This month looks set to mark the final appearance on a racecourse of the greatest horse most of us have seen, or will ever see. And the finale will be in England, where all his other 13 races have been. Over a distance at which he is already proven. To some, those facts indicate Frankel has been campaigned too conservatively.

The argument goes that his career has been unadventurous and that by competing only between seven and ten and a half furlongs, and only in his homeland, it is unreasonable to rank him more highly than some who have proven their merits over a wider range of distances and overseas. If that is how those critics feel, I don’t suppose there is anything I can say that will alter their opinion.

Who are the European horses whom we might consider to have been in the same league as Frankel in terms of outright merit? Of those trained in England, Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef would be obvious contenders from quite recent times, Ormonde one from an earlier age. Of those trained elsewhere many would cite Ribot and Sea-Bird, and if we feel disposed to delve deep into history a case might even be made for Kincsem.

Like Frankel, Brigadier Gerard had three seasons in training and never went overseas. He won 17 of his 18 races and was apparently sick after his solitary defeat, by Roberto in the Benson & Hedges Cup at York. He began with a win over five furlongs at Newbury, scored three more times over six in that first year, won five times over a mile and once at ten furlongs as a three-year-old, and at four his victories came twice at a mile, four times at ten furlongs, and once, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at 12 furlongs.

I remember Brigadier Gerard well and my respect for him has never wavered. The only criticisms that I recall about the way he was campaigned were the decision to miss the Derby and the failure to venture abroad. Neither, in my view, was valid. The Brigadier was not ready for the step up to 12 furlongs at Derby time – he was all out to last the trip a year later – and there were no races in Ireland or France in which he might have established his class more than at home.

Mill Reef was also in training for three years and would have had a fourth but for his accident on the gallops. He won 12 of his 14 starts, one of his defeats – by millimetres against My Swallow in the Prix Robert Papin – coming in one of his three visits to France.

His other loss came against Brigadier Gerard in the 2,000 Guineas, and he was famously victorious on his other trips abroad, impressively in the Arc at three and with overwhelming authority in the Ganay at four. Precocious enough for a clear-cut win over five furlongs on his debut in May, he mastered all distances up to 12 furlongs, displaying an ideal blend of speed and stamina.

Mill Reef over 12 furlongs for me
Several times we were promised a return match between Mill Reef and the Brigadier, but it never happened. My view is Mill Reef would have won over a mile and a half, but it would have been desperately tight between them at ten furlongs and if circumstances had allowed a second meeting it would undoubtedly have been over that trip.

Ormonde, a predecessor of Mill Reef at Kingsclere, compiled a flawless record of 16 wins from as many starts over three seasons, and is generally regarded as the best horse of the 19th century. He never ventured abroad but he did prove himself far superior to Minting, who conquered the best that France could put up against him in the Grand Prix de Paris. There were no holes in Ormonde’s form; he was supreme over all distances from six furlongs to a mile and three-quarters, remarkably adding the July Cup at four to his Triple Crown triumph in the previous year.

Ribot’s career mirrored Ormonde’s in comprising 16 victories in as many races over three seasons. He was the last great champion bred by Federico Tesio, who held him in such low regard, judged on pedigree and early impressions, he chose not to enter him in any of the Italian Classics. The master breeder died two months before Ribot made a winning debut over five furlongs, giving no indication as to what was to come. It was hard to know what to make of him when, after six wins at San Siro and one in Pisa, he went to Longchamp for the 1955 Arc and started 9-1.

He won by three lengths before returning home to win Italy’s corresponding event, the Gran Premio del Jockey Club, beating by 15 lengths the horse who had won the race in the two previous years. Timeform was dubious about his merits, giving him 133, but was obliged to revise that to 142 after his four-year-old campaign, when he won seven races by wide margins, including the King George by five lengths and a second Arc by six. The longest trip he tried was 15 furlongs in the Gran Premio di Milano. He won by eight lengths.

Sea-Bird sensational but racing career curtailed
My racegoing experience started a little after Ribot’s reign, but I did see Sea-Bird win both his Derby, when only out of a canter for a few strides, and his Arc, when he thrashed the classiest field ever assembled for it. He had only two seasons and just eight starts, in one of which he was beaten – the Grand Criterium, when he was not ridden to best effect, having been given far too much to do against Grey Dawn, his more seasoned stable companion. He had won his only previous start, a minor event over seven furlongs. Forgive him that one failure and it is hard to find fault with his record; he was, by a long chalk, the best horse in the world in 1965, and Timeform allotted him the highest rating – 145 – it had ever awarded.

It seemed a shame at the time – and still does – that Sea-Bird did not race for a third season. A deal to take him to stud in Kentucky had been done before his Arc victory. The longest trip over which he ran was the 12 and a half furlongs of the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, in which he met and easily beat older horses for the first time in his career.

What are we to make of Kincsem? The Hungarian star ran 54 times without defeat from two to five years, making journeys by rail all over Europe to accept whatever challenges were offered. All distances and ground conditions came alike; as two she won over 947 metres – a little under five furlongs – and had sufficient stamina for two miles five furlongs on her one visit to England at four. She started outsider of three for the Goodwood Cup and would have been the outsider of four if the expected favourite, Verneuil, had run. She won easily, though England might have provided much stiffer opposition for her.

So who should we name as the best? While it is hard to downgrade the perfection Kincsem and Ormonde attained – and without the benefits of later environmental advances – I am inclined to feel the thoroughbred was still improving in their era and had yet to reach its peak. The breed had moved on by the time Ribot and co. came along. I have always proclaimed that a proper horse stays a mile and a half and Frankel is going to retire without providing proof he does. The headstrong colt of early 2011 would not have managed it; in the Derby he would have been another Tudor Minstrel. But the settled individual of 2012 would surely have coped without a problem; who could doubt that, judging by his performance at York?

Although he does not have form over the range of distances other great champions have supplied, I’m inclined to rank Frankel number one. I’ve never known another horse with such a high cruising speed and the capacity to sustain maximum velocity for so long. He is a phenomenon. I would have preferred him to sign off in triumph at Longchamp but a resounding victory at Ascot will suffice.