The greatest horse of all time?

Sea The Stars faces a date with destiny in the Arc tomorrow: a win would enshrine the colt among the finest in racing history. Chris McGrath meets the trainer who channelled a unique talent

Saturday 03 October 2009 00:00 BST

Nobody will ever be able to say for certain. But at least we should all have a better idea tomorrow. John Oxx was prompted to ponder the question himself, chatting to a friend a couple of weeks ago.

They were discussing the place in the pantheon of Sea The Stars, champion of his Co Kildare stable, as he sets out to crown one of the great modern careers in Paris tomorrow. And his friend told Oxx what his father had told him – there would never be one better than Ribot.

Oxx reliably infuses every situation with his own tranquil humours, even the tense process of risking an immaculate record in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. So it is easy to picture him in the peace of his library that Sunday, running his finger along the old bloodstock annuals, a placid and clerical figure. Here it was: 1956. The year Ribot won his second Arc.

"I just wanted a refresher," Oxx says now, seated before the same shelves. Muted autumn sunlight falls into the room between the high, slow clouds over the Curragh. "How good was he? Well, he was pretty good. He won 16 out of 16. But only five were serious races. The rest were sort of exhibition races against a stable companion. Five of them were tough, though. Two Arcs, by wide margins."

He shakes his head. How would Sea The Stars have coped with Ribot? None can say. Timeform, respected arbiters in these matters, already identifies Sea The Stars as "one of the best of all time", on the same rating as Dancing Brave and Shergar. "We'll never know," Oxx shrugs. "But it's nice to look back, to have the excuse. This winter I'm going to look through all these great horses and refresh my memory."

And some day, people will be doing just the same, looking back, wondering about this Sea The Stars. "That's just it," Oxx says. "You never think you're going to be in a position to train one of them yourself."

Bespectacled and bald, mild and measured, at 59 Oxx could easily pass for one of the Jesuits who supervised his education. Here is one of the very few trainers who would address a stable boy in exactly the same way as he would the Aga Khan (owner, as it happens, of his previous Arc and Derby winner, Sinndar). Cerebral as he is, Oxx has the simplicity of a man uncomplicated by vanity.

So, no, Oxx would never imagine that one of the epoch-making horses might find its way into his stable. But the reality is that Sea The Stars had a far better chance of fulfilment here. True, he was born with many other advantages. His mother, Urban Sea, won the Arc herself and has already produced another brilliant Derby winner in Galileo. Even the layman, watching him stroll round the parade ring tomorrow, will recognise a physical paragon. But none should underestimate the role of his trainer.

Oxx demurs, naturally. "You can't give them ability they don't have," he says. "Really, it's just a case of not messing it up – not to overtax the horse too soon, or ask it to do stupid things as a two-year-old. If you mind him sufficiently when he's young, hopefully his ability will blossom."

But that is precisely the point. Less temperate trainers would have rushed the raw colt through his grounding, last year, gunning at more precocious animals. Perhaps Sea The Stars is so special that he could have beaten them, regardless, but he might well be a spent force by now. As it is, Oxx has been rewarded for his forbearance with an unprecedented spree of big wins – gliding past all comers, at all distances.

"Most of the real good ones have that constitution," he reflects. "They stay sound, don't miss training days. That's part of what separates them from the rest. Horses that get interruptions, get sick, can't really achieve their full potential. The really high-class horses train to a slightly more rigorous beat than the others, just because they can. And that brings out their ability even more."

But while sheer prowess separates Sea The Stars from the herd, something else exalts him even above other champions. For here, Oxx suggests, is a horse with a grasp of his own destiny. All summer, people have been trying to measure his greatness. Now Oxx unveils the cornerstone. "You get some horses who are herd leaders," he explains. "We had another one here once, Azamour. When Sea The Stars goes to the races, he lets out a few roars, lets everybody know he's there. Azamour was the same, he'd whinny and holler at everything for a few minutes until he'd established his territory: 'I'm here now, this is my patch.'

"Most horses have a fairly neutral type of personality. And you train them to keep them that way, so they're just focused on the routine, the job of racing. You don't want them to have too much personality, if you can avoid it. But this fellow would have plenty. He's very aware, very alert, he notices everything, watches everything, takes everything in.

"I'd say the very good horses have that bit more determination, will to win. They seem to know what's required better than the others. They really concentrate on the job, put in that final effort other horses don't. They're that bit tougher, and they deliver on the big day."

