A theme regularly expounded in the racing media – and almost always deplored – is that of the tendency for most top-class three-year-olds to retire to stud at four, rather than to continue in racecourse competition. It is not something you will ever have read in any of my musings, for several reasons. The fact is, there is nothing new about the practice; it has been common for well over a century, understandably so.

Tradition may not mean much to Racing For Change, whose meddling with long-established race schedules has incensed me, but it has been crucial to the development of the breed, which has thrived in part due to the recognition, globally throughout the breeding industry, that what matters most about a colt’s career is what he achieves as a three-year-old.

Ask me what I think about the recent phenomenon of colts retiring to stud at three and you will not be surprised by my response. What a colt achieves as an adolescent is meaningless. As a schoolboy cricketer I was reckoned to be pretty good, deploying my off-spin effectively against other kids, but I couldn’t hack it even at village level in maturity, when batsmen routinely tonked me all over the ground and sometimes out of it. We see it so often in all sports; those who are precocious rarely progress to excel again when the competition becomes more intense.

What a colt achieves as an adolescent is meaningless

Putting a horse to stud after its two-year-old campaign amounts to an admission that it would not be competitive in the more challenging environment of three-year-old racing – an admission of failure, in fact. It would not be allowed to happen in Germany, where a minimum of two seasons in training is one of the requirements for obtaining a position at stud. I would be in favour of adopting that rule everywhere.

The fact that I am quite content with the practice of retiring colts to stud at four – let’s face it, what were the likes of Secretariat or Sea The Stars going to prove that they had not already proved at three? – does not mean I am less excited than anyone else over the prospect of a top-class three-year-old returning to action. It is a bonus for any racegoer to relish and I welcome the arrival of 2012 not least for the prospect of seeing Frankel in action again.

It is extremely rare for a colt who has already earned the epithet ‘great’ to remain in training at four. Indeed, it has not happened for 40 years, when Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef – both Timeform-rated 141 as three-year-olds – returned to the fray. If we accept a rating of 140 as the mark of a great horse, there was no previous instance, though there might have been if Timeform had been able to determine its own rating for Ribot as a three-year-old.

Ribot had done all his racing in Italy until he contested the 1955 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – in which he started at 9-1! – and obtaining a handle on his precise merit was impossible. He was surely better than might be inferred from the tentative mark of 133 derived from the French official handicapper’s assessment and at four he advanced on Timeform’s scale to 142.

Ribot’s rating bettered by three
I was brought up in the belief that Ribot – whom I never saw – was the greatest horse of all time, or at least of modern times. I never expected to see one better but I have been fortunate and privileged enough to see three who have been more highly rated by Timeform. Sea-Bird was given the all-time high mark of 145 as a three-year-old in 1965, Brigadier Gerard was ranked only 1lb inferior as a four-year-old in 1972 and Frankel earned a 143 rating last year.

This is what makes 2012 so potentially exciting for me. The colt who ranks second only to Sea-Bird on three-year-old form starts his third season in training with only 2lb to find to match him as the best of any age group. If he can find 3lb, as Brigadier Gerard did in his four-year-old campaign, my long innings as a racegoer is going to be capped by the best horse I have ever seen – perhaps the best horse that anyone has ever seen.

The colt who ranks second only to Sea-Bird on three-year-old form starts his third season in training with only 2lb to find

It is worth recalling the achievements of those giants who began the 1972 season already designated great. Mill Reef, who had won the Derby, Eclipse, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – all by daylight margins – at three, raced only twice as a four-year-old. His performance in the Prix Ganay was phenomenal. Most of the best older horses in France were ranged against him, but his runner-up was flattered by finishing only ten lengths behind him. The colt had more in the tank than Geoff Lewis allowed him to show.

The Coronation Cup was very different. Only three opposed him, one of them his own pacemaker, but Mill Reef had to be shown the whip and made to battle for victory by a neck over Homeric, who had been runner-up in the previous season’s St Leger. That was not the real Mill Reef and if we thought at first that his below-par performance came as the result of having missed a couple of gallops in a preparation compromised by dreadful ground conditions at home, we soon found another excuse. A virus went through the Kingsclere stable and Mill Reef was surely sickening for it at Epsom.

Of course, worse was to follow. Still short of peak fitness, he had to miss the Eclipse and the King George, then a swollen hock caused his withdrawal from the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup. Back in training with a second Arc as his objective, he fractured his near foreleg and only pioneering surgery saved him for what turned out to be an outstanding stud career.

It would have been hard to advance Mill Reef’s rating from the 141 he earned at three. He certainly looked as good as ever in the Ganay and he might have been expected to improve with that run behind him. But the cruel hand he was dealt subsequently could do him no favours.

The Brigadier was well worth his mark

Brigadier Gerard began his third season still unbeaten after ten races. He extended his successful sequence to 15, taking in the Lockinge, the Westbury, the Prince of Wales, the Eclipse and the King George, before his still hard-to-comprehend defeat by Roberto in the Benson & Hedges. If he was a shade fortunate to keep his King George victory, having appeared to tire and hamper Parnell in the closing stages of his one and only race at a mile and a half, he was imperious in his other Ascot ventures, including a tremendously impressive display in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. He rounded off his career with a clear-cut triumph over Riverman in the Champion Stakes.

It was certainly plausible that had Mill Reef remained healthy and sound, he might have made comparable improvement

Yes, it was certainly justifiable to raise the Brigadier’s rating to 144 on the basis of his third-season form. It was certainly plausible that had Mill Reef remained healthy and sound, he might have made comparable improvement. A horse in good heart after two campaigns in which he has not been over-raced is perfectly entitled to progress further with added strength and development.

Frankel has run only nine times to date, evidently remains as sound as a pound, and may well improve from three to four. He was in a class of his own last season, commanding his own generation and more than a match for his elders. The decision to keep him in training is highly commendable, because he has already done more than enough to ensure that he could have spent 2012 in the company of some of the most blue-blooded mares on the planet, earning far more for Prince Khalid than he might collect on the racecourse.

But another year means fresh challenges – the chance to prove himself master of the younger generation, to test him over longer distances, just possibly to attain the status of the highest-rated horse in history. I can hardly wait.