Stars align for gentleman Oxx to prove that sometimes nice guys do finish first
On March 31, 1979, a 28-year-old neophyte trainer saddled a horse called Orchestra in the Rank Cup at the Phoenix Park racecourse. The horse, owned by Lord Donoughmore who just five years earlier had been kidnapped by the IRA and held hostage for a week, finished first. He was John Oxx’s first winner.
ast forward 30 years. It’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe day in Longchamp and Oxx has never been so nervous. Sea The Stars has already won the Derby, the Irish Derby, the Eclipse Stakes, the Juddmonte International and the Irish Champion Stakes but his trainer feels this is the race that really matters.
“It was extremely anxious for him in the build-up,” Oxx recalled, “We really did not want him to lose. He had to win them all to be one of the greats, he had to. Nijinsky was beaten by an inferior horse in the Arc after winning the Triple Crown and it spoiled the whole thing.”
As they turned into the home straight, Sea The Stars was seven lengths off the lead, in eighth place, boxed in on the rails and looking doomed.
Then it all changed utterly. In one of the great moments in Irish racing history Mick Kinane found a gap and Sea The Stars surged past his rivals as though they were standing still. It was one of the most awesome displays of power the Arc had ever witnessed, evoking memories of Ribot and Sea Bird. Three lengths clear entering the final furlong, Sea The Stars was eased down to win by two.
Kinane told Oxx afterwards that he’d never ridden a horse which had had so much energy left at the end of a big race. Sea The Stars had confirmed his status as one of the immortals.
That day was John Oxx’s apotheosis. He rounded it off with a victory for Alandi in the Prix du Cadran which would prove to be his final Group One success.
The glory days have been few and far between over the past decade and last Monday’s announcement that he’ll retire at the end of the season wasn’t a huge surprise.
But few trainers have sparkled like Oxx did in his heyday. There were 35 Group One wins, 11 Classic victories and a succession of superb horses. Sea The Stars is the one which immediately springs to mind. As Oxx said: “You don’t get too many like him in 100 years.” But before Sea The Stars there was the great Sinndar which would have been the horse of a lifetime for most top trainers.
In 2000, Sinndar became the first horse to add the Arc to the English and Irish derbies. His nine-length victory in the Irish Derby was one of the finest performances ever seen at the Curragh. Johnny Murtagh was on board that day and his partnership with Oxx was one of the great Irish sporting double acts.
Murtagh joined Oxx’s stable at the age of 15 as an apprentice and they would combine for 17 Group One victories, including Ridgemont Pearl’s famous victory in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park.
The filly had already won Group One races in Ireland, England and France before Oxx brought her to the States where she triumphed by two lengths after a terrific battle with home fancy Fastness. Ridgemont Pearl was named European Horse of the Year as Sea The Stars would be 14 years later.
There were other extraordinary performers. Azamour won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and two Group Ones at Royal Ascot and was rated the third best horse in the world in 2005.
Alamshar overcame injury to do an Irish Derby/King George and Queen Elizabeth double in 2004. Timarida scored big-race wins in Ireland, France, Germany, the US and Canada.
Yet above all there was Sea The Stars. The way Oxx spoke about his most famous charge illustrates the special bond between man and horse known to racing people. “He was really easy to deal with. He was always quiet, he learned everything well. He was a lovely horse to have in every way. He was a gentleman.”
And so is John Oxx. Perhaps the best tribute of all to him is not a list of honours but last week’s testimony from the man who arrived at his yard a kid and left it a legend.
“When you leave home at 15 you need someone to look after you and that’s what John and Catriona did,” Johnny Murtagh told the Racing Post, “John was a real professional and a real gentleman. He never once lost his temper with me. He never got too excited when things were going well or too angry when things were going bad. He always stayed the same, he had a very level head.”
Can you say much better about anyone than that? Isn’t it the best way to be?