But while Sea The Stars has this unmistakable swagger, he also exudes unusual composure. His debt becomes more apparent than ever, then, to the man who shepherds him with such a light touch.

When Sea The Stars won at York in August, the issue briefly seemed in sufficient doubt for the rest of his party to leap up and down, screaming. But Oxx stood impassively throughout, and betrayed no emotion of any kind until permitting himself a satisfied nod as the colt passed the post. "You get philosophical," he shrugs. "You have to. The bit of Kipling there, treating the twin impostors just the same, triumph and disaster... You try not to get too excited when you win, or too down when you lose. It's important for everyone that depends on you to keep the ship sailing along an even keel."

But the pressure mounts with every race. Last month, Sea The Stars made his only appearance on Irish soil this year. "There was great fuss and expectation," Oxx says. "So thank God he came through. It would have been really disappointing if he didn't deliver on the day. That was one he had to win, absolutely had to. I don't get nervous before big races. But when you've got something like this, it's a bit different. You just want the horse to do himself justice. You can't be afraid of losing. If you are, some day you'll never get out of bed. But it's a big responsibility, to try and do the right thing by a horse like this, so that he has the stature he deserves at the end."

Just one morning to get through, now, one more morning for Sea The Stars to remain immune to the mental and physical erosion you see even in the best horses, at the end of a long season. "There aren't many you would run every month from May to October, each race bigger than the previous one," Oxx says. "But he has this tremendous constitution. He's not an easy horse to give a break to. He'd be fresh and exuberant, needs to do something, needs to work."

Sadly, his work will be done at the end of the season, when he retires to stud. In fact, he may well bow out tomorrow. He might have nothing left to prove, by then, but they were saying much the same about Zarkava after she won the Arc last year. And she would certainly have something to prove now, had she stuck around. Oxx gives a wry laugh. "Mind you, this horse is so good, and so nerve-racking, I'm not sure I'd want to have him another year," he says. "He'd be fine for another year, but I don't think I'd stick it. But he's had such a good year and if it could just go on for one more race it would be great."

He resembles the priest whose parish has been chosen by his God for some apparition or miracle, because it won't go to his head. And that is how the meek inherit the earth. In generations to come, when people look back upon this Aslan among horses, so radiant, so glorious, let us hope they also honour the memory of Oxx. For to know that there were men with such dignity and humility in their mastery – even in these feckless, rapacious times – is no mean legacy. "It's been a dream come true," Oxx says. "For the owner, the jockey, the trainer, and a lot of other people besides. It's amazing how it's all worked out. We still have another big hurdle to jump. But it's been marvellous, whatever happens."

Season so far: Sea The Stars' perfect runs

1. Stan James 2,000 Guineas

Newmarket, 2 May. Odds: 8-1.

After winning twice as a two-year-old, Sea The Stars begins his Classic campaign by outpacing a top-class field of milers.

2. Investec Derby

Epsom, 6 June. Odds: 11-4.

Stepped up to a mile and a half, he emulates his half-brother, Galileo, by winning the Derby at the expense of the heavily backed Fame And Glory.

3. Coral-Eclipse Stakes

Sandown, 4 July. Odds: 4-7 fav.

His toughest test, but he stems the challenge of Rip Van Winkle over 10 furlongs, the pair clear of Conduit. The second has since won two Group One races, and the third won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

4. Juddmonte International Stakes

York, 18 August. Odds: 1-4 fav.

Only three horses take him on, two of them pacemakers for Mastercraftsman, but he comes off the bridle only briefly and wins easily in the end.

5. Tattersalls Irish Champion Stakes

Leopardstown, 5 September. Odds: 4-6 fav.

He completes a unique sequence of wins with a lap of honour on home soil, once again having too much speed for Fame And Glory, and returns to a joyous reception.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Credit Swap (3.40 Newmarket)

A cracking bet at 33-1 trying a ninth furlong, having finished mile races with gusto; very much at home over a straight track.

*Next best

Tinaar (5.25 Newmarket)

Remains unexposed, not least over this distance, having closed steadily but too late when first trying it at Kempton last time.

*One to watch

Welcome Approach (J R Weymes) just failed when delayed in his run at Wolverhampton on Thursday; compensation beckons a similarly modest level.

*Where the money's going

The Jeremy Noseda-trained three-year-old Applause is 12-1 from 16-1 with Coral for the Totesport Cambridgeshire at Newmarket this afternoon.

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