Racegoers in Britain have been immensely privileged in 2011 to witness performances of outstanding quality by one of the greatest horses of modern times. I refer, of course, to Frankel, the Juddmonte-bred colt who convinced all but the compilers of the world rankings that he was far and away the best of his generation last season, and who defies those assessors to deny him the accolade of world champion – and grant him his due wide margin of superiority – this year.
Now unbeaten in eight races, the son of Galileo began his campaign with a fluent win over seven furlongs in the Group 3 Greenham Stakes at Newbury, a victory all the more impressive for the facts that his pacemaker proved not to be up to the job and that his own natural exuberance caused him to expend more energy than was ideal in the early stages of the race. It was impossible to find fault with an emphatic four-length victory over a colt – Excelebration – who proceeded on his next start to romp home by seven lengths in the German 2,000 Guineas, the Mehl-Mulhens Rennen.
Frankel’s second outing this year came in the ‘real’ 2,000 Guineas, in which he gave a display unmatched over the Rowley Mile since Tudor Minstrel’s triumph in 1947. Plan A had been for Rerouted to provide a lead, but that was scotched by the draw, which placed the pair as far apart as was possible, so Plan B, letting Frankel make his own running, was adopted, with sensational consequences. At halfway, galloping freely with a substantial lead, he had all 12 rivals stone cold and proceeded to stroll home, unchallenged, with six lengths to spare.
Old-timers might point out Tudor Minstrel, running in exactly the same fashion, had won his Guineas by eight lengths, but that was to overlook the facts that his supposed only serious rival Petition – it was 100-7 bar the two – had ditched his jockey just before the start, then ran without his usual characteristic verve, and was sick afterwards. Who could say for certain that Frankel’s display was in any way inferior?
“I was baffled by the reaction of seasoned racegoers after the ‘Duel on the Downs’ had been resolved”
And so to Ascot, where Frankel did not win like the 30-100 shot he was, but he could be absolved of all blame for what occurred. This time Rerouted’s pacemaking role was enacted admirably and fears that the favourite would be unable to curb his impulsive tendencies were unfounded; the Warren Place team had done a fabulous job in teaching him to settle since his tearaway performance in the Guineas.
All looked set fair for another emphatic victory until Tom Queally took it into his head to ‘do an Arazi’, instigating a mid-race move that rapidly reeled the pacemaker in and took him six lengths clear of the pursuing pack with two furlongs left to race. The Guineas experience should have persuaded the jockey that Frankel would idle when left out in front for long and that is just what occurred. At the post he had no more than three-quarters of a length in hand over Zoffany, though it seemed obvious that more prudent tactics would have resulted in victory by a far more substantial margin.
Hype – which I ignored
So what do we conclude after Goodwood? The Sussex Stakes was hyped like no other race for years, billed as the ‘Duel on the Downs’ and over several preceding weeks filling more column inches on the racing pages than all other topics put together. The opinions of all and sundry, professionals and Joe Public alike, were sought and duly reported, and along with the bumper crowd in attendance at Britain’s – perhaps the world’s – most picturesque racecourse, many hundreds of thousands more at home with terrestrial or satellite coverage to guide them focussed their attention on what had to be regarded as the race of the season. I wonder when the outcome of the Sussex Stakes was last more eagerly awaited than that of Ascot’s midsummer championship, which annually precedes it by just a few days? Never, I suspect.
So what did everyone imagine they were going to witness when the dominant three-year-old miler crossed swords with the dominant four-year-old miler? What had the media led them to expect? I ask because I was baffled by the reactions of three seasoned racegoers whom I met within a few minutes of the issue being resolved. “Disappointing”, said one. “A damp squib”, said the second. Even more startling, the third referred to what he had just watched as “a complete fiasco.”
I have to confess that I had paid absolutely no attention to all the preceding hype. I had formed my own view about the respective merits of Frankel and Canford Cliffs, and it really did not matter to me what anyone else had to say on the subject. It is possible, though unlikely, that all three of my dissatisfied acquaintances had simply backed the wrong one. I suspect that their reactions may have been more about what they thought they were going to see, or what some in the media might have persuaded them that they would see, namely, a neck-and-neck battle, resolved only in the shadow of the post, if then.
Okay, I know all about Grundy and Bustino; I was there. I’ve seen the clips of the Affirmed-Alydar struggles that enlivened the 1978 US Triple Crown events. But Frankel v Canford Cliffs never figured to be one of those occasions.
What tends to happen when two outstanding horses meet, particularly in races over distances shorter than those I have just mentioned, is that one applies relentless pressure and there comes a point when the other will crack and fall away beaten. That does not make a close finish likely and the defeated horse will appear to have run below form; in truth, it fails simply because it has come up against a horse who is significantly superior, and what it has achieved in lesser company is irrelevant. In short, it is over-matched.
I could not be sure what would happen in the Sussex Stakes, because tactics were likely to play a part, but the scenario I hoped to see, which depended upon Tom Queally exercising sound judgement, did turn out to be accurate. There have to be some times when I get things right.
Faith in Frankel shared by others
I had no doubt, going into the Sussex Stakes, that Frankel was a more accomplished miler than Canford Cliffs and the guys at Timeform agreed with me. That meant that, barring accident or jockey error, Frankel was going to win. As it turned out, Queally rode a faultless race, judging the pace perfectly, and when it came to the crunch he was piling on more pressure than Canford Cliffs could deal with. While one of the combatants strode on relentlessly, the other faltered, drifted off a straight line and was comprehensively defeated. He was subsequently retired, connections pointing to an injury sustained in the race.
But how the sight of Frankel stretching away could disappoint any impartial spectator I simply cannot imagine. I frankly admit that I was in tears, overwhelmed by a display of greatness that it had been a precious privilege to behold.
“Frankel has now overtaken Brigadier Gerard as the top miler in my experience”
Old fogeys like me always tend to glorify the past and are reluctant to downgrade the heroes they cultivated in their youth, but I now feel I must revise my opinion about the greatest miler I have seen. Yes, I was there when Brigadier Gerard won his Guineas and I have not forgotten that he had Mill Reef three lengths behind him. I never wanted to believe that the race was so much about the Mill Reef-My Swallow rivalry that their riders were too preoccupied with beating one another, but there probably was an element of that and perhaps the Brigadier was flattered by his winning margin.
But a mile was not Mill Reef’s optimum trip anyway and who were the true milers that Brigadier Gerard so comprehensively put in their place those 40 years ago? The likes of Sparkler, Gold Rod and Joshua were smart, to be sure, but none was ever up to winning five Group 1 races in a row, as Canford Cliffs did.
While I am still waiting and hoping to see Frankel conquer longer distances to match the Brigadier’s versatility, the star of 2011 has now overtaken the star of 1971 as the top miler in my experience.