Ups And Downs Show Constant Class Of Oxx

|

John Oxx | racingfotos.com

By Chris McGrath

According to Chinese proverb, “a single conversation with a wise man is better than 10 years of study.” But that conversation is going to prove still more instructive if the wise man has himself just had a decade like that dividing John Oxx from the emergence of his greatest champion.

It is a study that perhaps teaches us more about people than horses. Ten years ago next Friday, Oxx saddled a 2-year-old colt by Cape Cross (Ire) for his first start at The Curragh, just over the road from a stable that counted Derby and Arc winner Sinndar (Ire) (Grand Lodge) among a litany of international stars since Ridgewood Pearl (GB) (Indian Ridge {Ire}) had won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1995: from stayers like Enzeli (Ire) (Kahyasi {Ire}) to sprinters like Namid (GB) (Indian Ridge {GB}).

As it happens, Sea The Stars (Ire) finished only fourth that day. But he was never beaten again, proving himself one of the most accomplished Thoroughbreds of the modern era in racking up six Group 1 wins the following year. In the process, the horse’s competitive ego appeared to expand into a limelight left vacant by his trainer’s innate humility.

In the years since, however, Oxx has been dropped by both the Aga Khan, owner of Sinndar and his principal patron until 2013, and the Tsui family, who owned Sea The Stars but moved their horses from Ireland in 2016. So far this season Oxx has been able to field 18 horses; just three of them winners. Nonetheless a conversation with this particular wise man remains an unchanging source of equilibrium in a changing world, without the faintest inflection of resentment or defensiveness. Instead there is such comforting familiarity to his bearing–benign, calm and modest–that you feel cheapened by your own sense of affront on his behalf.

“People were very upset,” he admits, quietly bemused. “More than I was, in a way. Of course I was upset, and it affected our business and our livelihood. But you know, I’ve been in this business all my life. I know what it’s like. I’m kind of mentally prepared for anything, and was probably the person–well, I won’t say least upset, but I wasn’t as upset as a lot of people around me, and a lot of people well disposed to me. I’m philosophical about it. That’s the way life is. The business should teach you that. It’s part and parcel of it.”

But if this mildness runs absolutely with the grain of Oxx’s character, nobody should confuse his resolute freedom from vanity with too meek or submissive a brand of fatalism. Here is a man who understands the corrosive nature of bitterness or blame; and who also grasps that the best redress lies within.

“I was just determined that we were going to come back from this,” he says. “Build up the stable again. I’m not saying I want big numbers. There is this tendency among trainers today to want huge numbers of horses. You see it in America, you see it in jump racing, and you see it now in Flat racing [in Europe] too. I trained a lot of horses in the past. But I have no ambition to train even 100 horses. I just want to train enough; to enjoy it; and to train for good horse people, the sort of people who have come along to me now, when I’m not doing well, when I’m not in lights all the time.

“You really appreciate people like that, and you enjoy working for them. It’s a pleasure to get up in the morning and work for the people I’m working for at the moment. I just need a few more of them. I think there’s an opening for an ambitious young trainer like me, who doesn’t want 200 horses and can hopefully offer people a better service; who has time to devote to their interests.”

The wry, deadpan delivery achieves an optimal balance between an instinct for self-deprecation and a quiet but no less authentic self-respect. This, after all, is a profession where experience should count for rather more than often seems to be the case. If you own the favourite for a Classic, and the horse comes up with a problem two days beforehand, would you rather your trainer was the latest fashionable young trainer, experiencing this particular issue for the first time–or John Oxx, trainer of 11 Classic winners, experiencing it for the 101st time?

If it is not his nature to volunteer that point, it is one Oxx is prepared to acknowledge. “When I think back earlier in my career, even when I was winning loads of races, I made plenty of mistakes too,” he admits. “All things being equal, if a trainer still has the enthusiasm for it, and the health for it, he should get better every year. Other things can come in the way, knock a trainer off kilter; he hasn’t the right facilities, perhaps, or the right staff. But all things being equal, you will get better, there’s no doubt.

“I always admire Ian Balding for doing so well with Mill Reef: he was actually very young. I only became a decent trainer in my forties. I started when I was 29, I’d qualified as a vet and thought I knew everything. I imagined that my father didn’t know half as much as me. But as you get older, you tend to find your father was more clever than you thought. In my forties, certain things started to drop [in place]. And then, when I had those really good horses–I had Ridgewood Pearl when I was 45–well, you really begin to learn things then. To see things you hadn’t before, and understand them. And then you see similarities.

“A few years before Sea The Stars, I had Azamour (Ire) (Night Shift) who was very similar to him in constitution, mentally and physically. And that prepared me. They both ate more, under pressure, than any other horses I’ve ever had. Horses will eat tons of feed when they’re not under pressure, but when they’re in hard work and racing, a lot of them go off a little bit. But those two thrived on it. They could work to a different beat to the rest. And so they just got better and better.”

Aidan O’Brien having shared similar insights about the vocational appetite of Galileo (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells), you wonder about the half-brothers’ dam Urban Sea (Miswaki). Perhaps all those breeders seeking some holy grail should simply be concentrating on sheer physiological capacity?

“Everything is inherited,” Oxx replies. “The longer you train horses, the more you realise that. When you train for someone like the Aga Khan for 25 years, you see the same thing, even little things, coming down through families. Urban Sea must have been hardy and tough: Jean Lesbordes ran her everywhere, in all sorts of races–and she kept coming back, and then goes and wins the Arc at the end of it. And temperament is the most transmissible of all the traits. Talent gets diluted by mares much more easily than temperament. Temperament just seems to stick and stick. So good temperament and toughness, like these horses have, is a huge asset in a stallion.”

