Monday, October 12, 2009

The name game

I have never found another breeder or owner as consistently clever at naming his horses as was the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr., but Maria Niarchos-Gouaze has surpassed herself with her name for her current star two-year-old Eightfold Path, who won the Prix Eclipse today in France.

Eightfold Path, who was winning for the second time in three starts in the Eclipse, after finishing third in the Prix de la Rochette a few weeks ago, is the first foal of the Niarchos family's French champion 2- and 3-year-old filly Divine Proportions, by Kingmambo. For those who did not study Renaissance art, Divine Proportions is another name for the golden ratio, a mathematical-philosophical concept that has influenced great art at least since classical Greece. You can click on the link to read the way-too-complicated Wikipedia explanation, but basically, artistic representations based on the divine proportions are believed to be more aesthetically pleasing, and indeed artists have been using the golden ratio as a template at least since Phidias carved the friezes of the Parthenon.

Eightfold Path's sire, Giant's Causeway, is named for one of the natural wonders of Ireland, a volcanic basalt formation near Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, that looks something like a giant staircase leading into the ocean. According to Irish legend, mythical Irish giant hero Finn McCool built the Giant's Causeway as a pathway to Scotland. In fact, the other end of the formation crops up at Fingal's Cave on Staffa Island off the coast of Scotland.

According to the teachings of Buddha, the Noble Eightfold Path is basically the path to enlightenment or awakening, one of the Buddha's four noble truths. With all that arcane knowledge--obviously possessed by Mme. Niarchos-Gouaze--the path, as it were, from Divine Proportions along the Giant's Causeway to the Eightfold Path is, well, clever, erudite, charming, and (I can't resist) just divine.

For me, the best names have always been those that incorporate the meaning of both the sire's and dam's name in a clever, euphonious, meaningful, and--if possible--humorous way. Alfred Vanderbilt still holds the title for the all-time best in the humorous category, naming his otherwise forgettable 1968 colt (later, sadly, gelded) by Tom Fool out of Last Leg, by Native Dancer, ....wait for it....Dirty Old Man.

Vanderbilt, of course, gave great names to far more famous horses, including Social Outcast (Shut Out--Pansy, by *Sickle) (hey, it was the '50s) and Native Dancer himself (Polynesian--Geisha, by Discovery).

So what's your favorite name?

Monday, October 5, 2009

More Stars

Thanks to Sid Fernando for pointing out that video of the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was already up on Youtube yesterday....I added a link to my original post on the victory of Sea The Stars, but I also went back and looked at the race again. The Youtube version is actually far better than the live feed on HRTV.

Looking at the race again did not change my opinion of Sea The Stars at all, but it did let me see some aspects of the race I had not been able to see on HRTV, aspects which confirmed my previous opinion in a couple of different ways. The first thing I noticed is what a truly rare feat Sea The Stars performed about 250 meters from the finish. Mick Kinane has maneuvered Sea The Stars off the rail and he is rallying between Stacelita and Dar Re Mi. He is moving fastest of the three, but visually only very slightly faster than Dar Re Mi. If he had maintained that pace, he would likely have finished perhaps a length ahead of Dar Re Mi...which would mean he would have been in a photo finish with the placed horses.

At that point, however, Dar Re Mi, who is drifting in, bumps Sea The Stars slightly, and actually pushes him slightly off balance. His response is dramatic and electrifying. As Kinane throws a cross at him, Sea The Stars visibly throws in an extra effort, an emphatic jump to the right and forward, and he accelerates a second time, and within five strides is three lengths in front. You can see for yourself here during the live action at about the 2:15 minute mark. The best view, however, is the close-up, head-on view at about the 6:50 mark.

This is not the first time, Sea The Stars has accelerated a second time to win a race. Watch what he has to do to beat Rip Van Winkle, the best horse he has faced, in the Eclipse Stakes in July. At about the 3:50 mark, Sea The Stars has already accelerated once to take the lead. Rip Van Winkle, coming from a couple of lengths behind, closes to within a neck or half-length at the furlong pole, but Sea The Stars accelerates again to win by a little more than a length.

That ability to accelerate twice is very rare, and, for me, confirms Sea The Stars's place in the 140 Timeform class.

The other thing I wanted to see in the Youtube replay was exactly what happened to Youmzain and Conduit, the second and fourth. In truth, both overcame trips that were actually worse, in terms of position and route, than that of Sea The Stars. Conduit is the horse in the white silks who is alongside Sea The Stars on his outside for most of the trip. Youmzain is the horse in blue and white who is directly behind Sea The Stars for most of the race. At the top of the stretch, however, Sea The Stars gets through on the inside, Conduit goes widest of all, and Youmzain splits one horse inside of Conduit.

Basically Sea The Stars turned into the stretch alongside Conduit and about two lengths in front of Youmzain. He accelerated more quickly and took the shorter route home, but ended up about the same distance in front of Youmzain as he had been 2 1/2 furlongs earlier.

In terms of absolute form, you simply can't get away from this fact. Look back at the 2008 Arc when Zarkava beat Youmzain by two lengths. Zarkava's run is nowhere near as visually impressive as Sea The Stars, but notice how Youmzain, who enters the stretch several lengths in front of her, gets trapped on the rail and has to come around fading horses late. He should have finished closer, but would never have beaten Zarkava.

