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Frankel and Royal Ascot: the success story of one of the most famous racecourses

PUBLISHED: 14:49 14 June 2013 | UPDATED: 14:49 14 June 2013

Frankel racing in the QIPCO British Champions Day 2011 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes

Frankel racing in the QIPCO British Champions Day 2011 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes

Bill Selwyn

Andrew Longmore of The Sunday Times examines the successes of one of the most talked about racehorses, Frankel

For a Sunday sports writer, there are two forms of sport: one happens midweek when everyone else has the chance to write about it first and the other – and immeasurably the better of the two – happens on a Saturday when it is your turn. This complicates the emotions a little. One of the beauties of the London Olympics was that Britain’s golden day, begun by two golds for the rowers in the morning and climaxed by three gold medals in 45 minutes on the track at night, came on a Saturday. We have had our share of Frankel Saturdays too and what a pleasure they were. No less than a trainer, a sports writer thrives on good raw material.

It is a minor personal inconvenience of Royal Ascot that so much great racing stretches out over so many days before Saturday. But with Frankel, that didn’t matter. Both his runs at the Royal Meeting came on the opening day – in the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Queen Anne Stakes – but so vivid were the memories and so captivating the cast that sports editors were still chanting for more by the weekend. Even the victory of Black Caviar, Australia’s unbeaten super mare, in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes 12 months ago was measured and reported in terms of a potential Ashes duel with Frankel.

Like all great athletes, there has to be a sense of place as well as time. Frankel’s giant stride tore up divots on all the great racetracks in the land, but the Ascot turf was scorched more times than all the rest. Five of his 14 wins in an unbeaten career came at Ascot, beginning with the Royal Lodge as a two-year-old and finishing on Qipco British Champions Day two years later. Sandwiched in between came Frankel’s two appearances at Royal Ascot, one a bit of a muddle, the other simply majestic. Both have to be put into the context of a career which passed like a comet.

In June 2011, the racing world was still reclamping its jaw after Frankel’s imitation of Usain Bolt in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket the month before. Martin Dwyer, viewing the race from a safe distance back in the field, looked up after two furlongs and wondered if the pacemaker had not gone off a bit quick. Only then did he realise the pacemaker was Frankel. Once the superlatives had been hurled at the page, the inevitable question was: ‘what next?’ A tilt at the Derby seemed out of the question for such a headstrong horse, so the St James’s Palace Stakes over a mile at the favourite hunting ground of trainer Sir Henry Cecil was the most likely option. Even then there were question marks over the horse’s temperament and whether his explosive front-running style could be adapted to the trickier contours of the Ascot track. It was like asking a drag racer to tackle a Formula One track.

For the six weeks between the Guineas and Royal Ascot, the sole focus of Sir Henry and his staff at Warren Place had been on teaching Frankel to relax, to race rather less like a hand grenade with the pin removed. It was a slow and precarious project, supervised in every tiny detail by a trainer who is a master of the art. But the racetrack was the only proving ground. So there was an understandable air of tension in Cecil and Tom Queally, his normally imperturbable jockey, as the 30/100 favourite went to post in the bright sunshine.

What followed still divides opinion. Instead of tracking the leaders into the straight, according to the plan, and then unleashing Frankel’s power off > the turn, Queally was tempted by the breakneck early speed of his pacemaker Rerouted into a precipitate engagement of overdrive. Within a few massive strides, Frankel’s momentum had swept him clear of the field with almost half the race left to run.

A six-length lead became four, then two, then a fast diminishing one as the pursuers, led by the Irish-trained Zoffany, sensed their chance. By the line, Frankel had just three-quarters of a length to spare and the trainer was caught on camera rolling his eyes at the whole sorry mess.

In the Winners’ Enclosure, Queally said that Frankel was more “fed up” than tired in front and Cecil claimed that his horse’s ability to settle early on had opened up more options. But the simple truth was that, at a very critical moment in his young life, Frankel had suffered a much harder race than he needed. For all the trainer’s optimism, the press were not convinced that Frankel would stay further than a mile.

A year on, the debate was still alive, but the ground had shifted. After 10 straight victories, the notches on the measuring stick now had names: Dancing Brave, Sea The Stars and Sea Bird. No horse had got as close to beating him as Zoffany and no one looked like doing so. Even routine victories were imperious. The press had taken to analysing the source of all this brilliance: the 22-foot stride, the massive heart and the competitive instinct. Even hardened observers of the turf were transfixed by Frankel’s physical presence, by his unprecedented ability to accelerate once, sometimes twice, and sustain the momentum. But there was more to it than that; a hidden hand was guiding this story and not always through comfortable territory.

At times, as stomach cancer racked his frail body and in the memorable words of his biographer, Brough Scott, he began to look “not so much a trainer as a rather frail old artist on the Riviera”; Cecil’s very life seemed to be sustained by the narrative. Frankel had, quite literally, become the horse of a lifetime, while the elegant Prince Khalid Abdullah, in one of the great patrons of the turf and owner of the most beautiful silks in racing, and the quietly impressive Irishman in the saddle played their roles to perfection too.

By the time the Frankel bandwagon came rolling back into Royal Ascot for the Queen Anne Stakes in 2012 the whole nation was on board and anxiety had been replaced by curiosity. Is Frankel the greatest of all time? The answer came in 97.85 seconds of thoroughbred perfection, in the 11-length margin of victory over Excelebration, a Group 1 winner beaten five times by Frankel, and in the unequivocal post-race assessment of his trainer. “He’s the best I’ve ever had, the best I’ve ever seen and I’d be surprised if there’s ever been any better,” said Cecil, for once shedding his mastery of understatement. In the Racing Post, the comments of the race reader also betrayed an unusual exuberance: “Tracked leaders, led over 2f (furlongs) out, strode majestically clear. Awesome.” Timeform gave Frankel its highest ever rating of 147, but Cecil’s testimony carried the greater weight.

Frankel returned to Ascot for his swansong in the Champion Stakes in October before heading to stud, leaving racing to pick through the memories. The search is already on for a successor because racing never stands still.

In the meantime, we will all have to reacquaint ourselves with normality and, in the press room, with the ordinary superlatives of a day at racing’s high table. Let’s hope the big story will hold until Sunday.

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