SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
Don’t think he only has to turn up and canter past the stands. Frankel is the most consistently, extravagantly, brilliant flat racehorse any of us have ever seen. But he is not unbeatable, and if the rains keep coming it would not be a total surprise if the French horse Cirrus des Aigles turned him over at Ascot next Saturday.
“Frankel Fever” is running at such an unprecedented height that it seems near sacrilege to even whisper the above. Every newspaper, this included, are running extensive features about “The Wonder Horse” and his heroically charismatic trainer Henry Cecil. Frankel and Henry both have their own websites, radio and TV programmes are listed all through next week, books are planned, I have even written one myself. But none of these make Frankel run any faster nor better equip him for what looks set to be both the toughest as well as final test of his unbeaten and so far unmatchable career.
For Cirrus des Aigles, whose 16 victories have already won prize money of £3.8 m compared to his rival’s £2.2m, will certainly be the toughest scrapper that Frankel has ever faced and about as complete a contrast of circumstances as the thoroughbred world can give. While Saturday’s Qipco Champion Stakes will be the four year old Frankel’s 14th and last race before retiring to the 150-mare seasons at stud, the six year old Cirrus des Aigles will be running for the 45th time and as a gelding has to eschew the covering shed for the racecourse challenge. What’s more, even at the end of this fifth season, there is every sign that “Cirrus” is better than ever.
Mind you he has had to climb a long way from where he began and as the media flock to the little 35 box (Cecil has 150) yard of trainer Corinne Badal-Barbe in Chantilly and study the humbly bred, one horse owner, rival to the apple of the mighty Juddmonte operation’s eye, they should rejoice that champions can rise to greatness by such different routes. Frankel won all four of his races as a two year old climaxing in Group One successes in the Royal Lodge and The Dewhurst. Cirrus des Aigles’ four juvenile efforts were winless, his first victory (at the 6th attempt) was in a little race on the all-weather at Cagnes Sur Mer in January 2009, his first attempt at the highest Group One level did not come until his 17th (yes 17th) run of that three year old season, and his first win in that category did not come until he won the inaugural Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot last October.
In defeating the great Australian So You Think and the crack racemares Snow Fairy and Midday, Cirrus des Aigles set a new record for the Ascot mile and a quarter and raised his status to third behind Frankel in the official World Thoroughbred Rankings – up from 95th in 2010. Good though that fast ground performance might have been, all the evidence of Cirrus des Aigles’ career is that he is signifigantly better on soft or heavy ground. In such conditions he won consecutive races at Deauville last year by eight lengths and then by ten. This April he took the Group One Prix Ganay by eight lengths and only last Saturday had a full ten to spare over toiling rivals at Longchamp. In heavy conditions Cirrus des Aigles has something extra. Does Frankel?
The only time our champion has raced on soft ground was in his very first race, at Newmarket in August 2010, when he was eventually a decisive if only half length victor over the subsequent King George and Eclipse winner Nathaniel who finally meets him again on Saturday. The sheer power of Frankel’s stride looks as if it might be better suited to softer conditions but there is the world of difference between ‘a bit of cut’ and the sort of stuff that found out Camelot and so many others in the Arc last Sunday. Ascot may not be bogged down next to the Seine but, as I remember all too well from riding exhausted chasers round there in the winter, it can be a pitiless place when the ground gets heavy. On TV it looks comparatively flat but in the saddle you are climbing all the way from Swinley Bottom and while Frankel toyed with Farh and St Nicholas Abbey at York, the flat, fast Knavesmire will be a very different deal from digging in against the collar at Ascot.
On most figures, the French horse has some ten pounds (five lengths) to find but that is in no way impossible if Frankel’s speed is blunted and Olivier Peslier exploits the stamina which saw Cirrus des Aigles land the £1.9million Dubai Sheema Classic (from St Nicholas Abbey) at the end of March. In this golden autumn of his career Peslier only has to look back seven days to his shock overhauling of Japanese ‘wonder horse’ Orfevre to win the Arc on the unfancied but mud-loving Solemia,to remember what can happen to the best of runners when fatigue starts to bite. Orfevre may be no Frankel, but Cirrus des Aigles is a whole league ahead of Solemia. Even in soft ground ‘Cirrus’ can put in back-to-back sub 12 second furlongs as a race builds to climax. On a good surface Frankel can do this too, at Royal Ascot he even ran an individual furlong in 10.58 which was quicker than any sprinter in the Kings Stand. He may be 1-7 in the betting, but if it rains Saturday will be his severest test.
Which is as it should be. Too often, through no fault of his own, Frankel’s races have been little more than exhibition gallops. He has been favourite every time he has run, odds on for the last thirteen, and at least 1-10 on his last three appearances. The BBC will rightly laud him high above the roof tops as it makes a blockbuster bow-out from the racing scene. But it and we should never underestimate quite how much Cirrus des Aigles has already lived up to his name. He could yet rain on Frankel’s parade.