'I am Delighted That he has a Top Miler in Baaeed – I had Been Waiting for That'

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Sea The Stars | Racingfotos.com

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Kick-starting a new weekly Q&A series in TDN Europe, former champion trainer John Oxx, whose spellbinding career will forever be remembered through his masterful handling of Sea The Stars (Ire) (Cape Cross {Ire}), Sinndar (Ire) (Grand Lodge) and Ridgewood Pearl (GB) (Indian Ridge {Ire}), sat down with Brian Sheerin to talk all things racing and breeding. The dual Derby-winning trainer speaks about Epsom, how delighted he is that Sea The Stars has a top-notch miler in Baaeed and his life in retirement.

 

Brian Sheerin: There are few weeks in the Flat racing calendar quite like this one. It must evoke some special memories?

John Oxx: Of course it brings back great memories for us given we had two great horses-Sinndar and Sea The Stars-who were lucky enough to win the race. I didn't have many runners in the Derby over the years but it was a good race for us. There's always great excitement because the Derby comes up quite early in the year and most horses going into the race are not completely tested. They certainly haven't been tested over the distance, never mind the track. It's always a bit of a mystery and nobody knows for sure what will happen in the Derby which I think is part of the great appeal of the race. The pecking order has yet to be established and you can get surprises. On the first Saturday in June, the whole slate is wiped clean and the result is there for everyone to see as the Derby is usually won by the best horse. Suddenly, the whole story becomes a lot clearer, and that's what makes the Derby and the Oaks so exciting.

 

BS: What attributes do you need to win a Derby? I know Donnacha O'Brien was speaking about a good mentality being a huge asset which is why he is confident about a big run from Piz Badile (Ire) (Ulysses {Ire}).

JO: Some people were advocating for the Derby to be run later in the year. There was debate in the industry paper about whether the date was correct or not. Of course, that is all nonsense because the whole point of the Derby is that it comes up early and that's what makes it a tougher test. The test, as Donnacha explained, is mental. For a horse to be ready to run in the Derby, to get a mile and a half early in June, to have run as a 2-year-old and have very little time off in the winter–none at all really–and then train through the early spring and put up with all that pressure. It's not meant to be easy. I didn't realise all it took to win a Derby until I had the responsibility of training a few horses to run in it and try and win it. The horses who can come through and win it, they have to be tougher, physically and mentally.

 

BS: Sinndar and Sea The Stars charted quite different paths to Epsom glory, didn't they?

JO: Yes. Sinndar was always a nice horse, a lovely looking horse with a marvellous temperament and he won his maiden before just scraping home in the G1 National S. as a juvenile. He looked to me like a horse who might run a place in a Derby–he was lazy at home and didn't look like a horse who had the brilliance to win the race. However, while he was still lazy at home as a 3-year-old, he went to the Ballysax at Leopardstown with a seven-pound penalty and got beaten by a race-fit rival [Grand Finale (Ire) (Sadler's Wells)], but I came home from the races that day thinking Sinndar could win the Derby. He was much better than what he had been showing at home, much better than I thought he was. He won the Derrinstown Derby Trial by a neck, but again he was carrying a seven-pound penalty for his Group 1 win at two, and beat a good horse of Aidan's [O'Brien] called Bach (Ire). Sinndar was deceptive. Every time he ran he got better and his rating jumped. That's the way he was right through the year. We had gotten to know him by the autumn and we really fancied him for the Arc.

Sea The Stars was a different kettle of fish altogether. We could see the potential brilliance even when he was a big 2-year-old who was always going to develop with the benefit of time. He did well as a 2-year-old to win the G2 Beresford S. and we knew he had plenty of speed and class so we had to let him take his chance in the Guineas. It was a great achievement for him to win at Newmarket because he had a high temperature on Mar. 17 and, to overcome that and then come out and win the Guineas, I think the sparkle was only coming back the week of the race but he still won it comfortably. I know he held a little back in his homework, but you could see that he was a brilliant horse at home who had that mental strength and physical constitution to get over that temperature, win the Guineas and then come out a few weeks later and win at Epsom. He had more ability than you ever expect to find in a horse.

 

BS: Both horses went on to win the Arc in the autumn. It might be in your instinct to try and deflect praise here but, there is obviously huge skill involved in keeping a 3-year-old colt sweet from the spring right through to the end of the autumn. You did it twice. What was your secret?

JO: The secret is to have a very good horse! You can't burn the candle at both ends with horses if you want them to go on to the end of their 3-year-old year. Sinndar had two runs as a 2-year-old and Sea The Stars had three runs as a 2-year-old but they didn't have a gruelling juvenile campaign. They just did enough and gained enough experience. They were ready for their big engagements at three and were just good horses that were trained appropriately. What I mean by that is, Sinndar had his little break after winning the G1 Irish Derby, as that's what His Highness wanted. That's the way the French do it, they get as far as the French Derby and then rest the horse before giving them a trial before the Arc. That was the modus operandi of his highness at the time so that's what we did.

