A Real Star

I have to confess I do not believe in ghosts and the supernatural. Those that do tell me that when they walk into a room where they feel a “presence” the hairs on the back of their necks stand on end, they feel a shiver down the spine and they get goosebumps.

Those are exactly the feelings I experienced at Longchamp on Sunday afternoon, although in my case they were provoked not by the supernatural but by a superstar, or to be more precise super Stars.

Win or lose on Sunday, John Oxx’s Sea the Stars was already, by any yardstick, amongst the greats winning the 2,000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, not to mention the Eclipse, Juddmonte International and Irish Champion Stakes along the way.

I was fortunate enough to have press accreditation to the meeting which gave me access to a fantastic viewing area near the top of the huge, sweeping stand at Longchamp. I made sure I was in position long before the big race and I was not the only one.

For the earlier races there were  no more than a dozen hacks taking advantage of this prime viewing position now there were a couple of hundred and I was so pleased I had managed to grab one of the prime positions.

It was just before the runners left the parade ring for the main parade that the strange feelings began. Like a gently breeze on the back of the neck and the hairs stood on end, it also seemed unusually quiet – a feeling of expectation. Next came the shiver, the goosebumps and an almost sixth sense feeling something special was about to happen.

And I wasn’t the only one, speaking to others afterwards, they also experienced the similar feelings, a similar sense of anticipation.

The first runners came onto the course, headed by the runner-up of the last two renewals, Youmzain.  Sea The Stars should have been one of the last to emerge but the order shifted somehow.

Then it started – it began just as a small ripple of applause, then some cheers, then more cheers.

Sea The Stars was emerging from the walkway and was already being welcomed like a winning hero and this was before the race began. I can’t recall ever seeing such a welcome for a horse just coming onto the track.

Not everyone seemed to be happy at the adulation being given to John Oxx’s star. The French filly Stacelita, who along with Cavalryman was supplemented for the race at an eye watering €100,000 last Thursday, could not have be more on fire had someone doused her with rocket fuel and ignited the blue touch paper.

Indeed at one point it looked as though she was going to cannon into the back of our hero as they paraded.

There was a roar as the field set off, granted nothing like the famous, or should that be infamous, Cheltenham roar but a roar nonetheless – followers of flat racing tend to be a little more restrained and conservative, with a small “c”.

Sea The Stars is almost a Jekyll and Hyde horse. He copes with the pre (and indeed post) race formalities with almost contempt, looking totally at ease within himself.

Once the gates spring open it is a different story. Like a championship boxer primed to respond to the bell, Sea The Stars responds to the gates opening in the same way.

No more Mr Nice Guy, beware the fighter.

His jockey, by contrast, is Mr Relaxed. Now in his second half century, he is no young buck looking for glory. He is a mature, unfazed rider, who seems to be at one with his mount.  

He rode his first winner back in 1975, when Frankie Dettori was a five year old in Milan and a full eight years before Ryan Moore was born.      

When Sea The Stars was out of the stalls the horse wanted to be in front, but the calm Kinane, calling on his years of experience just calmed him down, relaxed him and settled him well back in the field.

Contrast Kinane’s cool riding with that of young Mr Levy on the pacemaker Set Sail – who allowed the horse to run away with him, totally negating his role as pacemaker.

Kinane kept Sea The Stars held up most of the contest and, as it typical in French races, all the action began in the home straight.

Sea The Stars looked to be in a hopeless position against the rails, it looked as though he would be a shooting star – fading into the night and memory.

Then it happened and I was in the absolutely perfect position.

I have seen the television replays of the race – they do no justice to what happened.

For those of you who know Longchamp my viewing position was on the third tier of the main stand, between towers nine and ten. If you don’t know Longchamp all you need to know is it is very high up about a furlong from the line.

There is a line in the Bible about getting a camel through the eye of a needle – well I think I have found a man who can do it. My binoculars just happened to be trained on Sea The Stars as he began his move off the rail.

Even though I saw it with my own eyes I still cannot actually believe what I saw. Whether it was Kinane’s jockeyship, or Sea The Stars natural talent, or even a combination of the two, the duo weaved their way our of the impossible position, Houdini like and it was race over.

They were away, leaving a high class field in their wake and the rest, as they say, is history.

I will swear there was a nanosecond of absolute silence, as there was a collective intake of breath as the crowd took in what they had just seen, followed immediately by a cacophony of sound. Raw human sound.

It is very rare for me to shout and cheer a horse home, even less so a horse I have not backed but, along with everyone around me, I was cheering a wonder horse home.

I was surrounded by a veritable United Nations of journalists, from all corners of the globe, for a brief moment all were united. Sharing a common celebration, each cheering Sea The Stars as their own.

I am not ashamed to admit I had tears streaming down by cheeks and I was not alone.

Not a single journalist left their vantage point – filing copy could wait – this was a moment to savour.

Kinane and Sea The Stars made their slow, majestic, progress back along the straight seemingly soaking up the adulation of their adoring fans, even the horse knew he was something special.

Then came the moment I almost kicked myself, all around me had cameras and were taking photos of the winner, my camera was downstairs in my bag.

I don’t care though – I was seeing it all unfold before me. I did not need a camera. Everything I had seen in the previous ten minutes or so was being indelibly etched into my memory. I can shut my eyes now and see the race rerun.

I don’t know what the future holds or how many more years, months, days I may have left on this third planet of the sun.

One thing I do know is on Sunday, 4th October 2009 I saw the best horse I have seen in my lifetime, and will probably ever see again, run the best race he has ever run at an emotionally charged Longchamp.

I am proud to say “I was there” and that is something nobody can ever take away from me.

Sea The Stars you are a real star.


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