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.


  1. John, I think your analysis is sound, but after watching the race a few times, I'm inclined to actually rate the Arc performance higher because of what the horse had to do to get clear. No ordinary "top" horse could have made the move he did to find the seam and exploit it as he did. Here's a baseball analogy: A ball gets hit into the hole at deep short, and most shortstops might not even have the range to get to the ball; some might, but they might not be able to make the play -- but you couldn't give them an error because they got to the ball. The exceptional shortstop gets to the ball, back hands it in the hole, and has the gun to get the runner out by a step. In essence, that's what Sea the Stars did -- but he actually got the runner out by a few steps comfortably, which makes his play even more impressive.

  2. So you think he deserves a higher rating than 140-141? I agree it was a terrifically impressive performance, well worthy of a truly great horse. Was it Sea-Bird trouncing Reliance by 6? No. Was it Ribot beating Talgo by 8 or 9 (officially 6, but then it's the French)? No. Was it even as good as Mill Reef beating Pistol Packer by 3, with Cambrizzia third and Caro fourth? Maybe, but I can't see it being better than that, and Mill Reef was rated 141 that year.
    Isn't comparative form over the generations fascinating?

  3. Good summary. I saw both Dancing Brave and Sea The Stars, and consider the latter to be a better horse. Let's not forget that he dominated the 2000 Guineas as well, and it is exceedingly rare for a horse to be able to beat top milers and 12f. horses.

    Incidentally, as an aside, Shahrastani flipped out before the King and Queen – completely washed out –so that race was not an accurate form-line. (And as a truly esoteric aside, I bet the good older horse Shardari each-way at 7/1; he finished second to Dancing Brave.)

    I'd say that a rating of 140 is in order for STS, and agree that he should not be considered close to the equal of the likes of Sea Bird, or the absolutely brilliant Brigadier Gerard.

  4. comparative form is fascinating, yes. i'd rate STS in the Mill Reef category, 140-142. he has the guineas that SB doesn't, he's raced in Eng, Ire, Fr., he's beaten everyone that's run against him this year, and he's once-defeated like SB....i'm personally not one to put too much stock in wide-margin wins as an absolute; goldikova, for instance, won huge, was said to be better than miesque by her trainer (the rider of miesque), then was beaten by an ordinary horse.....and, let's face it, she's no miesque -- a filly that never did more than she had to to win, like STS.....the baseball analogy is, he's the ss with the great clock, and he never has to use full arm strength to throw the runner out, except when he has to, and then you saw wow

  5. A truly spectacular performance by Sea the Stars in the Arc. Even most of the great ones would've been beaten on such a day. The close-ups from the replay were more telling for me than the race itself.

    Beyond pulling at Mick Kinane in the early going, in theory wasting energy, he was shuffled back at least once by traffic, had to fight more traffic on his way forward (thick enough to make most horses have second thoughts) and always had an extra gear when the holes -- some of which were barely cracks -- opened up.

    I'm not sure he could've won by a considerably greater distance. A length, maybe more, but I doubt three. To really get into speculation, "if" he settles early, "if" he doesn't get bumped and shuffled back, "if" he gets a clearer path to the front a little earlier, could he win by eight? Ten? ... Might not be out of the question.

    As it was, he was clearly the best horse in a large, talented group in one of the world's biggest races on one of the racing world's biggest days. And a 3-year-old in that group, to boot.

    Shockingly, the BHA credited him with but a 131 for his Arc performance and left his rating at 135, based, it seems, solely on the final margin of victory over Youmzain and other "solid yardsticks" in arrears.

    And a cheer, by the way, for Youmzain, and his brilliantly frustrating accomplishment of being second in the Arc three straight times.

  6. Genn, we were referring to the Timeform rating. He was given a provisional Timeform 140 after the Irish race.

  7. I'm just catching up over here. ... Thanks for the clarification for my dense self.