You might as well try to catch the scent of a flower in a net. Far from identifying shortcomings in Sea The Stars himself, those who yesterday sought to place his performance at Longchamp on Sunday in some clinical perspective were instead made to realise the limitations of their own methods.
While John Oxx, his trainer, predictably remained in no hurry to suggest whether or not the champion might be set one, last challenge, at the Breeders' Cup, others were wrestling with another kind of dilemma. And their conclusion – that Sea The Stars ran significantly below his best in pulverising his rivals for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe – confirmed that the compilation of formal ratings will never achieve its putative purpose.
Handicappers admittedly offer the one objective gauge against which new champions can be measured against the great names of the past. But they can make no allowance for the fact that different horses have different ways of showing scorn for their inferiors. Some like to separate themselves in the most literal sense, gambolling clear after the fashion of Ribot, who won his second Arc by six lengths in 1956. But Sea The Stars is one of those who prefer to glide into the lead and then coast along the margins between indolence and indifference.
And it is precisely this habit that has helped him to absorb the unprecedented sequence of championship races he completed in Paris. He has never won a race by more than two and a half lengths; in the process, he conserved ample fuel for his epic journey.
So while Kieren Fallon, who rode Youmzain to finish second for the third year running, suggested that Sea The Stars had won "probably the best Arc of all time", the respected arbiters of Timeform yesterday gauged this epoch-making display at just 129 – no fewer than 11lbs short of the rating he took into the race. Timeform's Kieran Packman, explained why.
"His performance, while emotional and heart-warming, was actually some way removed from his best efforts in terms of form," he said. "A two-length defeat of Youmzain is no more than Zarkava achieved last year. When winning the Eclipse at Sandown, Sea The Stars had Conduit three lengths further behind him than he did at Longchamp, and the proximity of La Boum, beaten only around five lengths when seventh in Paris, suggests Sea The Stars ran to 129."
Packman suggested Sea The Stars could conceivably reach a rating without precedent in Timeform's 60-year history, if only he had a rival competent to take him there. As it is, the colt's Timeform rating remains short of those awarded Sea Bird II (145), Brigadier Gerard (144), Ribot (142) and Mill Reef (141).
"Ratings tell only part of the story," Packman acknowledged. "What the formbook says, a horse has actually achieved, regardless of hype and speculation. Many of us might believe Sea The Stars is the best we've seen, or will ever see. But his racing style has precluded him from winning any races by a wide margin. In all probability, he could well manage a Sea Bird-type rating, if he had the right race and/or the right opponents to stretch him to his limits. But the Arc did not provide that test for him."
Phil Smith, the BHA handicapper, has settled on 131 for the Arc, compared with the colt's peak official rating of 135 for the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown last month. But he observed that the Breeders' Cup Classic could yet see that figure upgraded, with or without Sea The Stars – whose form will be represented regardless by Rip Van Winkle, his victim at Sandown.
Oxx, meanwhile, admitted Sea The Stars to be "a bit tired" on his return to Co Kildare , but left the door ajar to California. "We haven't had any discussion about that," he said. "We're not ruling it out."
"I think it was primarily in the owners' mind if he had to miss the Arc for some reason, maybe the ground, we would have had a nice interval between Leopardstown and the Breeders' Cup. Whether we would go for a seventh race in seven months on 7 November... It's a bit late in the year, I must say. But we're not going to rush into a decision."
Turf account: Christ McGrath
Rosewin (5.30 Catterick) Has made giant strides for her new stable since being claimed in August, foiled in her hat-trick bid only by a flourishing rival at Beverley last time. She can outstay the big danger, African Cheetah.
Club Tahiti (4.10 Leicester) A small field for this valuable prize and Highland Glen is bred to stay well and can make corresponding improvement on her strong finishes over shorter trips this summer.
One to watch
As a debut winner over 10f, Namibian Orator (Sir Michael Stoute) did well to get involved over a bare mile on his return at Newmarket the other day.
*Where the money's going
After a solid fourth in the Arc, Conduit is 7-4 from 11-4 with Coral to retain the Breeders' Cup Turf.
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