulduggery and sharp practice. But then you cannot get a horse to crash into a wall, of its own will, you cannot get it to fake an injury and generally, if we are talking about good and great horses and not some skittish recalcitrant who requires a little time to be found out by even the most astute trainer, you can only get them to underperform by strictly human artifice, like near pulling their heads off or doping or some other devilish ruse.

It meant that what Sea The Stars gave us went to the very heart of what we appreciate as great sport and what we most value when, from time to time, outstanding sportsmen and women push back the horizons of individual achievement and leave us with something to celebrate unhindered by the smallest touch of complication.

Because of the world we live in, and have revisited so often through history, there are times when such a prospect is rare, if not remote. Ask Usain Bolt, perhaps the most compelling human equivalent of Sea The Stars, and he will tell you that because of what went on before, there will always be a smudge of doubt against even his greatest achievements. That is his inheritance and those who say the doubt it conjures is felt only by the obsessively suspicious are kidding only themselves.

Sea The Stars knows no such shadows. He is what he is no matter what devious devices the world might try to apply.

No one underlined that beautiful reality more eloquently than the great jockey Mick Kinane when he brought in the hero. Words, Kinane seemed to be saying, were suddenly superfluous. He simply inverted his thumbs in the direction of the horse beneath him. Sea The Stars had required no special skill, suggested Kinane, though had he done so we can be sure that the response from the man on his back would have been entirely appropriate and administered with a coolness that the rest of us would have had to assign to the supernatural.

Kinane's admiration, and sense of his own luck, was so palpable it warmed even the senses that had been raised so hugely when the great horse came out of the pack with such certainty he might have been guided not only by a superb horseman but quite a number of gods. Trainer John Oxx, who often seems to be communing directly with the psyche of his charge, said that at no point in the running had he felt "undue concern". It was a statement of composure bordering on the spiritual.

Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes, about whom it is said he can give you a comprehensive report on an important gallop some time before the particular equine star has been returned to his quarters, is necessarily the most practical of racing men, but his emotions were hardly reined in when he reported from Longchamp on Sunday.

"You know," said Dillon, "racing is a bit of a village and in such a competitive business self-interest is inevitable. But I have to say I have never experienced anything quite like the mood before this Arc. There was what I can only describe as an overall anxiety. Everyone you spoke to was anxious that nothing untoward should occur, that Sea The Stars would be perfectly right and unhindered and could confirm the wide belief this was maybe the greatest horse any of us had ever seen.

"And then what happened was amazing. The paddock is a bit of a cauldron on a day like this but Sea The Stars was serene. And then he went out and performed. I suppose like most everybody else I had a moment of concern when I thought that maybe he might have some trouble getting out of the pack but the worry was over before it really started. Everything was visible when he came home – the talent, the character, the nerve, the absolute assurance of a great athlete. You had to think: 'well, this is the culmination of 300 years of breeding'."

Sir Peter O'Sullevan, 90, had confessed to being "as nervous as a kitten" throughout the build-up. "You're just mortified that something might go wrong, that for some reason or other a great horse is prevented from showing its best."

O'Sullevan felt anguish when Nijinksy, a victim of ringworm after landing the old English triple crown, lost the Arc – and the kind of acclaim that came to Sea The Stars on Sunday – despite the desperate, brilliant effort of Lester Piggott. It was perhaps one reason why the great commentator and judge of horseflesh was reluctant to anoint Sea The Stars before Sunday's race. But he did define, precisely, what was at stake, saying, "If he wins, he's got to be up there with the best. He's not flamboyant, he doesn't do more than he has to, but then I don't think Sea Bird was flaunting his talent when he won by six lengths. That was his talent."

That of Sea The Stars was no less evident on a day that had to touch the heart of anyone who saw it. What's in a horse? So much beauty and courage it makes you glad to be alive.

Football should get to grips with its persistent wrestlers

It has long been a belief here that in the matter of television football analysis Graeme Souness is in a class of his own.

This conviction was only strengthened by one of his exchanges with the Sky presenter Richard Keys.

When Didier Drogba draped his arms around a Liverpool opponent in the Chelsea box Souness snapped that it was a stonewall penalty. Keys said this would mean the referee had to give six such awards each game.

Souness' response was admirable. "So be it," he snapped. So be it indeed. It wouldn't take many such episodes of refereeing mayhem to clear up one of the ugliest aspects of today's football: the preferred grappling, wrestling antidote to the legitimate work of forwards at set-pieces. Some great old players, including Denis Law, say that such spoiling creates in them almost a physical nausea.

It is a crime which should be coupled with diving and attacked with something like serious intent.

No justice in Ferguson's cruel rant at Wiley

Few, if any, football men have more reason than Sir Alex Ferguson to believe that they have won the right to make their own rules. However, no achievement in the world entitles Ferguson to belittle referee Alan Wiley as he did last weekend.

For the Football Association this is not just a matter of discipline. It is one of decency. The Manchester United manager's attack on an official who in the opinion of most neutrals had performed with admirable attention to detail – and at no cost to the flow of a quick, hard-fought game – was both deeply flawed and cruel. It was also a direct challenge to the idea that football is capable of administrating a modicum of even-handed justice.

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