URBAN SEA AND HER LEGACY
Just after noon on Wednesday March 3rd 2009 at the Irish National Stud close to the ancient town of Kildare 30 miles south west of Dublin, the mare Urban Sea foaled a bonny bay colt by the stallion Invincible Spirit. She stood up and began to lick her son clean. The foal was well but she was not. Within minutes her extraordinary life had ended at the age of 20. Within 7 months, her three year old son Sea The Stars had ensured her place in immortality. Her story and that of her progeny, is one of the greatest examples yet of how the character and exploits of the thoroughbred racehorse can transform the lives of an astonishingly varied collection of people.
All the way from those actually in the stable to the millions who only read the newspapers or watch the action on television, there is a very real sense of being united in wonder.
On the track Urban Sea won fame in 1993 when taking Europe’s greatest race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe but she has become unique through the achievements of her children. No less than four of them scored at the highest Group One level, Galileo’s feats in winning the English and Irish Derbies seeming to be crown enough until Sea The Stars came along with his own unparalleled posthumous tribute culminating in his Prix de l’ Arc de Triomphe victory on October 4th 2009. Now he moves to stallion duties at the Aga Khan’s famous Gilltown Stud not five miles from the Irish National Stud where he too was foaled.
Sea The Stars’ half brother Galileo is already a wonderful sire. Urban Sea will now live on down the generations.Her life had begun on February 18th 1989 at the Denali Stud just to the west of Paris – not Paris, the great capital of France, but Paris the small town in the “Blue Grass” horse country of Kentucky in the USA. Urban Sea was a chesnut with a white star on her forehead. Her sire Miswaki had been a precocious talent in France. Her mother Allegretta, from a family of the famous German stud Gestut Schlenderhahn, had been a reasonable racehorse in England before being sold to America.
It was there, at the 1984 Keeneland November sale, that she caught the eye of the remarkable Professor Michel Henochsberg who combines his role of teaching economics at Paris University with being one of the most astute thoroughbred breeders on either side of the Atlantic. The $55,000 he spent on Allegretta on behalf of the breeding company Marystead Farm he shares with Marc de Chambure was the astutest trick of all.
For Allegretta became a formidable brood mare, her glory with Urban Sea being enhanced by also producing the brilliant 2000 Guineas winner King’s Best and the group winner Allez Les Trois who is herself the dam of the French Derby hero Anaabaa Blue. As befits the international nature of the bloodstock world, Allegretta’s little chesnut filly was on the move in the autumn. Once weaned, she was flown across the Atlantic to France to be raised at de Chambure’s renowned Haras d’Etreham in Normandy just a couple of miles inland from Omaha Beach, one of the main invasion points for the Allied landings on June 6th 1944.
It was there, in the summer of 1990, that Jean Lesbordes first set eyes on the horse that was going to change his life forever. A doctor’s son from the Les Landes district south of Bordeaux, he had given up everything to become a trainer, and after stages in other parts of France was operating very successfully in the premier training centre of Chantilly 40km north of Paris. So successfully that a wealthy Japanese businessman had commissioned him to get the best talent he could find. The chesnut filly by Miswaki was part of the Haras d’Etreham consignment to the Deauville yearling sales that August. For Jean Lesbordes it was love at first sight.
“When I was shown her in the paddocks,” he remembers, “ I loved her straightaway. My Japanese patron was prepared to back me so I was always sure I would have her. She was not perfectly pretty but very athletic. I really liked the way she carried herself and the look in her eye.” The filly was bought and taken back to Lesbordes stables at Lamorlaye just below the lip of Chantilly forest. She progressed well through the winter but her patron’s fortunes hit a near fatal decline. By March all 22 of his horses, including the filly he had called Urban Sea, would be off to the sales unless Jean Lesbordes could find a guardian angel from somewhere.
It was the timeliest of moments for Mrs Tsui to enter the scene.Already familiar with Paris in her earlier entrepreneurial career in the world of marketing and high fashion, Mrs Ling Tsui had relocated to the French capital in 1986 as CEO of China Cheers, the commercial arm of China Aerospace after running a major electronic firm back in China. “I had met her with some friends,” said Jean Lesbordes, “so I explained the position and she agreed to help. She and her family have been a huge support to me.”