Obviously Sea The Stars was different. He had the brilliance to do it but he also had the physical constitution and the mental strength. He had everything. After he won the Guineas and the Derby, we knew he was one of the greats but to prove it, he had to run up a sequence of major races right throughout the season. Luckily we were able to get him through it and we just had to keep him healthy and keep him in a nice routine. The key is keeping them calm and happy in their work and not overfacing them. They have to enjoy their working life and then they will keep performing for you.

 

BS: I was struck by another comment you made once. You said that it was the everyday training of Sea The Stars that was the real pleasure. The race days were just pure relief

JO: Oh yes, it was a great privilege to train high-class horses. That's what keeps trainers going. That's what gets trainers up out of bed in the day. We felt with Sea The Stars in particular that, although it was a great responsibility and there were anxious times, it was also a great privilege and I certainly appreciated it. Sea The Stars was just a magnificent-looking creature. Just watching him, his behaviour and his attitude towards his work, being there looking at him every day and at evening stables, feeling his legs and then just standing back and admiring him, it was just a great pleasure. Yes, the race days were just a relief to see him go by the post in front. When it was all over and he'd won the Arc, I just sat down and I said, 'wow, imagine that. Imagine having a horse like that through your hands.' It was a mixture of tremendous relief, satisfaction and gratitude.

 

BS: Sea The Stars had brilliance over a range of different trips and we are seeing that through his progeny. Do you get much pleasure out of watching his sons and daughters on the track?

JO: I do, of course. He was a great horse with a great pedigree and he almost couldn't fail as a stallion. But we have seen horses disappoint at stud who had a lot of qualities. When they have that combination of great ability, good looks and pedigree, like Frankel has, too, it's nearly impossible for them not to be successful. I'm delighted to see him now with a top miler in Baaeed (GB) because I had been waiting for that. He's had good horses at a mile, plenty of them, but to get a real star miler like Baaeed, it's something I had been waiting for as Sea The Stars was a Guineas winner himself. Distance was no problem for him. He could have sprinted, he could have gone a mile, he could have gone two miles if he wanted to. He just had that superior engine and it's great to see him with Baaeed. From what I read, Baaeed seems to have his father's temperament as well. I watch the results all the time to see what's coming along for Sea The Stars.

 

BS: Have you any thoughts on the fact that Crystal Ocean (GB), one of his most talented sons, was not given a chance to prove himself as a Flat stallion?

JO: It's an unfortunate state of affairs that very good horses are shunned by breeders because they're mile-and-a-half winners or, in their eyes, were slow maturing. It's the way of the world at the moment and we can't do a lot to change it. Everyone is aware of the importance in keeping stamina in the breed and keeping those genes alive. There have been some changes made to the racing programme, giving better opportunities to horses in the staying category and boosting prize-money for those races, to try over a period of time to make yearlings who are bred to stay that little bit more popular in the sales ring.

The reason why people want sharp, early 2-year-olds is perfectly understandable. There are good commercial reasons for trainers and bloodstock agents to buy something sharp that might get a quick result for their owners. You can understand why owners would want it as well. You can't change that and I'm not saying we should. We just need to keep an eye on the distance as well because the thing about distance is that, horses race with their lungs and their cardiovascular system, and the superior athletes are the ones with the best respiratory system and the best cardiovascular system. That's the engine. The horses with the big engine have speed with more stamina. They don't stop.They keep going. That comes from their genes. If you don't breed for that, the gene pool is being diminished. If you just go for sprinters and nothing else, over time, the quality of the product will diminish. We are competing on the international stage and you'd like the product here to remain competitive here.

 

BS: Is there a certain jurisdiction that we should aspire to be like?

JO: We have to heed what is staring us in the face, which is the success of the Japanese horses. It has been there for several years but it has become obvious to a wider audience recently. In Japan, most of the bigger races are run over longer distances and up to two miles. The stallion farms are populated by horses who won these straying races, raced on as 4- and 5-year-olds and had plenty of races. They are producing some of the world's best horses every year. I read the TDN's report on last Sunday's Japanese Derby which stated that the first two horses home ran the last three furlongs in :33.6 seconds. To do that at the end of one and a half miles shows real quality. Speed and stamina equals a big engine and those are the genes that you would like to keep in the Thoroughbred.

 

BS: When you are speaking about horses who stay the trip I can't help but think about the Triple Crown. How close did you come to aiming Sea The Stars at the Triple Crown and were there ever any regrets that you didn't?

JO: It would be a dream to train a Triple Crown winner. It was marvellous to see Nijinsky II (Northern Dancer) do it and he was one of my heroes. To think that I would have had a chance to win the Triple Crown with Sea The Stars and that I'd dismiss it pretty quickly when I had the chance to do it is amazing really because I would have grown up thinking it would be the ultimate achievement for a horse. However, the owner was not keen on the idea for a start and, while I was given a free hand to train the horse as if he were mine, I knew their feelings. It would have been a formality for him. He would have followed them around at the rear and skirted past them at the end because great horses like that, as I have said, if they have a big engine like he did, distance does not matter. They just keep going. They don't stop and an extra couple of furlongs doesn't make any difference to them.

