One Frankel may have made the racing summer but we got plenty else besides enough rain to get Noah back to his boat shed. 2012 saw Richard Hughes and John Gosden finally take the championships their talents have long deserved. The Australian wonder mare Black Caviar came up to make history at Royal Ascot and shortened a few lives in the photo finish. At Doncaster Derby and Guineas winner Camelot left us gasping as he failed in his gallant bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky. Much more too, but all thoughts begin with Frankel.
For the image of Frankel in full stride will be the screen-saver on the memory. From May to October his five races framed our season in wonderment, and if his last race was the toughest, his decisive defeat of heavy ground specialist Cirrus des Aigles in strength-sapping conditions at Ascot meant he had courage to match his brilliance. Never in history has a horse come into a season carrying so much expectation. Never, surely, can the delivery have so fully matched the hope, and can his training team be so deserving of the laurels now so freely bestowed upon them.
To think that they had started with an injury scare. “He’s definitely been retired,” one normally impeccable source assured me at Aintree on Grand National day after Frankel had knocked a tendon at work earlier that week. To think that this was a horse with a powder keg temperament who could easily have been lost to us without the calmness and super professionalism of Henry Cecil’s riders and staff. To think that Cecil himself was so stricken by cancer that he could not make Goodwood, and no sight in all our extraordinary year of sport ever bettered the bravery of him striding out, newly hatted, with the saddle under his arm at York and at Ascot. He may have been stick insect thin and virtually unable to speak but this was what he had lived for. And so, to our unbelievable good fortune, had we.
Richard Hughes is also stick thin, but in his case it is by intention to keep his lanky frame below nine stone, and his season has been especially heroic as he had to give his rivals all of a month’s start. A dubious decision in India gave him a 50 day suspension which was even more dubiously upheld by the BHA so it was not until May 1st that Richard’s campaign began. His path may have been eased by the injury to Ryan Moore and by the wider implications of Paul Hanagan’s new role with Sheikh Hamdan, but Hughes’ six and a half months of sustained, classy excellence was worthy of a title in any season. With his ease and timing in the saddle Richard can look as insouciant as Gower was with the bat, or Hoddle with the ball at feet. But not only did he graft through over 800 rides for his 174 winning total (remember that seven winner day at Windsor), he was also a pillar of good sense and pleasantness and had the brains to give Racing Post readers a smashing column every Saturday. We would love to hate him but we can’t.
William Buick may not have been champion in numbers but with over £3million in prize money he was well clear in the earnings table on which golfers and tennis players are judged. The simplest compliment we can pay him is to say that covet no other rider when you see his name against a big race contender, and other trainers beside Gosden clearly think it too. 2012 may have been good for William with Gosden winners like Nathaniel’s Eclipse or Great Heavens’ Irish Oaks, but remember the coolness of those last to first sprints on Ortensia at Goodwood and York and you need to check the replay in astonishment. Those who have so long spurned the assets of sectional timing might like to also check how the individual furlong clockings of the Nunthorpe demonstrate that, in direct contrast to the impression of the naked eye, the last furlong is actually the slowest. The winner is overtaking not because she is going faster but through having more remaining strength and determination.
Other riding honours go to 23 year old Amy Ryan who continued her seven season improvement, and to 36 year old Graham Lee whose first full term on the flat after his Grand National winning career over jumps was so successful that he could be a championship challenger next year. Paul Hanagan won new friends in his first year down south and Michael Hills seems to have said goodbye too well when, at 49 and with a Derby and more than 2,000 other winners in the bag, he bowed out at Newmarket last month only to fail the breathalyser from the effects of the night before.
But the most intriguing jockey shift of the season was in the fortunes of the most famous of them all. When Godolphin drafted Mikael Barzalona in to share the rides with Frankie Dettori at the start of the year it looked as if they were challenging the old wolf to show he could still make his kill. After some sticky moments in early summer it seemed as if Dettori had re-asserted himself, most of all with his inspired driving of Colour Vision to out power Barzalona on Godolphin’s other runner Opinion Poll in the Ascot Gold Cup. But come the autumn it was the young wolf that was getting the call, and when a once more overlooked Frankie took the Arc de Triomphe ride on Camelot for arch rivals Coolmore, the final die was cast. Next season, at 42, Frankie will be three years younger than Lester Piggott was when he won the title in 1981, but Lester had an all-conquering Henry Cecil to supply the bullets. Whatever Frankie does cannot lessen the enormity of what he and Godolphin did during their 18 years together. In all they won more than 100 Group One races worldwide, quite simply the greatest international partnership racing has ever seen, and from the ride Frankie gave Snow Fairy at Leopardstown – surely the training performance of the season from Ed Dunlop – everyone’s favourite Italian is still a master behind the mane.
Godolphin itself got off to its usual doubt-fuelling start especially for Saeed Bin Suroor who seemed to be getting the Barzalona treatment from the younger Mahmood Al Zarooni. But by the season’s end the old dog had outgunned the younger 82-62 in the winners department. Significantly for the future, the figures were very much reversed in the two year old division as the two trainers helped Godolphin top Khalid Abdulla (at least on some charts) in the owners’ table although only by putting the sky blue silks on to Jim Bolger’s unbeaten Dawn Approach who duly obliged in the Dewhurst.
