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The amazing tale of the Arc heroine who changed lives and racing forever

Lee Mottershead looks back 25 years to a remarkable champion in Paris

Urban Sea (12) beats White Muzzle and Opera House in the 1993 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
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Published in the Racing Post on October 7, 2018

Every part of this perfectly true story appears improbable and is much the better for it.

The beginning, the middle and the end are all as wonderfully unlikely as each other, yet as new postscript chapters continue to be written, there is not really an end at all. The legacy of what Urban Sea achieved on an October afternoon 25 years ago lives on to this very day.

There has surely never been a more successful broodmare than the horse who in 1993 fought valiantly under Eric Saint-Martin to land the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Through her children and her children's children she has left an indelible stamp on the sport, her name present in the pedigrees of countless superstars.

Every one of her nine sons and daughters who raced gained black type. Four of them won at the highest level.

Through her outstanding stallion son Galileo she features in the bloodline of the last two Arc winners, Found and Enable.

Through Sea The Stars, like Galileo a Derby champion at Epsom, she became an Arc winner who bred an Arc winner. As icing on the cake, Urban Sea and Sea The Stars both raced for the Hong Kong-based Tsui family that now seeks to conquer the Arc for the third time with Sea Of Class, daughter of Sea The Stars and granddaughter of Urban Sea.

The mighty Sea The Stars proves far too good for the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe field

David Tsui, in whose name Urban Sea competed, and son Christopher, owner of Sea The Stars, will be at Longchamp to see if Tsui jnr's Sea Of Class can make only their third trip to the Arc another winning one. Absent, due to nerves and superstition, will be the lady connecting them, David's wife and Christopher's mother, Ling Tsui, who knew nothing about horses until dramatically acquiring 45 of them.

One of those horses was Urban Sea, who she bought for a second time 12 months before the filly's Arc triumph. Utterly devoted to her chestnut girl, she then bought her for a third time a few years later. The person doing the selling on this occasion was her husband. He was not aware the person doing the buying was his wife.

The punter who invested £1,000 each-way on Urban Sea at 66-1 was inspired but also helped by good fortune. The Tsuis would probably say the same about themselves. It was certainly their good fortune to have Jean Lesbordes enter their lives.

The way in which he entered was somewhat unusual, absolutely in keeping with most aspects of this tale. Entrepreneur Ling, then living in Paris, was meeting Chinese government minister Sun Jiadong when she received an urgent phone summons from her lawyer Patrick de Watrigant. After quickly arranging a trip for the minister to the Champs-Elysees, she hurried to the office of De Watrigant, who she found alongside what she described as "a large, very emotional Frenchman".

Lesbordes had good reason to be emotional. 

A trainer since 1968, he had finished third in the 1988 Arc with outsider Boyatino. Two years later he was instructed by a Mr Sawada, a Japanese businessman, to buy 50 horses. At this point Mr Sawada appeared to have a colossal amount of money and was on course to buy everything in Paris apart from Johnny Hallyday. By 1991, having spent rather too much on pretty pictures, his finances were less healthy. Liquidators instructed Lesbordes to sell all Sawada's horses.

For Lesbordes, who used the yard once occupied by Patrick Biancone, this was desperate news, not least because he was besotted with an unraced daughter of Miswaki he had bought as a yearling for around £30,000. He adored her then. He adores her now. Urban Sea's trainer intentionally housed the filly in the box once occupied by 1983 Arc heroine All Along. You only have to ask him about the animal who defined his career and he becomes misty-eyed.

"She was the brightest star in the sky I had ever seen," he says. "I always viewed her as a star."

Ling Tsui had no idea what an equine star looked like. Nonetheless, after reading a magazine article that revealed Lesbordes sometimes went hungry so his horses could eat, she made a major investment.

"I decided to bet on a man, not on horses, as I knew nothing about horses," she says. "I saw love in his eyes and love from his heart towards horses. I thought I could not be wrong."

Jean Lesbordes became a close friend of the Tsui family

The horses were registered in the name of David Tsui. Unfortunately, a Taiwanese friend of Ling insisted on becoming a partner in the racing venture. Towards the end of Urban Sea's three-year-old season they stopped being friends. By this point the filly had managed sixth in the Prix de Diane and third in the Prix Vermeille. She was good, so good, in fact, that when sold to dissolve the partnership on the eve of the 1992 Arc she fetched 3 million francs, the equivalent of £320,000.

"Our eyes met, and the instant they did, Urban Sea was coming home," says Ling. "She had already become a cherished member of my family."

By this point the Tsui and Lesbordes families had grown ever closer, almost merging into one. Lesbordes' son, Clement, the regular morning partner of Urban Sea, became the brother Christopher never had, despite being eight years his elder.

"It was Clement who looked after her every day, who rode her work and who took her round the world," says Lesbordes. By the time Urban Sea contested the 1993 Arc she had already travelled to Hong Kong, Germany and Britain, where she finished second at Royal Ascot. That afternoon she was partnered by Cash Asmussen, who come the big day was committed to favourite Hernando. "I just concentrated on getting her to the Arc in top condition," recalls Lesbordes. "You can always find a jockey."

After a meeting with quadruple Arc winner Yves Saint-Martin he found one in the shape of the latter's son, Eric. Yet Urban Sea's first-time rider faced a mighty task. Among the 23 runners were stellar names like Opera House, Intrepidity, User Friendly, Ezzoud and White Muzzle. At the off she was a 37-1 shot on the pari-mutuel. Punters dismissed her. Others did not, particularly when rain arrived to deliver her favoured testing ground.

"I was absolutely convinced she was going to win," says Lesbordes. "I really felt the race was already won. I know it sounds crazy but I had so much confidence in her that I was very relaxed."

