10/08/2009 11:00PM

Let's rein in that 'greatest horse ever' talk


NEW YORK - By all overseas accounts and even to an American eye that has seen him only on tape, Sea the Stars is clearly an outstanding racehorse. By most of those same accounts, however, he also is allegedly one of the four or five greatest racehorses ever to look through a bridle.

What am I missing? What exactly has this obviously excellent colt accomplished in an 8-for-9 career that prompts even Time magazine to ask if he is the "greatest racehorse ever"?

The point here is not to denigrate an admirable soon-to-be champion but to question the level of superlatives surrounding him and the seemingly different standards used to define greatness in American and European racing.

As Europeans never tire of telling us, we Americans are admittedly simpleminded. When we talk about our greatest racehorses, we bolster our arguments with crass things like facts and figures.

We don't say that Secretariat had a lovely way of going and a magnificent turn of foot - we note that he set track records in all three legs of the Triple Crown and won the Belmont by 31 lengths. We recall that Spectacular Bid set six track records while winning 26 of 30 starts and that no one even showed up to run against him in his final career start. More recently, we cite Rachel Alexandra's 2009 campaign as perhaps the best ever by a 3-year-old filly, with 19- and 20-length victory margins and three triumphs against colts in Grade 1 races.

Sea the Stars has done nothing wrong since finishing fourth in his debut 15 month ago. He won his next two starts, then returned as a 3-year-old to post six straight Group 1 victories. He achieved an unofficial triple - the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, and Arc de Triomphe - that had never been done before in one season. He set one course record, when he won the Juddmonte International at York.

In the Arc last Sunday, he won by two lengths over Youmzain, who finished second in the race for the third consecutive year. Youmzain was beaten a head by Dylan Thomas in 2007 and two lengths by Zarkava last year. There has been no suggestion, before or after the Arc, that Youmzain is any better this year than he was last October, so it remains unclear why Sea the Stars is vastly superior to Zarkava, much less every other champion who has ever graced the European turf.

Sea the Stars may or may not make one final start in the Breeders' Cup next month before going to stud, but this amounts to a single championship season and a premature retirement. (Yes, Secretariat was retired at the end of his 3-year-old season, but had been a champion at 2 and made 21 career starts in his 16 months on the track.)

It is curious that amid the mountain of praise for Sea the Stars, there has not been a single call for him to remain in training, to beat next year's 3-year-olds as an older horse or to try to win the Arc a second time. His owner, the Hong Kong nightclub impresario Christopher Tsui, is routinely described in the British press as "immeasurably wealthy." If you own what everyone is telling you is the greatest racehorse ever, and you don't need the money a year sooner, why whisk him off to stud?

It's just as curious that his handlers have said he will run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, rather than the Turf, if he comes to California at all. He would be heavily favored in the Turf over Conduit, the defending race winner and divisional champion. In the Classic, he would be trying a synthetic surface on which he might or might not reproduce his form. If he's the greatest turf horse ever, shouldn't he run in the Turf?

In any case, he's a horrible proposition as the 4-5 antepost favorite for the Classic, the price that British bookmakers already are generously offering on him in a race for which he is no better than even money to be entered.

Then there's the small matter of the record of Arc winners in Breeders' Cup races. The 11 Arc winners who have run in the cup have all been beaten, 10 of them in the Turf and one in the Classic. I can already hear the dissenting murmurs from over the pond: Those horses were over the top, some of them were unlucky, they weren't Sea the Stars. Maybe, but those weren't the murmurs at the time.

Maybe Sea the Stars really is better than those 11 Arc winners and the rest of the pantheon, but neither running him in the Classic nor retiring him as a 3-year-old is going to prove it.