Stars denied last chance to shine

The retirement of a champion was met with both relief and regret yesterday, writes Chris McGrath
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The Independent Online

It is just as well that the decision was vested in one of the few horsemen to command unanimous respect in a community chronically riven by opinion. Otherwise, the news yesterday that Sea The Stars has been retired to stud might have been received not just with relief – as it was, however mysteriously, in some places – or dismay – as it certainly was, in many others – but with something approaching bitterness.

The verdict of John Oxx, however, could always be accepted with equanimity. In supervising one of the outstanding careers in Turf history, his temperate and reflective nature served as the perfect foil to the flamboyance of Sea The Stars himself. At the same time, moreover, there was never anything remotely conservative about the way Oxx campaigned the colt. He ran him month by month, against anyone who cared to take him on, and Sea The Stars duly became the first horse to win the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in one season. The whole world was able to see this champion, this lodestar of the breed, in all his unfettered glory.

Except not quite the whole world. Everyone was soon reconciled to the reality that Sea The Stars would not continue racing next season, with a bewildering fortune awaiting his owners in his next career. But many had clung to the hope he might embrace one last challenge. After crowning his immaculate European campaign in the Arc, 10 days ago, his only remaining option was the Breeders' Cup Classic, the most valuable prize in America, at Santa Anita next month.

Admittedly, the portents were always discouraging. Oxx conceded that Sea The Stars had absorbed his superlative performance in Paris with the same insouciance as he had five previous championship races this season. He was, in fact, in better physical shape than ever. None the less his trainer's immediate instinct was that even so supreme an athlete should not be asked to raise his game anew in November, 6,000 miles away in 90 degrees of heat, having been galloping across the dewy plain of Co Kildare in early spring.

However dispiriting, then, it was not at all surprising when Oxx announced the outcome of his discussions with Christopher Tsui, whose family own the colt. "He has had a long season and been in regular fast work from 3 March, with his final workout on 2 October," Oxx said. "He has been in intensive training for seven months, with only a three-week break after the Eclipse Stakes at the beginning of July. We feel it is unfair to keep him going any further, given his unprecedented record of achievement in the last six months."

Sea The Stars was born with many advantages, as a son of another Arc winner in Urban Sea, who had already produced a brilliant Derby winner in Galileo. But he certainly owed the fulfilment of his potential to the forbearance of his trainer, who resisted any temptation to push too many buttons during his juvenile season. In turn, Oxx felt that Sea The Stars had an uncommon sense of his own destiny. On the eve of the Arc, Oxx gave this newspaper a fascinating insight into the colt's instincts, appetite and outlook as a natural "pack leader".

The retrospective he offered yesterday, however, concentrated on his sheer athleticism. "He has tremendous cruising speed," Oxx said. "Ballydoyle and Aidan O'Brien tried their best to make it tough for him, with pacemakers, but they could never get him off the bridle. He can just travel off any pace, totally at ease, and then quicken up. I suppose he's got great heart and lungs, but he's got this beautiful balance and lovely stride. Then there is his temperament, and it is courage and temperament that bring the good horses to a different level."

If his retirement was to be received with resignation anywhere, it was surely at the yearling sales in Newmarket. On the face of it, you might imagine those doing business here to be hopeless romantics, spending so much money on goofy animals that have yet to wear a saddle, in the fond hope that they might stumble across another Sea The Stars. But they all know the odds against that, and bloodstock professionals are essentially a hard-nosed, ruthlessly pragmatic bunch. What is more, they want to see whether Sea The Stars can become the same sort of Titan, at stud, as he was on the racecourse.

Even so, plenty of experienced voices shared a hint of melancholy in reflecting on the news. "It's sad," one trainer said. "Sad for racing. And sad for the horse. He would have won, but it wouldn't have mattered to anyone if he didn't. He'll be a long time retired, and a longer time dead."

Others identified the European champion's absence as a brutal blow for the Breeders' Cup, already smarting from the defection of the outstanding American filly, Rachel Alexandra. By a cruel irony, her connections have elected to avoid Santa Anita because the traditional dirt track has been replaced by a synthetic surface, generally considered to be much safer, but also more congenial to European horses, accustomed to racing on turf.

Ted Walsh, one of the most experienced horsemen in Ireland, lives just down the road from Oxx's yard on the Curragh. "I thought he'd go," Walsh admitted. "He has worked on a very similar surface at home 100 times. It's a great shame for the Breeders' Cup. He's as good as we've seen. His acceleration was something else – like having some fella sitting behind you in traffic, and he's in some kind of souped-up car, and whoosh! He's gone. And you hardly saw him move. A lot of the good horses can lengthen, but this horse had the 0 to 60 [mph]. He could get himself out of a tight corner in a heartbeat. I'd have loved to see him at the Breeders'. Still, at least we all enjoyed him while we had him."

Chris McGrath's Nap

Charlie Delta (9.20 Kempton) Well drawn, well handicapped and has not been getting home over longer trips.

£40m per year? Sea The Stars' stud potential

Sea The Stars, measured by pedigree, physique, temperament and unprecedented racecourse achievement, is the most priceless stud prospect in history.

* Modern veterinary skills and commercial practice mean that stallions can comfortably cover as many as 200 mares in a year.

* Sadler's Wells, 14 times Europe's champion stallion, is said to have commanded £200,000 per mare in his heyday.

* If the Tsui family, who own Sea The Stars, are prepared to sell him, they can name their price. Sheikh Mohammed is unlikely to hesitate if offered the chance to make him the first stallion sold for $100m (£63m).

* Most industry professionals hope the Tsui family stand him on neutral ground. Coolmore and the Maktoum brothers do not support each other's stallions and breeders want both sides for Sea The Stars' foals.