Moment of audacity helps Sea The Stars win hearts

THE impregnable Mick Kinane will always associate York with his most nerve-wracking moment aboard the record-breaking Sea The Stars.

That split-second when he squeezed his horse in between the two faltering pacesetters before setting off in pursuit of his great rival Mastercraftsman. It was a nerveless piece of racing audacity which had to be seen to be believed.

Yet this was the day, says the legendary Irish rider, where the racing public became truly appreciative that they were witnessing a true equine warrior fully deserving of the over-used sporting description 'greatness'.

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A day, says Kinane, when Sea The Stars – the wonder colt trained across the Irish Sea by John Oxx – became public property.

"It was the atmosphere," the softly-spoken Kinane told the Yorkshire Post with unflappable politeness.

"We were on a big roll at the time – we had won the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and Eclipse – and it was nice people wanted to turn up to see him. They weren't bothered about his 50-year-old jockey!

"He got a marvellous reception, before and after the race. The stands were packed.

"Even in the paddock, you could hear people taking photos with their digital cameras. They wanted a memory of history. They nearly didn't get one."

For weeks, racegoers were held in suspense while the thoroughbred's connections contemplated making the journey to York.

Their fear was the going. They did not want soft ground – and rain was forecast. York, meanwhile, just wanted to race after losing the entire 2007 Ebor meeting to flooding.

A day off at Headingley, to watch the Ashes Test match 10 days beforehand, offered York clerk William Derby little time for relaxation as he sought out regular weather updates, quietly confident that Sea The Stars would race.

Even Welcome to Yorkshire, sponsors of this year's Ebor festival, recognised the spin-offs from the racing phenomenon; it had banners posted at Leeds Bradford Airport to greet this superstar.

Yet Kinane was worried that this race, with only four runners, would be the most tactical encounter of Sea The Stars's entire eight-race career.

His 14 opponents in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket had been despatched with consummate ease.

To me, the Epsom Derby was won after the first two furlongs – Sea The Stars was travelling that smoothly in comparison to his 12 rivals. Kinane concurred. He admits to whispering to Oxx, in the hallowed winner's enclosure, that the bay "is one of the greats" – but connections, including owner Christopher Tsui, went to huge lengths to play down the hyperbole and public expectation in public.

And the Eclipse, in early July, showed that the horse had a heart, as he outbattled the classy Rip Van Winkle and nine others.

Even the 19-runner Prix de l'Arc deTriomphe, Europe's blue riband race that followed the Juddmonte and Irish Champion Stakes in early October, was a foregone conclusion once Kinane had extricated his horse from the running rails turning for home where he had become boxed in.

Kinane had every right to be fearful. His three opponents were all trained by Aidan O'Brien – the Irish genius who he rode for prior to 2003. He also knew the International had a reputation for shocks, most notably the defeats in the 1970s of Brigadier Gerard and Grundy, two of racing's immortals from yesteryear.

O'Brien had, once again, been meticulous with the issuing of riding instructions – he wanted to be the party pooper and the 200-1 outsiders, Georgebernardshaw and Set Sail, set a blistering pace that was comfortably inside York's course record for one-and-a-quarter miles.

As they entered the straight, they hoped that they had set up the race for Ballydoyle's No 1 Mastercraftsman, ridden with almost alarming confidence by Kinane's great rival Johnny Murtagh and a proven Group One champion.

As the pacesetters allowed their stable's talisman a clear run through it appeared Kinane, tracking the proven Mastercraftsman, had nowhere to go.

Yet, audaciously, he passed between the two tiring frontrunners, even though Kinane admits that it was "by the tightest of margins" and the gap could have closed if one horse had drifted momentarily off a true racing line.

Now every eye was focussed on the yellow and purple silks as Sea The Stars responded to a couple of slaps of the whip before lengthening his stride and cutting down, and passing, his pretender in a course record time.

