Superlatives and hyperbole abound in sport and horse racing is no exception. The sport is, if nothing else, a constant quest to improve and if perfection is the ultimate and unattainable goal, every step along the road is hailed.
Yesterday, at Longchamp racecourse at the end of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, Sea The Stars won his sixth Group 1 race of the season to add to the 2000 Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, Juddmonte International and Irish Champion Stakes. Victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the European middle-distance championship race, has assured Sea The Stars, trained in Ireland by John Oxx, truckloads of accolades and awards at the plethora of post-season awards ceremonies that festoon the sport of kings as indeed most other sports.
However, when two or more racing fans are gathered together or have access to the blogsphere, the question is always asked of any great horse - "how good is he (or she) ?"
It is very difficult to place any horse in the pantheon but I'm a racing man and I'll give it a try.
I've mentioned Dancing Brave and that's a good place to start. His performance in the 1986 Arc de Triomphe was visually the most exciting I've ever seen from a 3-y-o and he best a starstudded field of Group 1 winners. He won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and should have won the Derby at Epsom but won the King George at Ascot. However, he failed in the Breeders Cup and his reputation is based on just a couple of performances.
Mill Reef had the misfortune of coming up against Brigadier Gerard (of whom more anon) in the 1971 2000 Guineas but won the Derby and King George with ease and followed up with a brilliant win in the Arc. Unusually for a champion, he raced as a 4-y-o and won the Coronation Cup at Epsom before a broken leg ended his career. His achievements as a 3-y-o marginally surpass those of Dancing Brave and Timeform rate him just 1 lb higher at 141.
Brigadier Gerard was a contemporary of Mill Reef and defeated him in the 1971 2000 Guineas. He didn't run in the Derby but was unbeatable between a mile and ten furlongs in 1971 and 1972 racking up an extraordinary 15 Group 1 successes including the Champion Stakes twice and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes twice. Doubts about his stamina over twelve furlongs persisted throughout his career but there's little doubt he would have been a major contender for races like the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders Cup Classic had they existed. Timeform rate him at 144 and there's little question that he is the best 10-furlong horse of all time.
Sea Bird II has the highest Timeform rating of all, 145, and the manner in which he won races like the Derby, Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Arc in 1965 has to be seen to be believed. He won these races on the bridle and was never seriously challenged. The 1965 Arc was as strong as the one Dancing Brave defeated but Sea Bird slaughtered them, beating the French Derby winner by 6 lengths and the rest by 11 lengths or more. Again, the opportunities that exist now didn't then so it's hard to know what Sea Bird could have done but the manner of his victories suggests a special talent.
Where then does Sea The Stars fit ? In winning the 2000 Guineas , Derby and Arc he has, in my view, surpassed Dancing Brave and stands alongside Mill Reef. He hasn't yet put a series of great performances together like Brigadier Gerard and nor has he dominated in the way Sea Bird II did. Were he to go to America and win the Breeders Cup Classic, I think we could place him alongside Brigadier Gerard for reasons of longevity and versatility. He won't, I suspect, race as a 4-y-o which would offer the opportunity to enhance his reputation.
So, in my all-time list, he currently sits third behind Sea Bird II and Brigadier Gerard but not far behind either.
That's my view - the long winter nights will doubtless be filled by Flat racing fans arguing the very same.