Donn's Articles » Frankel


It doesn’t happen very often that a Flat racehorse bursts through racing’s boundaries and makes his way into mainstream. The household horse names are almost all National Hunt: Arkle, Red Rum, Desert Orchid, maybe Dawn Run, if the household is Irish, maybe Kauto Star, maybe Denman.

The difficulty with Flat horses is that they are fleeting: fleeting of foot and fleeting of racing career. The commercial realities of the racing and bloodstock world dictate that the very best Flat racehorses are usually rushed off to stud before they have even fully matured.

Sea The Stars was one of those unusual Flat horses who captured the wider public’s imagination, but he didn’t really manage to do so until his days on the racetrack were numbered. Around 9,000 people filed in to Leopartdstown racecourse to watch the John Oxx-trained colt race his penultimate race in the Irish Champion Stakes in September 2009. Nine thousand is a healthy number for an Irish Champion Stakes crowd, but it is no more than healthy, and compared to the 20,000 or so who pile in to watch the jumpers race in the depths of winter, it is veritably paltry. They should have been hanging from the rafters.

It wasn’t until the build up to the 2009 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, after the Irish Champion Stakes, that the Sea The Stars embers caught fire outside of racing’s little cocoon. During the preamble to the Arc, when you spoke of Sea The Stars, you didn’t even have to mention his name. Iconic status achieved.

By the time Mick Kinane found a gap on the far side half way down Longchamp’s home straight, and Christopher Tsui’s colt engaged that powerful stride that took him clear of his rivals and into the history books, interest in Sea The Stars was a raging inferno. Then he retired to stud and the flames were quenched, his true worth as an ambassador for racing largely unrealised.

It was a little unrealistic to expect that we would witness two superstar Flat horses in two years, and realism dawned when St Nicholas Abbey, Ballydoyle’s all-conquering juvenile of 2009, and well-touted as Sea The Stars’s successor, came up short in the 2000 Guineas in 2010, and didn’t race again that season.

Two superstars in three years then?

Enter Frankel, Prince Khalid Abdullah’s colt, unbeaten in four races as a juvenile last season, unbeaten thus far in four more races as a three-year-old, and on-track to make it a perfect nine in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, the jewel in the celebration of racing that next Saturday’s QIPCO British Champions’ Day at Ascot is destined to be. All things being equal, the plan is apparently to keep him in training next year as a four-year-old. Then the Frankel fire will surely rage.

They say that Frankel is a freak, freakishly good, freakishly fast. The visual impression of some of his performances so far have been hugely impressive but, more than that, they have been backed by the figures.

The son of Galileo first came to attention when he won a conditions race at Doncaster last September. It was only a three-horse race, but the manner in which he won, the ease and the speed with which he came clear of a useful rival, was seriously impressive. Dave Edwards, the Racing Post’s Topspeed guru, awarded him a figure of 115, a figure that is rarely earned by a juvenile on just his second ever run. To put that figure into context, when Sea The Stars won the Beresford Stakes as a juvenile on his third run, he recorded a Topspeed figure of just 78.

Speed figures are not the quintessential measure of a horse’s worth, a horse can only record a good speed figure if the manner in which a race is run allows, but they do give an indication as to the upper limit of a horse’s ability. When Sea The Stars won the 2000 Guineas in 2009, he recorded a Topspeed figure of 123. When Frankel won the Guineas this year, he recorded a figure of 132.

That performance by Frankel was one of the great speed performances. According to Edwards, he went at Group 1 five-furlong pace for the first five furlongs of the race as Tom Queally just allowed him stride on. If the winning post had been at the three-furlong pole, five furlongs down the Rowley Mile from the starting stalls, Frankel would have recorded a final time of 58.5secs. To put that time into contest, when Tangerine Trees, last week’s Prix de l’Abbaye winner, won the Palace House Stakes over five furlongs a half an hour after Frankel had won the Guineas, he recorded a time of 59.7secs, over a second slower than Frankel, and Frankel still had another three furlongs to go.

In so doing, Frankel recorded two 11secs furlongs and two 11.5secs furlongs. Edwards estimates that, if you factor in going allowances, Frankel’s performance over the first five furlongs of the Guineas was better than Lochsong’s performance when she set the five-furlong track record at Newmarket in the 1994 Palace House Stakes.

And it wasn’t just in the Guineas that Frankel has shown his devastating pace. In the St James’s Palace Stakes, according to Edwards, he covered three furlongs in the middle section of the race in 34.2secs. That should be enough to burst any horse, yet he still had the ability to see out the mile and get home by three parts of a length.

This is not to say that Frankel is a better horse than Sea The Stars was. They are different types. Frankel’s exuberance is there for all to see, whereas John Oxx’s horse was a horse who only just did as much as he needed to do. And even at that, he was able to record a Topspeed figure of 132 when he beat Mastercraftsman in the Juddmonte International. If there had been a horse around at the time who could have pushed Sea The Stars further, it is almost certain that he could have gone even faster.

Saturday’s QIPCO British Champions’ Day needs Frankel at least as much as Frankel needs it, probably more. Trained by an icon in Sir Henry Cecil, he is the headline act on the richest day’s racing ever staged in the UK, his clash with Immortal Verse and Excelebration top of the bill, and it is important for organizers of the day that the highest profile horse of the year is in attendance.

If there is a worry with Frankel, it is that he has been on the go from early in the season. Sea The Stars ran his first race of 2009 in early May and he ran his last race in early October. Frankel won the Greenham Stakes in mid-April, and it will be mid-October when he signs off.

In that context, he is under the tutelage of the right man. There are few better trainers in the UK than Cecil to keep a horse sound of body and of mind. On the figures, he is untouchable. Edwards, the figures man, says that only divine intervention can beat him.

© The Sunday Times, 9th October 2011