Ling was not relaxed, so much so she chose not to go to Longchamp. 

"I was too nervous to watch the race in the flesh," she says. "I preferred to watch it on my own, so I could scream, cry and jump. The decision was also made out of superstition – my horses always won when I watched at home."

She adds: "For us, everything was just like yesterday. My little boy touched Urban Sea before the race, asked her not to be intimidated by big boys and told her she was the queen. Clement whispered in her ears: 'You are going to win, my darling.'

"Jean had told me over the phone: 'Madame Tsui, we are going to win. Prepare yourself and put champagne in the fridge. We will all come to your apartment right after the race'."

They came to her apartment. Always prominent, Urban Sea led just over a furlong from home. White Muzzle edged ever closer in the final strides but ran out of turf. Urban Sea had won the Arc.

"Even though it was 25 years ago, and I was only 12 years old, I remember the day like it was yesterday," says Christopher.

"I was a kid, but I was living and breathing racing every day, I knew very well what the Arc represented. I also knew what were the odds of us winning it.

"As the horses lined up for home, Clement jumped up on to the ledge of the box and screamed at the top of his lungs: 'Allez Eric!' It was as if he wanted to jump down and join him on the track. My dad was next to Clement and grabbed him by the jacket, preventing the 15ft fall to the floor below.

"As the horses passed the line, I had an idea we had won. Jean and Clement raced out of the box and were out of sight. Celebrations were going on all around and I lost sight of my father. Thinking he had followed Jean, I also made my way down to the 'rond de presentation'. I was 12 but knew my way around Longchamp like the back of my hand.

"I later found out my father went to the little bar behind the box to down a couple of shots of whisky to calm his nerves. I'm hoping to grab a couple of shots of my own very soon!"

James Doyle with Sea Of Class, the filly who contested the 2018 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe

A little whisky might well be needed. Sea Of Class is in front of everything bar Enable in the Arc betting. Both horses have in their genes Urban Sea, who retired after finishing fourth in the 1994 Coronation Cup. David Tsui wanted to sell her. Ling Tsui did not and leased a stud to house her precious lady.

"She became the laughing stock of the horse milieu," says Christopher. "The snob breeders would call her, 'la femme Chinoise avec sa jument' [the Chinese lady with her mare]." Nonetheless, the Chinese lady persisted with her mare, until briefly interrupted when her nearest and dearest did indeed conclude Urban Sea must change ownership.

"My husband decided to sell Urban Sea," says Ling. "His main reason was not to let breeders laugh at his wife's innocence. However, I felt if I did not keep Urban Sea in our family, my children and I would feel very sad and lost. I thought even if I could not breed from her, at least I could keep her as a pet in a farm for my children.

"I set up a company to buy Urban Sea from my husband, as he never read any racing press. I knew with our belief, our love for Urban Sea, my thirst for learning and my business acumen I could manage things on my own.

"It was a secret between my children and I for many years. Christopher told his dad we owned Sea The Stars only once the horse had won the 2,000 Guineas. His only comment was: 'Your mother is a muse!'"

For the Tsuis, the extraordinary success of Urban Sea has never been about money but love and pride. For them, and for Lesbordes, this reached a crescendo when Sea The Stars capped his incredible Classic year by winning the 2009 Arc, only eight months after his mother died having giving birth to her tenth foal, Born To Sea.

For Lesbordes, Sea The Stars evoked memories of the filly, but also of the son who worshipped that filly. Just four years after the greatest day of their lives, Clement Lesbordes was tragically killed in a cycling accident.

Urban Sea's trainer Jean Lesbordes joins John Oxx, Mick Kinane and Christopher Tsui after the Arc success of Urban Sea's son Sea The Stars

"When Sea The Stars won the Arc it was an extraordinary day," says Lesbordes. "I felt much more emotional than when Urban Sea won the race. He is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen and had so much in common with his mother in terms of his mental strength. For me, Sea The Stars was the consecration of the Urban Sea story."

Mental strength was just one of her many qualities, according to John Clarke, an associate of the Tsuis and former chief executive of the Irish National Stud, where Urban Sea lived from 2001 until her death.

"There was an intelligence within her you rarely see in a horse," says Clarke. "She was an extraordinary mare. She took the very best out of every stallion but also corrected any faults associated with that stallion. It was a unique thing."

Legendary broodmare Urban Sea and Sabbaah at stud

Marvellously unique are the achievements of Urban Sea, whose granddaughter's jockey James Doyle will sport the Tsuis' Sunderland Holding silks, reminiscent of Christopher's worn by Mick Kinane when Sea The Stars ruled Longchamp but with a new twist for the next generation.

"Urban Sea filled my imagination with wonders," says Christopher. "She taught me if you dream big, follow those dreams and put your heart and soul into them, one day they might come true.

"It really is a fairytale I can tell my kids – and I actually do. My son's favourite book is the Racing Post's Sea The Stars book and I read chapters to him for his bedtime stories.

"It is wonderful that her story and legacy have been passed to the next generations, both human and equine. I hope one day my son will tell the exploits of Urban Sea and her descendants to my grandchildren."

2018 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe result

Ling would like that – but she will again watch the Arc from afar.

"This race is so meaningful for us," she says. "It is about the granny, the father and the daughter.

"On Sunday Sea Of Class will be in Longchamp nine years after the success of her sire in the same race. I don't know how to describe our feelings. They are a mixture of excitement, admiration, pride for Urban Sea – including the satisfaction from having always believed in her – and the luck of being able to participate in the Arc once more.

"We loved Urban Sea with all our heart. To win the Arc again would really enrich her legacy."

Win or lose, it is already a legacy like no other.

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She taught me if you dream big, follow those dreams and put your heart and soul into them, one day they might come true

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