One of that family was then only ten years old. At Jean Lesbordes stables he learnt to ride on an older and docile horse they called “Boulou” and as Urban Sea’s career developed the whole family was swept up. “It was an incredible time for all of us,” remembers Christopher Tsui, “especially for my mother. She didn’t have any experience before that of racing. But she learned so quickly and read so much. She is very interested in Chinese history and horses were very important in Chinese empires. She became very passionate very quickly about horse racing – its history, glamour and prestige. She loved Urban Sea very much.
When she was still in France she would go down to see her every weekend and she loved it.” Happily Jean Lesbordes could soon detect talent to complement the filly’s temperament. “We did not train her hard as a two year old,” he remembers, “as she was not ready and she had a little problem with her fetlock. But she could gallop all right. She was third at Evry and then won easily at Maisons Laffitte. You could see that she would give us some fun as a three year old.”
That was to prove an understatement although things didn’t begin too well when Urban Sea’s jockey fell off soon after the start of her opening race. But, after a warm up at Longchamp she had her first tilt at higher company in May when she travelled to Dusseldorf for the Arag Preis (The German 1000gns) and finished an unlucky third ridden by a certain Michael Kinane who would later ride both Galileo and Sea The Stars throughout their careers. Michael wasn’t able to ride her again but Urban Sea flourished nonetheless.
At the end of May she won a listed race at Longchamp, in June she was close up in the Prix de Diane (the French Oaks) at Chantilly, in July she was narrowly beaten at Evry, and in August she won the massively valuable Piaget d’Or at Deauville.
With Mrs Tsui’s internationalism and Jean Lesbordes’ ambition, France alone was never going to be enough. So after running third in Longchamp’s Prix Vermeille, six of her thirteen subsequent outings were on overseas territory. In October 1992 she ran second in the EP Taylor Stakes at Woodbine in Toronto, Canada. In April 1993 she followed up with a successful home comeback in Saint Cloud’s Prix Exbury.
In May she went to England a month later to run a photo finish second in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot. And then the golden, three-race winning sequence which led from Angers to Deauville to Arc triumph at Longchamp, was followed by the long journey to Tokyo to run in the Japan Cup in November. It says volumes for Urban Sea’s temperament and toughness that she campaigned on as a 5 year old despite her original fetlock injury continuing to give some trouble.
Indeed she won the prestigious Prix d’Harcourt first time out that final season and then finished third in the Group One Prix Ganay before returning to England to end her career running a close fourth in the Coronation Cup over the Derby course at Epsom. In all she had run 22 times in 4 seasons with 7 placings and 8 victories including that crowning triumph in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe to amass more than $1.7m in prize money.
As a racing career it had both entranced and enriched her connections more than anyone could have dared to hope. The chances of her being able to match that as a broodmare had to be remote, to surpass it surely impossible. Yet straightaway Urban Sea showed that she could rear a runner. Bred to the French Derby winner Bering she produced the colt Urban Ocean who, in the yellow silks of the Tsui family, won at Naas in Ireland at the first time of asking and went on to win three other of his 14 races including the Group Three Gallinule Stakes at The Curragh and actually ran 6th to Montjeu in the Irish Derby.
It was a good start but it would only get better. Bred to the English Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Lammtarra, Urban Sea next produced the filly Melikah who fetched 10million Francs at the Deauville yearling sales, won first time out in the blue silks of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable before being placed third in the Oaks at Epsom. Melikah was a classy horse but the next sibling was a champion. Bred to the legendary Coolmore stallion Sadler’s Wells, Urban Sea promptly foaled a legend of her own. Galileo not only became a great dual Derby winning racehorse but is already a champion sire with his son New Approach winning the Epsom Derby in 2008.
