RACING POST ANNUAL 2012
The great horses have a magic about them, there is both a wonder at what they do and a worry that they might lose it. Frankel was already a spell maker that first morning in March.
It was not just what he had done, his four victories had got Henry Cecil quoted as saying he was the best two year old he had ever trained. It wasn’t even the limitless potential of what Frankel might do. It was the stalking presence of his walk, the sense of hidden but explosive power in those hindquarters which converted at the gallop into that huge, forward-reaching stride as he stretched the reins up Warren Hill.
For with Frankel that stride, that rippling, rolling rocket of blood and bone and muscle, is at the heart of everything. It is what sets him apart from all the horses that have opposed him. It is what made him the premier pick amongst the 1988 foal crop at Prince Khalid Abdullah’s famous Juddmonte Farms breeding operation. But it also set Henry Cecil and his training team their biggest challenge as they tried to harness the stride without breaking the temperament. And on the racetrack the world has already seen times when Tom Queally has found that power almost too explosive a weapon.
Let it never be forgotten that the trainer can’t teach the horse to go faster than the genes and limbs and lung capacity allow, their job is to prevent the physical and psychological pitfalls which lie in wait for the young equine athlete as it goes through the rigours of race preparation. Frankel, arguably the apogee of 300 years of thoroughbred selection, has, touch wood, been a wonderfully healthy physical specimen but don’t doubt there have been moments when in the wrong hands his mind could have blown it.
There was a brief stage before he even got on a racecourse last summer when all he wanted to do was to let his stride loose and bolt into the distance in any direction. There was an ugly incident later when he was moved into a box nearer the trainer’s house and set about trying to kick it to pieces before getting back to his old lair and lying down in relief. Even this year the early horsebox trips from Warren Place across Newmarket to work on the racecourse side would be accompanied by some ferocious pounding from Frankel’s hooves. When Henry Cecil says that his champion “is not entirely straightforward” he is quietly paying tribute to the diligence of his team from dawn to dusk with a horse who doesn’t need aggravation. From Chris Russell feeding him, to Sandeep Guatharam grooming him, to Shane Featherstonhaugh riding him, the group around Frankel act with quiet and very practiced discipline. “Oh no you won’t,” said Henry when Racing Post photographer Edward Whitaker jokingly suggested he might take some flash pictures of Frankel in his box, “I can be very nasty when I want to.”
Back in March the routine was already set, Chris Russell on Frankel’s half brother , the 2010 Lingfield Derby Trial winner Bullet Train, leading Shane Featherstonhaugh on Frankel at the top of the string. Bullet Train was the slightly taller, maybe even more conventionally handsome of the two. Frankel would give the occasional buck of well being but he is neither a bouncing ball of energy like Motivator was, nor one of those sunny, ears-pricked horses who make you whistle of a morning. He is not that big, a size smaller than Sea The Stars, his neck is set a bit straight in front of him, but his whole being emanates a sense of purpose and power as those great hindquarters bend the legs beneath him. And that is only at a walk.
At the canter it is even more obvious. As Bullet Train led Frankel towards the four and a half furlong Warren Hill Polytrack which was their daily work bench you would notice the care with which assistant trainer Mike Marshall sheperded them on to the track, the gentlest of ways that Frankel would move from trot to canter, and then the so-controlled stillness on the Frankel rein as they came gunning past us that one wag laughed and said “if Shane as much as coughs he will not pull up till Moulton.”
Everyone already knew that they were housing something exceptional and the first gallops were awesome enough for the Racing Post’s David Milnes to spawn a headline saying “Frankel overtakes a train.” But what they did not know was what would happen when that stride was really let loose on a racetrack. All the emphasis on settling at home had meant that Tom Queally actually had to roust Frankel before storming clear first time out at Newbury and when the colt came past us up Warren Hill on the eve of the Guineas, he seemed so settled that Shane Featherstonhaugh’s reins were almost slack. Then we saw Bullet Train absolutely flat to the boards ahead of him. “I am not going to worry about the others, or the draw or the pacemaker” said Henry as we drove back to Warren Place, “he’s got this enormous stride. I want him to use it. I don’t mind if he goes all the way.”
The world now knows that what followed was the most astonishing, trail-blazing Two Thousand Guineas that any of us have ever seen. The satisfaction glowed up at Warren Place as the family standard flew on the masthead and Henry pulled back Frankel’s rugs to run his big hands lovingly over the horse’s flank and quarters. But what had been done needed to be undone. The sense of “we won’t use those tactics again” was so palpable over the next six weeks that it almost backfired at Ascot. My personal view is the problem with the near debacle of Frankel’s scrambling St James Palace victory was that the emphasis on settling the horse had worked so well that it surprised Tom Queally who with the pacemaker escaping over the horizon pressed the “Go” button far too early and the rocket was rapidly running out of fuel at the winning post.
It was a very public embarrassment; Henry Cecil wincing on camera and Tom Queally fudging away about that being the plan and the horse having plenty left at the finish. Closer to the action Mike Marshall shook his head as ‘Sandy’ led Frankel back, and said carefully “I hope we can put that behind us.” Truth be told there were some difficult days but Henry has 40 years of experience and Tom is old before his years and put his cause right with an inspired ride on Timepiece to win the Group One Falmouth Stakes at the July Meeting led in by a beaming Shane Featherstonehaugh who has groomed her since a two year old.