With all due respect for Oxx’s determination to look forward, it would be churlish to ignore the anniversary that has brought us to his door. And, with the legacy of Sea The Stars enriched at Royal Ascot by Stradivarius (GB) and Crystal Ocean (GB), we should celebrate anew the mastery and adventure with which Oxx first promoted his genetic wares. Having seen the unbeaten records of other champions defended with increasing nervousness, in fact, you wonder whether it actually helped that Sea The Stars did not win on debut?

“Michael Kinane, particularly as he got older, was very gentle on horses having their first run,” Oxx recalls. “He always said you have to leave them with a good taste in their mouth. When I was young and foolish, I used to have them pretty ready to win first time out, if they could. But as you go along you change a bit. Mick gave him a nice, educational run: in between horses, boxed in a bit at the fence, got out towards the end and finished strongly. He could have won with a clear run but it served its purpose and he went on to win easily at Leopardstown a few weeks later.”

After that, relentlessly, with each start the horse dug another seam in that mine of physical and mental toughness. “That’s why I always told people I never knew how good he was,” he says. “Because at some stage, very often, they crack. Nashwan (Blushing Groom {Fr}) cracked. He was a box-walker. I don’t think we realised that at the time. The Major [Dick Hern] got him as far as the King George but then he flopped in the Prix Niel. And Nijinsky was a temperamental horse. It might be that only Vincent could have got him there. But he cracked a little, in the Arc. He got very worked up and sweated a lot before the race. Slightly unusual, perhaps, for a great horse to be as hot as that.”

When Sea The Stars rounded off his own career at Longchamp, Oxx was immune to the general alarm when he still had so much to do. The horse’s exuberance had been matched, since Epsom, by consecutive runs at 10 furlongs. “And Aidan always helped us, in that he always had pacemakers!” smiles Oxx. “He always had it in his head to get this fellow working four furlongs from home. But sure all he was doing was helping us. The horse had so much speed they could never get him off the bridle.

“In the Arc they didn’t set off at a mad gallop, so I was a little anxious the first two furlongs, when he just started shaking his head. But then Mick got him back, and I could see then he had him settled. After that I wasn’t too worried. Everybody else was, because he seemed to be far back; but the main opponents weren’t too far in front of him. He could do anything, you know, anything. It was a great relief, of course, having seen Nijinsky, this unbeaten hero of mine, lose the Arc to an inferior horse. That was a heartbreaker at the time and I didn’t want that to happen to our lad.”

Nijinsky remains the last Triple Crown winner in Britain, and there was pressure to let Sea The Stars add the third leg in the St Leger. But Oxx remains in no doubt that the horse was better able to manifest his talent in the Irish Champion S., where he achieved his highest rating. At the same time, Oxx would have liked to do a service for the reputation of staying races. He believes that a great horse is indifferent to distance, using the recent example of Justify (Scat Daddy) rolling along in his usual fashion in the Belmont.

“Breeders are always confusing distance with speed,” he says. “They don’t realise the difference between real class and just precocity and an ability to win over short distances. Occasionally you get a dominant sprinter but most of the time there isn’t a few lengths between good handicappers and Group 1 winners. Very often they’re interchangeable. So what does that tell you? People buy cheap horses in the hope they’ll make an Ascot 2-year-old, but an awful lot of nice types are sacrificed on that altar. I do think there’s a drift away from knowing what class is.”

That said, Oxx relishes training sharper types. Unfortunately he often finds himself a victim of his own patience, tending to receive more backward types instead. Just one dimension, this, of the kind of reinvention that might restore Oxx, as a trainer, to a standing commensurate with that he has never lost, as a gentleman.

For it is in adversity that you can best measure dignity. In Oxx, it is so deep-rooted, so natural, that he never needed the props of self-regard or self-satisfaction in the days of Sea The Stars. And nor, by the same token, does he require defensive spikes of acrimony now. The circumstances of his business may change, but both that dignity and his professional intuition remain invincibly the same.

Just because he remains as understated now as in his pomp, however, do not underestimate the resilience and determination underpinning the expertise and seasoning he can summon for each new horse. This has been recognised by Godolphin, among others. Oxx does not want anyone to feel sorry for him, and is unsurprisingly and scrupulously courteous in his reflections on the patrons who left his stable for their different reasons. But nor would he want anyone to imagine that he has embraced some kind of semi-retirement.

“We’ve been working harder than ever, myself and my wife, to get the business back on an even keel,” he says. “When the Aga Khan left, I knew we’d slip down to the bottom of the ladder and that it would take a few years to get back. It’s been difficult, and there’s a lot to do yet. As I said, we’re not trying to get huge numbers but we need more than we have. We haven’t had an economical number for years, and that’s something we can’t live with any longer.

“But I’m hopeful now. We’ve good clients, and nice people too. As you go along you realise how important that is. Some have been with us right through, some have come back after the recession, but most are new people who have come to me when I wasn’t in the top flight any more.

“It might seem I’ve had a raw deal. But I’ve had great owners over the years. I don’t find owners difficult, in general. I think they need time, and plenty of communication. That’s a big failing of some trainers, they don’t communicate properly, they’re not diplomatic, don’t listen. So yes, maybe a young, up-and-coming trainer like me, who’s not going to train 200 horses and has a bit of experience, might have something to offer.”

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.