Unsurprisingly Urban Sea was bred twice more to Sadler’s Wells producing another Group One winner in Black Sam Bellamy who in 2002 won the Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Milan, and the mare had another classic placing when All Too Beautiful finished second in the 2004 Oaks at Epsom. But this amazing matron was far from done with and in 2002, now resident at the Irish National Stud, she foaled a chestnut filly by Giant’s Causeway who that December made history of her own by fetching a world record price of 1.8 million guineas at Tattersalls sale ring in Newmarket.
True to form the filly could run a bit too. Named My Typhoon and based in the USA, she won 9 of her 19 races with trainer Bill Mott including the Group One Diana Stakes at Saratoga. Her only other sibling to race before Sea The Stars, a Green Desert filly foaled in 2004 called Cherry Hinton, was so far from useless that she was second in a Group Three event and ran respectably behind Light Shift in the 2007 Oaks at Epsom. So by the time Urban Sea produced her big 64 kilo bay son of Cape Cross on April 6th 2006 Mrs Tsui could have sent him to the sales knowing that she could have the biggest players risking bankruptcy to buy him.
But she and the rest of the family and the friends made along the way had come much too far for that. They had chosen Cape Cross as a sire because of the exploits of his Oaks and Breeders’ Cup winning filly Ouija Board. Sea The Stars represented belief on the hoof.
For his racing career the big, handsome but unflashy looking colt would go to John Oxx’s Currabeg stable just on the other side of Kildare town at the southern edge of the Curragh training centre. John Clarke, the chief executive of the Irish National Stud would help advise on Mrs Tsui’s interests and Jean Lesbordes would come to give support whenever he could at the races. For Sea The Stars would not only be flying the flag for his remarkable dam but honouring the memory of two people integral to the story but no longer with us.
Through all her glory days in France Urban Sea had come to rely on Jean Lesbordes’ young son Clement as a rider and confidant in training mornings and those travel trips to Canada, England, Hong Kong, America and Japan. In 1997 Clement was killed in cycling accident in Chantilly. In Ireland, as Mrs Tsui expanded her broodmare band she came to rely more and more on Brian Grassick at whose Newtown Stud near Kildare she would board much of her stock. On January 7th 2009 Brian Grassick died of cancer.
As Sea The Stars reached towards the stratosphere this summer there were times when outsiders remarked at just how emotional his connections were about his success. What they were seeing was people not just awed by greatness but reminded by it of their own mortality. On March 3rd 2009, Urban Sea had died too. Sea The Stars has to ensure a living legacy for her and for those others who went before.
It had all started with that little foal in Paris, Kentucky and the range of international coincidences that brought her into contact with a family who took her to heart. “Urban Sea’s racing career brought our family great joy,” said Christopher Tsui, “and although my mother had no racing experience in the breeding business, she believed that Urban Sea could be the best mare in the world. She was right.”
The journey Sea The Stars had to make on Thursday October 29th was not a long one. The trip east across the Curragh plain from John Oxx’s stables to the Aga Khan’s Gilltown Stud near Kilcullen would take less than half an hour. But the voyage he now embarks on as a stallion is endless. If he is successful he can be a fountainhead down the ages.
He has arrived at somewhere not short either of history or of current ambition. In the Gilltown grounds there is an ancient fort tracing back 30 centuries to Neolithic times. In its time it has been owned by the King of Leinster, the Cistercian Order, Henry VIII and assorted English gentry to now being a central part of the group of studs from which the Aga Khan now develops the world’s most successful individual private breeding and racing operation.
Sea The Stars will be joining two of the Aga Khan’s own champions, the big-framed bay Azamour who won the Irish Champion Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in 2004/5, and the elegant gun metal grey Dalakhani who swept away with the Prix de Jockey Club (French Derby) and the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in the dazzling season of 2003.
He will also pass two statues of former champions. They are of Sinndar who in 2000 was the last horse before Sea The Stars to complete the Epsom Derby, Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe double and of Shergar whose 10 length Derby victory in 1981 remains one of the greatest images in the whole of the racing game. Sea The Stars may already merit a statue of his own but the memorial he and his supporters now seek comes not in bronze but in flesh and blood. Sea The Stars has made history. At Gilltown he has the chance to create it.