He won by two lengths. You can have it that way, if you like. But the superiority of Sea The Stars in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe would be better measured in light years.
In trouncing the best field that could be mustered in all Europe, Sea The Stars yesterday confirmed himself one of the authentic greats – the consummation, conceivably, of every daily endeavour by horsemen since three stallions were imported to England from distant, desert lands, 300 years ago and more.
Each and every thoroughbred, among the thousands foaled every year, can trace his lineage to one of those stallions. Not only is Sea The Stars plainly without peer, among the present generation; it can now be argued, credibly if not incontrovertibly, that he could have matched the very best of his ancestors, as well.
For here is a triumph of eugenics. The colt's mother, Urban Sea, had herself won this race in 1993; and her previous foals include another outstanding Derby winner in Galileo. Already Galileo is proving himself a pre-potent stallion. As a physical paragon, moreover, Sea The Stars is so glamorous – he always draws gasps the moment he swaggers into view – that the charge he sent round the parade ring felt little short of erotic.
But few who had come to witness his bid for an unprecedented clean sweep of championship races were complacent in his task. He was clearly the best horse, but that guarantees you only so much in a horserace. For one thing, Michael Kinane would have to navigate between no fewer than 19 rivals, some of whom might compound insolence with their very incompetence, by getting in his way as they weakened. But the greatest hazard was more insidious. The Arc comes at the end of a long season, and even the best horses have finite resources.
Or so, at least, history has deceived us. Sea The Stars himself was pounding over the plains of Co Kildare as long ago as April, in preparation for the 2,000 Guineas. After that, he raced over a mile and a half in the Derby; and he had since won three championship races over intermediate trips. Now, potentially at his most vulnerable, he was stepping back up to a distance that can reward cruder assets. What is more, the shadow of winter had just begun to spread across the preternatural lustre of his skin.
No wonder John Oxx, his trainer, had shed his usual air of detachment, for once seeming drawn and tense. How relieved he must have been that the horse's destiny would now rest in such experienced hands. Kinane, at 50, is one of the world's most experienced jockeys, and looked as insouciant as ever.
Predictably, the two Ballydoyle pacemakers – escorts for his old adversary, Fame And Glory – were sent headlong into the lead. The idea was presumably to bring Fame And Glory's stamina into play, while drawing the favourite's sting, but it proved a pretty clumsy ruse. The other jockeys, aware that the hares would soon exhaust themselves, ignored them altogether, and settled on a more conservative tempo. And, ironically enough, that caused Oxx his one frisson of anxiety.
The colt had broken alertly, and duly found himself among the early leaders. But they were not going fast enough for his tastes, and one or two riders essayed the odd, artful jostle. Sea The Stars made his resentment plain, tautening the reins, tilting his neck, and Kinane had to retreat into the pack, so that his mount could focus and settle. But in such heavy traffic he would now need the breaks, once they levelled off for home.
"But I wasn't particularly worried," Oxx said. "A horse like this can look after himself. No horse has more speed than he has. When Mick had to pull him back, that might have made punters who backed him a little bit nervous. I was happy, but there was an anxious moment whether he would go out or in. Once he started to go, though, you knew he would get through."
For once, the gods would not deploy random misfortune to remind mortals of their limitations. An inviting gap opened on the rail, Kinane pulled over, and the race was over. Stacelita had already gone for home, 300 yards out, but Sea The Stars was in full cry now, and for the rest it felt as though some terrible force of nature had been unleashed.
In these pages on Saturday Oxx described the qualities that made his champion a natural "herd leader". Sea The Stars wants to impose himself so ardently that he almost seems to comprehend the rewards that await, when he is retired to stud. That, after all, is nature's way. The impulse to gallop; the impulse to mate; the impulse to immortality. With thoroughbreds, people have just got in the way – partly because they have their own ideas about genetic excellence, but mostly because there is good money in it.
Those who saw him breaking clear, of course, knew what the horse himself could not – that some day even so virile a life force will be extinguished for ever. But they also knew that the moment would endure however long horsemen are free to study the past, and debate its legacies.
He did not stretch clear, the way some champions do – not least Ribot, who won this race twice half a century ago. But then Sea The Stars never does. It is almost a gesture of contempt, as though he does not need to dignify other horses by unnecessary exertion. Instead their efforts could glorify his own. The remarkable Youmzain, second to both Zarkava and Dylan Thomas in previous Arcs, yet again finished best of the rest, but he never had a prayer. Next came Cavalryman, Conduit, Dar Re Mi and Fame And Glory, all Group One winners this year.
In the end, they were all applauded as they returned past the grandstands, every last one of them – even the hapless Steele Tango, tailed off last. It was an unprecedented gesture of gratitude, for their mere involvement. And then, at last, back came the champion, preening and tossing his head, fully aware of his magnificence. And they cheered until they were hoarse, clapped until their hands were sore, as if seeking to prolong too transient a moment.
"He just does enough when he hits the front and will never win by very far," Oxx said. "He has been through such a tough campaign, and when you see the horses that haven't quite managed to do it, you think: 'my God'. After his last run, I thought nothing could beat him, that he was the best by far, and would win the Arc. But as you get closer, you start to think about the great horses that have come here after a good season and haven't done it, and you think he could be another one.
"But he seemed better than ever in his homework. His physical condition is getting better. Every time you look at him, at evening stables, he seems stronger and more masculine, so we were hoping that he might have been on the improve. He is a great, great horse to keep on winning, to have won all of those races. I can't quite believe it."
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Earlsmedic (2.20 Warwick)
No chance with the draw at Chester last time but had previously twice shaped well after a summer break. Used the visor for all his wins.
Yaa Wayl (2.40 Pontefract)
Pierced a big field to chase home an impressive winner at Haydock last time, and the form and time both look solid.
One to Watch
Audacity Of Hope (P J McBride) coped well with a step up in class at Newmarket on Thursday and was the only one to make ground from the rear.
Where The Money's Going
Sea The Stars is 4-5 from 9-4 for the Breeders' Cup Classic with Coral – showing what is at stake as connections ponder his retirement.