Best of all Frankel was beaming. “This is my favourite gallop,” said Henry one morning on the Limekilns as we waited alongside the Bury Road for the horses to come winging out of the rising sun. You could only get glimpses against the glare but there was that familiar set of the neck and the rapacious reach of the stride. The Hannon camp were saying bullish things about Canford Cliffs before the Sussex Stakes showdown. But that was as it should be. Frankel had a point to prove. If he was half the horse we thought he was, he was going to prove it however and wherever Canford went about his business.
So it happened on what remains the most golden day of them all. Newmarket may have been the most thrilling, Ascot’s Champions day the most finally fulfilling, but for sweet proof that we were into dreamtime there may never be anything to match what Frankel did when those gates whacked open at Goodwood. I had walked every yard of the course that morning trying to imagine how Queally would feel as he rolled his rocket off the turn and let that stride reach out where all the great ones had gone before. No dreams could have matched the real thing: the control, the speed and that raw power which saw Tom still poised whilst Frankie was scrubbing furiously on Rio de la Plata and Richard Hughes and Canford finally cracked and veered off line in defeat.
Mike Marshall and I stood whooping madly by the winning line, afterwards we ran up and hugged Sandy and travelling head man Mike McClagan and danced round in those silly little jigs of winning happiness. You didn’t need to be a form analyst to know what we had seen. Those three hundred years of selective breeding and two hundred years of racing horses across these downs had not all be in vain. The Thoroughbred’s boast of being England’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom and the fastest weight carrying creature the world has ever seen, has never been more gloriously proclaimed.
As he hosed Frankel off afterwards Sandeep Guathatharam was generous about the horse that has transformed his life since he left his earlier career as champion apprentice in Hyderabad. “He’s growing up all the time,” said ‘Sandy’, “we came down yesterday and he settled and ate all his feed with not a bother. He wants to please. He wants to get on with things. He can only get better. I am sure he will stay a mile and a quarter. To be honest I think he would have won the Derby.”
Talk of trying a mile and a quarter at York was quickly dismissed and while Frankel went on to the easy routine, the stable had one of its greatest days with Twice Over and Midday running first and second in the Juddmonte. Champions Day was a full two months away and it was time to take stock. Shane Featherstonhaugh explained how Frankel’s stride reaches out so far in front of him that you have to position yourself half a length further behind your leader than on a normal horse, head girl Dee Deacon showed the enormous feed tub as proof that Frankel actually eats more than anything else, a super relaxed Henry Cecil took us to his wardrobe and displayed the rows of silk shirts and cashmere jackets which, like the trees and flowers in the garden, are his out of stable delight.
But climaxes always have countdowns and as Ascot closed in the strain began to tell. Just because Frankel was odds on favourite did not mean that disaster did not dog you every day. One silly move, one frustrated kick, any little thing could end the game even before we got to race day. The trainer was still padding round the stable long before dawn, his face now drawn as the extra pressure of the yearling sales doubled up on the hassle of a long season not to mention the minor matter of cancer maintenance.
But the systems were all in place. Frankel still stalked round behind Bullet Train before his work each morning. Close up he seemed to have packed on even more muscle behind the saddle. On Newmarket’s watered gallop he stretched out as ruthlessly as ever. In the last week before Ascot two promising two year olds impressively broke their maidens. The scene was set but only the best would do.
It happened sure enough. If you had never heard anything about Frankel’s running style you would have wondered what all the fuss was about as he anchored off a pretty moderate pace and Queally admitted afterwards that his biggest worry was some crashing crate or stray spectator startling him on the way to the post. A couple of us had suggested that the champion had not looked quite as gleaming as usual in the paddock. “I don’t think you would have said that,” he said in that quiet way of his, “if you had felt what I felt underneath me when I let him stretch that stride at the three pole.”
Ah yes that stride, that Frankel stride. Burn it in the memory. For it’s a fair bet you will never see its like again. 2036 That’s until the next year which bring us to the greatest bonus of them all. Just at a time when racing as a whole and flat racing in particular was getting quite embarrassingly desperate for star turn to interest the public and what happens? The most charismatic flat racing trainer in racing history produces the horse he has (probably prematurely) described as “the best we have ever seen” and now we are invited to see Frankel as a four year old. What’s more just about all the indications are positive.
For a start the trainer is really looking forward to it. “He should be even better as a four year old, shouldn’t he?” says Henry, “he’s been growing up all the time and he would get a mile and a quarter now. We can have a nice quiet winter and he should be better than ever.” He was speaking in September before any of the Ascot hassle bit in and, as so often, while the points were made almost flippantly there was a real edge in the message he was delivering.
He and his staff really love their older horses. Twice Over is the most popular animal in the stable and Midday would be second if she wasn’t so insistent in kicking anybody except her close numbers out of the way. For all his brilliance Frankel has not always looked an entirely happy horse but the longer the year has gone the more settled he has seemed. If he continues this progress there is no reason why he should not be even more amenable in a racing situation in which case events like the Eclipse Stakes, The Juddmonte and The Champion should be well within his compass.
To match the 17/18 record of the 20th century’s greatest miler Brigadier Gerard Frankel ought also to win the King George VI and QEII Stakes over a mile at Ascot over a mile and a half, but if we excuse him that it would be great to see him fly the flag overseas which would certainly have happened for the 20!2 Breeders Cup Classic at Santa Anita in Los Angeles if that track had not returned to a dirt surface. But by next November his huge stride might even be up to that. With Frankel as a four year old the best is yet to come.