Is Sea the Stars the Best Racehorse of All Time?

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Charles Platiau / Reuters

Irish jockey Mick Kinane and Sea the Stars, left, win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe

Man o'War in the 1920s. Phar Lap in the '30s. Secretariat in the '70s. Dancing Brave in the '80s. The debate over horse racing's greatest ever flat runner has always been as contested as a Breeders' Cup — and it just got hotter. Sea the Stars, an Irish-trained colt that darted to victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Oct. 4, might just be the greatest of them all.

No other horse has combined success in the Arc — France's blue-ribbon event — with wins at top-flight English races the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby. What's more, Sea the Stars' two-length victory at Longchamp was his sixth in Europe's tough Group One races in as many months. The horse, says Frankie Dettori, a leading jockey who trailed Sea the Stars in the Arc, is "in a class of his own."

That he won despite appearing boxed in and off the pace for much of Sunday's race speaks not just of his dazzling turn of speed but of his ability to maneuver; Irish jockey Mick Kinane threaded the horse through holes in the field that were invisible to other eyes. That Sea the Stars has maintained his form over six grueling months — from the lung-busting sprint in May's 2,000 Guineas to the undulations of Epsom in June — is an even greater achievement.

The next challenge for his handlers: should they risk the reputation of the horse, owned by a Hong Kong businessman, at next month's Breeders' Cup Classic in California? After Dancing Brave won the Arc in 1986, the English-trained horse's career ended on a disappointing note at the same U.S. track. Besides, Sea the Stars, foaled by American mare Urban Sea, herself an Arc winner in 1993, could be worth $160 million if he is retired to stud.

Whatever happens, Sea the Stars' success has brought out the best in sport. Racehorses aren't rewarded for their efforts with sneaker contracts and salary hikes. In an age of gazillionaire baseball players and soccer stars, a competitor that races for nothing other than a win lifts the image of sport and the spirit of fans. It's what made Seabiscuit so popular during the Depression — and what makes Sea the Stars so illustrious now.