I am in no way implying that Zarkava was as good as Sea The Stars. Her 133 Timeform rating, (equivalent of 136 for a colt) fully reflects her ability relative to Youmzain, who is an extremely reliable yardstick. But my point remains. If Zarkava only ran to a 136 equivalent beating Youmzain last year, why is Sea The Stars victory over the same horse worth more this year?

Well, in my book, it IS worth more, mostly because of the way Sea The Stars pulled for the first half mile, but don't tell me he had a harder trip than Youmzain or Conduit, because he didn't. I'd still rank him at 140.

And by the way, Tony C....I always thought Dancing Brave was slightly overrated. Equal to Vaguely Noble who beat Sir Ivor by three lengths in the 1968 Arc? Two pounds better than Nijinsky II? I don't think so!


Here's an interesting viewpoint on the subject of Sea The Stars's place in history from Sam Walker of the Racing Post.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stars shines in the Arc

Sea The Stars was typically brilliant in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe today, but it might be interesting to evaluate his performance strictly on form lines once again. The question is what is the form worth on paper and how much credit should he get for the considerable difficulty—partly created by his own behavior—of his trip.

Sea The Stars won by two lengths, with Youmzain, Cavalryman, and Conduit heads apart in second, third, and fourth. Dar Re Mi finished fifth, about 3 ½ lengths behind the winner, a length in front of Fame and Glory in sixth.

It was the third straight year that the 6-year-old Youmzain has finished second in the Arc. Last year he was rated 131 by Timeform, his highest career rating, and there is no reason to believe that he should be rated any higher this year. The Arc was his fifth start of the year, and, though he has run consistently well, he has not won a race in 2009.

Cavalryman won the Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris in June and the principal French Arc prep, the Prix Niel, three weeks ago. I do not have a current copy of Timeform's weekly “black book” ratings, but it is impossible to imagine him being rated any higher than 130 on his previous performances.

Conduit has repeatedly proven his class, winning the St. Leger and Breeders' Cup Turf last year and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes this year. Timeform rated him at 130 last year, and it is likely he might be rated a couple of pounds higher this year, but no more.

Dar Re Mi was rated only 119 last year, but has clearly improved at four, enough to be rated around 128, while Fame And Glory's previous performances would have earned him a rating around 130-132.

So, Sea The Stars beat three horses rated in the 130-132 range by two lengths, with two others also close to that range a bit further behind at one-length intervals. As with his previous best performances, on paper, that should equate to a maximum rating of around 135 to 136.

Two factors, however, lead one to believe that he should be rated several pounds higher. Ballydoyle's two pacemakers went off at a cracking pace, trying to sap Sea The Stars's stamina and set the race up for Fame And Glory. The riders on the good horses, however, ignored them, as indeed they should have, meaning that French Oaks winner Stacelita (who would have preferred softer ground) was the nominal leader, just ahead of the rest of the pack. The modest pace Stacelita set, however, meant that Sea The Stars was running over horses for the first half mile of the race, fighting jockey Mick Kinane and throwing his head about, trying to adjust his exceptionally high cruising speed to what amounted to a fairly slow pace for a race of this caliber.

Fighting the jockey for a half mile would sap the finishing speed of a normal high-class horse. Sea The Stars is not a normal high-class horse. At Longchamp, the field almost always fans out when the horses turn into the final straight about 2 ½ furlongs from home. Still, Kinane was extremely lucky that the race played out in this typical manner, and he easily found a seam for Sea The Stars.
Sea The Stars has repeatedly proven he can run a quarter mile in under 23 seconds at any stage of a race, and that is simply faster than any other European horse in training. He went about two lengths up with a furlong remaining, and basically cruised the rest of the way.

There is no doubt at all that Sea The Stars could have won by a wider margin if Kinane had driven him out to the post, but the question for form readers—and indeed for history—is how much wider? A length? Two lengths? Three? It is impossible to know, so one has to guess. For me, I could not go any higher than 140, and even that is a bit of a stretch.

Take a look at the race here and decide for yourself

The most recent European-trained horse rated that highly is Dancing Brave, who earned a 140 rating in 1986, and, indeed, their records are very similar. Dancing Brave defeated the previously unbeaten Bering (who finished the race with a cracked knee) by two lengths (officially 1 ½, but clearly more than that) in that Arc. Like Sea The Stars, he had lost only once previously, when his jockey Greville Starkey, who did not believe Dancing Brave would stay 1 ½ miles, anchored him at the back of the field in the Epsom Derby and his brilliant finishing speed could not quite catch Shahrastani.

Dancing Brave beat Shahrastani (130) in the 1 1/2-mile King George when ridden more intelligently by Pat Eddery, and Shahrastani finished fourth in the Arc, beaten 4 lengths. Bering was rated 136, and Triptych, who finished third in the Arc, 132.
Sea The Stars is the best horse trained in Europe since Dancing Brave, and, as such, probably is worth of a rating around 140. That is considerably higher than one can rate any horse who has run in America this year, including Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. The one American performance that might arguably be in the same category is Rachel Alexandra's six-length defeat of Summer Bird in the Haskell, but the Monmouth track so consistently favors front runners that one has to take that margin with a large rock of salt.

Trainer John Oxx has always talked cautiously of running Sea The Stars in the Breeders' Cup Classic. If he does run, and if he handles the synthetic track at Santa Anita, he would not have to be at his very best to beat his American foes. Only Rip Van Winkle, who gave Sea The Stars his only real scare this year in the Eclipse Stakes, looks like a worthy opponent.