Donn's Articles » Frankel swansong

Frankel swansong

When Frankel runs, Frankel wins. That’s the rule.

Thirteen times he has run, and 13 times he has won. He beat the best of his own generation at two, the best of the older generation at three, the best of all generations at four.

He has run over seven furlongs, eight furlongs and 10 furlongs; he has run on straight tracks, left-handed tracks, right-handed tracks, flat tracks and undulating tracks; he has run on soft ground, good ground and fast ground, and he has won every time. Frankel is bomb-proof. He has won his 13 races by an aggregate of 74½ lengths, he is the best racehorse in the world, and he has never been beaten.

So why should it be any different in the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot next Saturday?

Bookmakers’ odds of 1/10 tell you that it shouldn’t. The final chapter of the Frankel story has already been written. Frankel wins, unbeaten in 14. The aptly-named Champion Stakes is the vehicle that has been lined up for his lap of honour for weeks now.

It wasn’t surprising that owner Prince Khalid Abdullah and trainer Sir Henry Cecil decided against running the Galileo colt in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. If he had raced Paris last Sunday, he would have been racing outside of England for the first time in his life and he would have been making his debut over a distance in excess of 10 furlongs.

When the decision to by-pass the Arc was made public, the general over-riding feeling was one of disappointment. Frankel in the Arc would have been special. The best horse in the best race, racing over a mile and a half for the first time, competing abroad for the first time. It would have been another step into the unknown, his toughest assignment ever by far, but that’s the very thing that would have made his victory exceptional.

After the Arc last Sunday, however, there was a sense of relief that Frankel wasn’t there. The ground was so soft at Longchamp that his razor-sharp speed would surely have been dulled. It would have been risky, defeat would have been a real possibility, and defeat just has no place in the Frankel book.

The Champion Stakes made more sense. Back at Ascot, where he is unbeaten in four runs, back over 10 furlongs, a trip over which he is proven, and no need to travel overseas. You can only determine the upper limit of a racehorse’s ability after he has been beaten, and there is no appetite to find Frankel’s upper limit. If he wins on Saturday, we will probably never find it.

Strange thing though: victory is not assured. Opponents are lining up in the places that it looked like they were vacating. Ten days ago, Nathaniel’s primary focus was the Arc, not the Champion Stakes, and you couldn’t have been certain of Cirrus Des Aigles’s wellbeing. We hadn’t seen Corinne Barande-Barbe’s gelding since he had been beaten by Golden Lilac in the Prix d’Ispahan at Longchamp in May, and had been disqualified from second place after a banned substance had been found in his post-race sample. His trainer said that the Champion Stakes was his target, but he had missed several possible engagements in the interim, and you just couldn’t have been certain.

There were two significant occurrences last week that had an impact on the shape of the Champion Stakes. Firstly, Nathaniel ran a temperature after a pre-Arc piece of work, which meant that he had to be scratched from the Arc line-up. That made the Champion Stakes his primary objective, not an Arc afterthought.

Then last Saturday at Longchamp, on his first run in over four months, Cirrus Des Aigles blew his rivals away in the Prix Dollar. He took it up at the three-furlong poll and just careered away up the home straight, going further and further clear and putting nine lengths between himself and good horses by the time he reached the winning line.

Both Nathaniel and Cirrus Des Aigles are big league players, make no mistake. Nathaniel got to within a half a length of Frankel when they both made their racecourse debuts in a Newmarket maiden in August 2010 on the only occasion on which they have met. Since then, of course, Frankel has conquered the world, but Nathaniel has won a King George and an Eclipse, and has only once in 10 races finished out of the first two. He loves Ascot, and he is at his best with an ease in the ground.

Cirrus Des Aigles won last year’s Champion Stakes, beating top class rivals So You Think and Snow Fairy. Since then, he has won the Dubai Sheema Classic and the Prix Ganay, and he proved that he was as good as ever with that victory in the Prix Dollar last Saturday. He goes on good ground, but he is probably even better on soft.

Ascot’s long-range weather forecast says rain, plenty of it through the middle part of the week. Frankel’s connections say that soft ground won’t be a worry, and he is by Galileo, whose progeny generally don’t mind getting their toes in a little.

However, all Frankel’s best performances have been on good or fast ground. His smart bomb is his pace, his ability to smother his rivals with speed through the third-last and second-last furlongs of a race, and the potency of that weapon would be diluted at least a little by soft ground.

Even on good ground, Saturday’s race will be no victory march, no lap of honour. Frankel’s final race will probably be his toughest. The probability is that he will win, that he will take his unbeaten record – 14 for 14 – to the breeding shed with him, and that we will never be able to determine the true limit of his ability. We will just know that he was probably the best racehorse of all time.

If he does remain unbeaten, however, he will have to exit on a high, possibly with the best performance of his illustrious career, and that will be well worth the admission fee.

© The Sunday Times, 14th October 2012