Once again Khalid Abdulla’s Juddmonte operation eschewed the sales ring for the home bred team and was repaid by the likes of Cityscape, Sea Moon, Bated Breath , Dundonnel, and Noble Mission as well as the last named’s legendary brother who will soon, like Arkle, no doubt be known just as “Himself.” The Coolmore/Ballydoyle method is rather different, but has set standards of its own which looked as if they were going to surpass themselves as Camelot jumped out of the stalls in the St Leger with only history and a mile and three quarters of Yorkshire turf between him and not just the Triple Crown but a clean sweep of all five English classics for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Inevitably, there were grumbles for young Joseph’s ride on the odds on favourite as he failed to peg back Godolphin’s Barzalona steered Encke at the line. Re-run the race ten times, he might have won it twice. That’s not unlucky, that’s racing chance. Camelot didn’t need excuses. He didn’t get the trip. We should just unite in thanks that Magnier and his cohorts had a cut. And just hope they might one day risk the same again.
Aidan O’Brien went out on such limb about Camelot beforehand – “I don’t want to say this but he is quite different to other horses”- that we feared he might never dare speak about his runners in future. Luckily he was back at Doncaster a month later to win the Racing Post Trophy with Kingsbarns ridden flawlessly by his son and bred by his wife Anne-Marie. Aidan smiled and shook his head as he patted the unbeaten son of Galileo. He doesn’t need to say anything. But he probably will.
The fact that we are so familiar with Aidan in the winners’ enclosure should not lessen the appreciation of his achievements – most especially as for him, these are all “away games”. In the twelve full years since he followed Istabraq’s final Champion Hurdle with “Iron Horse” Giants Causeway’s Eclipse winning summer he has set new benchmarks again and again. This season he looked like exceeding them for a while as Homecoming Queen followed Camelot at Newmarket for a 1,000 Guineas/2,000 Guineas double, as Was took the Oaks before Camelot’s glory gallop in the Derby, as St Nicholas Abbey hacked up in the Coronation Cup, as the mighty So You Think left us magnificently at Royal Ascot and as Excelebration finally and brilliantly escaped from Frankel’s shade at Ascot on Champions Day.
Nonetheless it was John Gosden who took both the title and his own standing to the new level to which he has long threatened to arrive at. No other stable in this or any country feels so comprehensively well organized and, 25 years since he returned from California, there is a strong feeling that the best is yet to come. His owners are a roll call of the highest players in the land and the sight of ace financier Nat Rothschild intensely helping his mother watch the horse Nathaniel who carries his name reminds us that Gosden does not only rely on Middle East investment for his future.
Many do of course and rightly count their blessings for it. What’s more, in the most significant move of the last ten years, the arrival of Sheikh Fahad and his Al Thani brothers of Qatar on to the scene has produced a new big team in the pit lane of racing’s Formula One. They are only three years in and last season was one of readjustment as Qatar Racing joined Pearl Bloodstock and other family members got involved. But, with the admirable David Redvers at their side, they certainly do not lack ambition nor width in their roster of trainers who include several of the leading handlers in the north acknowledging that area’s extraordinary resurgence in recent years on the flat. Mark Johnston, Richard Fahy, Kevin Ryan and Tim Easterby are all in the top 15, with Johnston fourth and Fahy fifth, with Johnston himself set for a record year with 212 winners already saddled by last weekend.
Johnston has made a virtue of his Maktoum connection as something of a proving ground for future Godolphin stars and it is to that camp that his Royal Lodge winner Steeler is probably headed and so will carry the same colours that the unbeaten filly Certify will take to the distaff classics next year. So too will the equally 100% record Dawn Approach who won an incredible fifth Dewhurst in seven years for his trainer Jim Bolger. Not surprisingly Sheikh Mohammed is allowing Bolger to continue handling Dawn Approach just as he did that colt’s sire New Approach before winning the 2008 Derby for Princess Haya. Those who think the thoroughbred is getting softer should study the ones Bolger breeds. Dawn Approach ran and won the first of his six juvenile races back in March. It does not seem to have done him too much harm.
The Aussies who came to Royal Ascot would have appreciated that as they tried to catch their breath after Luke Nolan dropped his hands on Black Caviar ten strides from the post at Ascot and nearly ruined the most exciting single race of the whole year. For nothing ever matched the anticipation in the paddock beforehand, the usual suspects reinforced by a raft of out of season jumping big wigs fascinated by the news that Black Caviar was supposed to be 580 kilos, a full 25 kilos heavier than Denman. Frankel had blown us all away with his performance in the Queen Anne Stakes, the opening event of the meeting. But in sheer statistics his ten from ten, and £1.5 million in prize money was dwarfed by the £3.5 million, 21 from 21 record which the Australian mare brought with her. She had to be the freak of freaks.
It says everything for Black Caviar and for the sportsmanship of those who sent her up from the bottom of the world to delight us, that what we saw was initially a disappointment. She was sweating and unhappy, her Australian winter coat confused by our midsummer and she carried herself with so little swagger that a watching Paul Nicholls exclaimed – “there is no way she is heavier than Denman.” Whatever her weight she can run all right. If the best gauge of a great team is that they grind out a victory even when things are all against them this was Black Caviar at Royal Ascot. Very quickly we could see she had the legs of the field. At the furlong pole it was clear those legs were weakening. Near the line it was almost catastrophe. But, in the oldest truth of all, the result is in the book.
Beforehand there had been lots of silly talk about Black Caviar and Frankel racing each other at Goodwood. Now their only union could be in the breeding shed and they have left us very big hoof prints to fill in 2013. Racing’s greatest attraction has always been the daily battle of hope against experience. Last season gave us the Frankel experience. Now it is time for hope to play its game .