The time of 2min 5.29secs beat the previous record, set four years previously by Imperial Stride, by eight-tenths of a second – the equivalent, in racing terms, of four lengths.

The race had been that fast; certainly faster than the famous 1851 'match of the century' on the Knavesmire between the Derby winners Voltigeur and The Flying Dutchman. A normally poker-faced character, Kinane could not contain his delight as he returned to a hero's reception, waving to the crowds in acknowledgement of their support and affection for his horse.

"I had to go for a tight gap and it came off," said Kinane. "If it hadn't opened, who knows? But I think my horse would have had enough speed to come wide.

"Look at the Arc when I got him badly positioned; he got me out of trouble that day and would have done so at York, I'm certain of it.

"It's often the way with small fields, they are invariably the most difficult to win and this was probably the hardest.

"It was also great for me because York has always been my favourite racecourse. It's a very fair track, the conditions are normally sound and there can be no excuses if you lose."

Now an ambassador for Irish racing, he delights in promoting his sport, his career – and his other famous wins.

He is the son of top jumps jockey Dessie Hughes, a man forever associated with the great hurdler Monksfield who had such a longstanding rivalry with Yorkshire's Sea Pigeon, a past Ebor winner.

Kinane, himself, won the Ebor – tomorrow's highlight – in 2001 aboard Mediterranean, trained by the aforementioned O'Brien. "He ran well that day; it takes a high-class three-year-old to win the Ebor."

Yet he knows that he will be forever associated with Sea The Stars, the horse of a lifetime who won an unprecedented six Group One races in six months. It is a feat of greatness that may never be eclipsed.

"From the moment, I sat on him at Mr Oxx's yard, I knew he was something special – certainly worth delaying my retirement for a year," says a self-depricating Kinane who now breeds at his farm in Ireland.

"I won my first race when I was 15 – but nothing will match the races I won on Sea The Stars at the age of 50. He was rare, exceptional – a phenomenon. And he was a winner. He almost didn't need me. I was a passenger."

Except at York when Sea The Stars and Mick Kinane rode into the record books on the Knavsmire.

A DAY TO REMEMBER

Graham Orange, York racecourse announcer.

"My recollections of the day are the massive build-up and anticipation. During the race, I thought that Sea The Stars was struggling against a determined Mastercraftsman, but his class and Mick Kinane's coolness in the saddle saw him sweep past his opponent.

"The reception Sea The Stars received from the knowledgeable York crowd when he returned to a heaving winners' enclosure will stay with me for a long time. It was a performance that will be talked about for years to come."

William Derby, York chief Executive and clerk of the course.

"Sea The Stars was simply the best racehorse there has been in the world for a very long time. For him to come to York, win our highest rated and richest race, the Juddmonte International, in such style and to such a great ovation by Yorkshire racegoers, was an honour and privilege.

"Bearing in mind he won six of the most famous and best races in Europe, for his trainer John Oxx to say that his favourite overseas experience with his horse was at York filled the team here with immense pride.

To sum it all up, it was an unforgettable experience and something that will be a lifelong memory."

Paul Hanagan, York's leading jockey.

"Everyone was really excited. From a riding point of view, when you see Mick Kinane come through the gap, between the two Aidan O'Brien horses, and risk all, you're thinking 'oh my god'.

But it worked and it was a day that everybody will remember.

"Mick was obviously supremely confident, but he had nerves of steel. To me, it showed the difference between good jockeys - and those who succeed in big races, when the's pressure on, and when you have to make split-second judgements.

"I don't think I've seen anything like it."

Greg Fairley, stable jockey to Mark Johnston.

"The atmosphere in the weighing room was incredible. One minute Sea The Stars looked beat, and then Mick Kinane nipped through the tiniest of gaps.

"It was unreal and a particularly brave piece of riding."

John Francome, Channel Four Racing pundit.

"I remember going to see the horse, after his morning exercise, and just thinking that I had not seen a more striking, or athletic, racehorse for a long time.

"And his jockey wasn't bad."