Sporting bygones: When Sea The Stars took his place among the greats with success at York

FROM ROBERTO in the 1972 inaugural running to the scintillating Frankel and gutsy Roaring Lion just last year, York’s Juddmonte International has invariably been won by many of Flat racing’s all-time greats.

Salute: Sea The Stars and Mick Kinane return to the winner's enclosure after victory in the 2019 Juddmonte International at York.

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“That horse, I wouldn’t swap him for anything,” the 60-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of this year’s Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor festival which begins this Wednesday.

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“He never got to show what he really had because he only ever did just enough to win his races. It would have taken the likes of Frankel to drag it out of him.”

Sea The Stars arrives at York prior to the 2009 Juddmonte International.

Even though the late Sir Henry Cecil’s 2012 hero Frankel is said to be without comparison – he won all 14 starts – Sea The Stars remains the only horse in history to win the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Not only did the colt win these three iconic races for fresh-faced owner Christopher Tsui and Ireland’s much-respected trainer John Oxx, but he also landed the Coral-Eclipse, Irish Champion Stakes and Juddmonte International in a summer of equine domination.

Six Group One triumphs in three countries – England, Ireland and France – help make the case for Kinane, who chose to hang up his riding boots shortly after Sea The Stars had produced a decisive burst of speed, from an unpromising position trapped on the inner, to win the Arc.

Yet, even though 19 runners contested the Arc, it was, arguably, the four-runner Juddmonte which posed the most problems for Kinane because all three of his rivals, including the top miler, Mastercraftsman, were trained by Ballydoyle’s all-conquering Aidan O’Brien.

Trainer John Oxx and jockey Mick Kinane celebrate one of the many wins of Sea The Stars.

Kinane, who had previously enjoyed so much success with O’Brien, knew it would not be the walkover that most racing devotees – and bookmakers – anticipated.

“Things can go wrong. There’s never an easy Group One,” he ventured.

Yet, after Sea The Stars proved his versatility by winning the 2000 Guineas (mile), Derby (mile-and-a-half) and Eclipse (10 furlongs) over different distances, expectations were high before York.

“Every time he raced, it was nerve-wracking in the extreme,” Oxx told this newspaper.

Sea The Stars began a golden 2009 by winning the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

“Even though we had an exceptional horse, to seal his place in the history of the thoroughbred, he had to keep winning.

“We had great faith in his ability, determination and constitution, but a horse race is a horse race and anything can happen.”

It so nearly did as the Ebor festival resumed at York after the 2008 washout. As expected, the O’Brien pacemakers – Georgebernardshaw and Set Sail – set a strong pace with Kinane happy to bide his time behind Mastercraftsman, an exceptional miler.

Oxx was happy – for now. “Every time you take on Aidan O’Brien, you know you have very good horses in peak condition. They’re all so well bred, and fit and well.

Sea The Stars was an emphatic winner of the 2009 Epsom Derby under Mick Kinane.

“They can improve and suddenly put in a performance you don’t think they were capable of.”

As the quartet raced up the home straight, there were still few qualms.

Indeed, there was a smattering of applause from the packed stands as a gap opened between the two pacemakers which Sea The Stars, the 1-4 odds-on favourite, eased through.

Yet, rather than kicking on for home, Kinane took a pull – a momentary move which allowed his great rival Johnny Murtagh to seize the initiative on Mastercraftsman.

“I was worried,” said Oxx. “Two furlongs down I thought ‘How far is he going to win?’, but then he had to struggle. A furlong down, I was anxious.”

Kinane was not. “I was driving the Ferrari in the race,” he pointed out. He was also acutely aware that his champion was never flashy and only ever did just enough to win his races.

“I had to take a pull. He lost concentration and wanted to know what I was doing,” explained the jockey. “It wasn’t ideal – I had to win two races that day which isn’t ideal – but he picked up when asked. He always knew he had his job done and that’s why he lasted so well. He was always winning with lots left in the tank.

“The only time things went a little haywire was in the Arc. Longchamp is a demanding track. When he had to find, he found it – like all champions.”

Looking back, Oxx says that it is “confusing for a horse to feel the race is his” and then for the jockey to say “not yet”.

The trainer went on: “He probably made the horse wonder what the heck is going on today – do you want me to win the race or not to race?

“This was a period when horses needed to keep winning to keep their stallion value up – now it does not seem to be the end of the world if they get beat.

“Sea The Stars had a constitution like no other in a physical strength and a mental constitution that meant he handled all these pressure occasions. We knew he had to build up a sequence to become an all-time great.”

To prove his point, Oxx cites Mill Reef – and how the 1971 Derby and Arc hero was only third in the 2000 Guineas (to the brilliant Brigadier Gerard). He also names Dancing Brave and how the Guineas and Arc winner of 1986 was agonisingly beaten in the Derby of that year.

“It was great. Phenomenal. A real great experience for us,” added Oxx, 69. “As time goes by, you appreciate it more. Michael Kinane had been a great big-race jockey, a very dependable person. Very experienced. It was tremendous to have him here because he was great on the big occasions.

“Sea The Stars was in a different challenge. Different countries. Different tracks. Different distances and Michael had ridden in all these races over the years. It was a great combination. To have him riding the horse, you knew Sea The Stars was in safe hands. And it allowed Mick to get out at the very top. That was good, too.”

As for this week’s renewal, Kinane says it is testament to the Ebor meeting’s prestige that Crystal Ocean and Enable – the two best horses in the world on official ratings – will contest the Juddmonte International and Yorkshire Oaks, respectively.

“York was my favourite place,” he revealed. “I loved the track. I loved the racing. The occasion. Loved the town. It’s the one place I’d go back to. Ascot is a fantastic place – but York is a little more relaxed and the racing public very knowledgeable.”

As Mick Kinane added, also the place where Sea The Stars had to win twice to prove his class as a horse for the ages.