By Paul Hayward
Crossing the line as Equinox sauntered home in the Japan Cup, Christophe Lemaire gave a little shake of his head and beamed as he tried unconvincingly to pat the horse's neck. Lemaire's disbelief was such that he went floppy with delight.
Championship races are not meant to be processions. Even legendary horses aren't supposed to be so superior to their contemporaries. While others bobbed and heaved with effort, Equinox arrived at the front in his races on the bridle, with Lemaire perched as if for a portrait painter. Then he would slip into a groove of precise, majestic speed, and kill the race.
Superiority on the scale Equinox displayed it contradicts everything we think about how competitive elite breeding and racing are. A Japan Cup or Dubai Sheema Classic is hard enough to win by half a length. But his wins in those races were outlandish.
Equinox's final outing before he was retired to stud bore a distinctly Japanese flavour: 85,000 spectators in Tokyo, a rolling surf of noise from the gate to the line, the local rituals of reverence and respect. But it would be wrong to call him merely Big in Japan. The safest measure of his status as the world's best racehorse was on the one occasion he left his country – then left everything else in the Sheema Classic for dead.
If you could take one Equinox victory to a desert island it would surely be the one in Dubai, which had the racecourse commentator calling him “the titan of the world's Turf.” The Sheema Classic was the highest expression of his brilliance. It added global fame to his notoriety in Japan and lustre to his stallion career in a country quietly building a bloodstock empire.
In Cheltenham Festival season, in March, the TV screen lit up with a performance of astonishing beauty. The Meydan replays never lose their power. On the turn into the stretch we see Equinox up the ante, and Mostahdaf, who has him in his sights, starts to run through tar. While he bobs and heaves under his jockey's urgings, Equinox merely organises himself into a smooth surge that takes him away from a top-class field.
The kind of horse that makes you want to tell non-racing
friends – stop what you're doing, and just watch this.
When a genius comes along in other sports we say they are playing a different game to everyone else. Equinox ran in different races – his own – much as Constitution Hill does in National Hunt racing. In the Sheema Classic, Lemaire merely nudges him down the reins into his full imperious velocity. Every sheikh in the house must have winced with envy.
Discarded in his wake that night were the subsequent Arc runner-up Westover, the Grosser Preis von Baden winner Zagrey and of course Mostahdaf, who won the Prince of Wales's Stakes and Juddmonte International. From that moment Equinox's admirers (and his owners) were on safe ground. Yes, the desire took hold to see him tackle the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and confront Ace Impact; but that became a dream match-up only after Ace Impact had won so impressively, not before.
Nobody dodged Equinox on his final appearance. For a moment the doomed optimism of the 2022 Dubai Turf winner Panthalassa in blasting 10 lengths clear at the final turn made the race look like a test for Japan's champion. Nor was he alone in possessing a top-class cv. The Japanese fillies' Triple Crown winner Liberty Island made the first move on Panthalassa but Equinox swept past her as if she were a pensioner hurrying for a bus.
Even Lemaire was taken aback – hence the shake of the head as they pulled up. “When we got into the final straight, the horse just reacted to the point that even I was surprised,” he said. “His acceleration was incredible. He's truly a super horse, smart, powerful and gentle, like a pony.”
That nobility shines through. His dark bay coat and white blaze are other distinguishing features, along with his work ethic, his eagerness to quicken. It's this desire that most fascinates me about the best horses. They want to do it – though Equinox 'did it' so easily he left you bemused by the apparent lack of exertion.
Now his owners have decided he's exerted himself enough and will join his sire Kitasan Black at Shadai Stallion Station. It's our loss, but he is four years old, and has won six top races in a row.
Boxing reporters used to like tracking down the first or last fighter to beat a great champion, because the search often led to a nightclub doorman or shelf stacker. Do Deuce has the distinction of being the last horse to beat Equinox, in the 2022 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby). Since then Do Deuce has finished 19th in the Arc (42 lengths behind Alpinista) and eight and a half and five and three quarter lengths behind Equinox in the Tenno Shun (Autumn) and Japan Cup respectively (his record since his neck win over Equinox is one victory in five).
Do Deuce was merely good. Equinox turned out to be supernatural: not only big in Japan but monstrous in Meydan: the kind of horse that makes you want to tell non-racing friends – stop what you're doing, and just watch this.