The commercial market wouldn't agree but winning the Triple Crown really does mean something when it comes to assessing a horse's capabilities but we're not going to see many of them in Europe again. It's still possible, with all the good stallions we have capable of siring such horses, but will we ever see one? As it turned out, running in the Irish Champion S. was his only chance to run in Ireland, having missed the Irish Derby due to the weather, and he beat a good field and actually won by a bit of distance that day, which he normally didn't. He normally just did enough. He earned his highest rating that day so it worked out better for the horse in the end.

 

BS: The Triple Crown remains a hot topic in America. They are suggesting tampering with the dates of the races. I know you have some views against that.

JO: Just because something is difficult to win and not many horses can do it, that's not a good reason to change it. Making it easier to achieve isn't necessarily the right thing to do as it's supposed to be tough and it's supposed to be a test. I think most people realise that. The Triple Crown in America is tough to win but it's been done many times and is still achievable. It also goes back to my earlier points on stamina. The Americans like speed but they also want to see their horses carry their speed around two turns and stay the gruelling 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. It is still every American owner's dream to win the Kentucky Derby.

BS: Getting back to the Derby, what do you make of this year's race?

JO: As usual, it's all up for grabs on Saturday and we don't know what's going to happen. Desert Crown (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}) looks a very worthy favourite. He was an impressive 2-year-old winner but has just had the one run this year. I am sure Sir Michael would have liked to get two runs into him this year, but he seems to be happy with him and he knows what he's doing. I also liked Stone Age (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) at Leopardstown where he won easily. He's a battle-hardened warrior who has had enough runs as a 2-year-old and seems to have done well from two to three with two good wins under his belt this year. I like the look of him because he's so experienced. There are other good horses in there so it should be exciting to watch.

 

BS: How do you approach Derby week now that you are retired?

JO: I am happy to sit at home and watch it on television. I am not a frustrated trainer. I am happy to be watching and not having to worry about it. It used to be an anxious time and I am not sorry to be away from the anxiety of the whole thing.

 

BS: It could be another big weekend for Sea The Stars with Emily Upjohn (GB). John Gosden has been quoted as comparing her to Taghrooda (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}). She appears to have outstanding claims in the Oaks.

JO: She does and if John is comparing her favourably to Taghrooda that's a big recommendation. They are different types of fillies. Taghrooda was a lovely medium-sized filly, as far as I remember, and while I haven't seen Emily Upjohn in the flesh, I believe she is quite big. Obviously she is a fluent mover and is well balanced. I hope she is as good as Taghrooda because she was a smashing filly.

 

BS: Emily Upjohn's story is quite an interesting one and proves that Classic contenders can slip through the net.

JO: Yes. She was in Book 2 at Newmarket and I believe she was a very big yearling. She was good looking and moved well and must have had plenty of good qualities if Tom Goff bought her. People don't like them too big and don't want them to take too much time and she just wasn't commercial, even though she has a very good pedigree on the dam's side, one of the Aga Khan's best families. She was certainly very well bought at the price regardless of her recent good form. Everyone will look at it now and think they were asleep that day!

 

BS: You can't really mention the Derby without speaking about Lester Piggott. How did you remember him when you heard the sad news of his passing on Sunday?

JO: Lester was a one-off and will always be most closely associated with Epsom where his great skill was best advertised. People tried to copy his style and he put a whole generation of young jockeys on the wrong path as they all wanted to ride short like him but none of them were able to do it. He was a great jockey with brilliant instincts. He'd nerves of steel and was so focussed and determined. He just had that mental grit and went from one race to the next without letting success or failure have any affect on him. People were very interested in him not only because he was a great jockey but because he didn't talk much and kept a poker face which made him mysterious and added to his charisma.

 

BS: You have retired but your famous Curragbeg Stables remain a soundtrack to horses

JO: Yes. We are delighted to have John and Jody O'Donoghue here. They have started well and have a small string, nearly all of which are 2-year-olds. In fact, I think he has only one 3-year-old, and he has managed to win with that already. He has one nice early 2-year-old and he has won with that as well. They are a very capable and able couple and I am very impressed by the way that John is going about the job and the decisions that he's making and the way that he's running the place. I think they have a great future and we are looking forward to being a part of it all with them.

 

BS: And what is driving John Oxx?

JO: I have always been very interested in the breeding side of things and, now that I am retired, I have more time to keep up with what is going on around the world. I read a lot more and am a big fan of TDN. It's a great publication. I enjoy having that little bit more time. I am also very fortunate that Kirsten Rausing asked me to do some work for her at Staffordstown Stud and it's a great pleasure to go up there and be involved in her operation. I am very lucky that she asked me to become involved. She had a tremendous year in 2021, particularly with Alpinista (GB) (Frankel {GB}) winning three Group 1 races, and Sandrine (GB) (Bobby's Kitten), who has already run well in the 1000 Guineas, so we are really looking forward to her this season as well. Just rewards in all her efforts in building up her families.

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