Sport Horse Racing

Friday 18 January 2019

Stars soars to greatness

The first leg of the double for racing came just before lunchtime when John Oxx confirmed what just about every soul in the sport bid when Sea The Stars got the green light to take his place in the field for the Tattersalls Millions Irish Champion Stakes.

The second leg came when he delivered the performance of his career so far to bring up a Group One tally of five this year and the greatest winner's cheer from a Leopardstown crowd since Danoli won the Hennessy.

This race over the years has established an almost divine right to produce top-locker performances with indubitably thrilling conclusions from some of the cream of Europe's thoroughbreds and it is to Ireland and Leopardstown's credit that we continue to attract the pinnacle of talent. Beforehand, yesterday's renewal was (with the final inclusion of Sea The Stars) by common consensus the race of the season so far anywhere in the world. And Sea The Stars didn't flinch, delivering over Ballydoyle's finest in a time nearly five seconds faster than New Approach last year, and by the largest margin he has achieved in his already illustrious career.

It is the mark of the barbarian to destroy what he cannot create and media hacks at their worst can be barbarous -- about jockeys, trainers, horses, crass commerciality and much more. But regarding yesterday it is time to applaud; because it takes courage and consent to make a horserace.

Although palpably agonising at times, in the end Oxx admitted it wasn't a difficult decision to allow his stable star to run (although at varying points during the week he was matched at 13/1 on Betfair and was quoted at 4/7 with Paddy Power not to show). Leopardstown's sod has demonstrated its porousness before; only last year for the same race the track moved from being waterlogged on Saturday to good-to-yielding on Sunday. It was openly visible, however, how keen connections were to have their champion compete in what was going to be the only opportunity the Irish public will have to witness a horse already being branded as great.

But every bit as keen to exact revenge was the Ballydoyle bandwagon, rolling in its heaviest artillery in an attempt to prove that Sea The Stars was an Achilles. It would have been sufficient -- prudent even -- if their top two colts with six Group One victories between them, were divided to conquer as opposed to combined to attack. After all, Mastercraftsman would have been odds-on if he'd instead taken up his entry this afternoon in Longchamp's Prix du Moulin and furthermore wouldn't it have been sufficient to simply have Fame and Glory perform the rematch much touted after Epsom?

But no. Such was the appetite at Ballydoyle to overthrow the king which had humiliated them at York, Sandown and Epsom, they sent their two grandest cannons accompanied by a flotilla of pacemaker fodder to the plains of Foxrock.

Racing is all about opinion and Seamie Heffernan's after Epsom was that Sea The Stars had beaten Fame and Glory "on his terms" adding that he was disappointed the race was not conducted "at a Group One pace". That was never going to be the case at Leopardstown yesterday and the pacemakers predictably went off like the wind.

Mastercraftsman sat a distant third with Sea The Stars further back and Fame and Glory at the rear.

It became obvious as the pacemakers ran out of gas and Johnny Murtagh made a definitive sweep around the favourite at the three-furlong mark that the Ballydoyle plan was to have their big duo in front of Sea The Stars entering the straight to force the champion to dig deep and come past the pair. Tactics are all very well when superiority is in the margin, but yesterday the only tactics that would have foiled Sea The Stars would have had to involve his two hind legs and a rope.

Aidan O'Brien was one of the first to congratulate Oxx and his former first jockey Mick Kinane in the scrum masquerading as a winners' enclosure in the aftermath. In a flood of laughter Kinane told O'Brien: "You can have your hat back now... you keep throwing it into the ring!"

But competitive sport is all about connections' willingness to continually 'throw the hat into the ring' and hats off to Coolmore for chucking in their two available best yesterday. After all, it contributed to producing a race that inspired the crowd in the direct aftermath to sprint from the racecourse side through the Tote hall in the stands to the enclosure side to greet their returning hero with the haste of Kings Cross in rush hour -- something I have never seen at a Flat race.

It is symbolic that Sea The Stars sports a yellow jersey and his Tour de France will next take him to Paris where the usual terms and conditions about the ground apply. But Oxx hinted that we might still not have seen the best of this horse he considers an obvious privilege to train. The Arc might become the next great race of the season but for now we'll appreciatively settle for what we were gifted at Leopardstown yesterday.

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