At 7.30 a.m. yesterday a cowboy-hatted drunk made his slow and extremely unsteady way down Warren Hill. Up at Warren Place the trainer’s face had a peaceful sobriety about it as Frankel walked the yard as the flag flew proud above. In one weekend there had been anticipation, exhilaration and relaxation: three momentous days in Frankel’s meteorite route across our horizon; just another astonishing chapter in the unique story that is Henry Cecil.
Sharing the special mixture of relief and satisfaction that pervades the morning after a major triumph is one of the sweetest pleasures that racing can give but in, god help me, over forty years of such pilgrimages maybe none has matched the delight of being at Warren Place yesterday. As the sun began to work its magic there was the feeling that this is not just what it used to be, it is what it should be.
At Frankel’s head 30 year old “Sandy” Gauravaram led his horse round with the calm of a man who has already made two crucial decisions in his life: the first to take his chance in Britain after an early career as champion apprentice in Hyderabad, the second to put in for the handsome Galileo yearling when he arrived in December 2009. At the trainer’s side, assistant Mike Marshall was a study of slightly hungover concentration, and Henry Cecil wanted to look to the future rather than the past.
In the trotting ring new Derby favourite World Domination was limbering up for his date in The Dante. In the paddock Twice Over, the stable’s highest ever earner, cropped grass in anticipation of his return in the Lockinge at Newbury as his trainer smiled at him with real affection. But even he could not avoid the Frankel images that blazed in the memory. “It was very good wasn’t it?,” he said flicking his head and pacing away took another pull on the cigarette. “He has such a tremendous stride that we wanted to let him use it. And it worked didn’t it? Quite special really.”
Mike Marshall gave a crumpled smile at the understatement. He would have been in short trousers when Bolkonski and Wollow opened Cecil’s 25 Classic haul in 1975 and 76, but he too knew that however impressive those victories were, they never touched the extraordinary image of Frankel in mid flight. Even 18 hours after the event it was still almost impossible to believe that the calm wide-faced animal that walked the yard was the same massive-muscled super power who had torn a classic to ribbons before the half way stage. But he was, and the true beauty of yesterday morning was that they had expected it.
With one exception, no one had dared put it into words in the build up. But in several visits this spring the impression that Frankel could be something altogether exceptional was something much stronger than any sentimental wish to see Henry Cecil complete the unique journey of returning back to the very top only six years after being as near as near as Doomsday to the very bottom. Frankel stalked Bullet Train like a mighty panther in the string. He came up Warren Hill with such power that you felt that if exercise rider Shane Featherstonehaugh as much as coughed it would be next stop Moulton. “I think he’s a very good horse,” Henry would say in the car, “but it’s a long season and a lot of things can go wrong can’t they.”
They didn’t go wrong at Newbury but some of us who had been around reservations at how hard he pulled early on and how comparatively pressed, albeit briefly, he was by a second rater at the furlong pole. Back in that Greenham Wollow had put things to bed much quicker when Dettori senior had released the brake. Expressing such thoughts at Warren Place three days after this year’s race hardly seemed diplomatic and the more one looked at Frankel and listened to his connections, the easier it became to think we might be into something exceptional.
The clincher came on Friday. Trainers are usually best given a wide berth on such eve of classic occasions but Cecil had almost more bonhomie than nail biting banter. He came over to James Fanshawe to enquire about his injured son. He joshed John Gosden about not making the Royal Wedding guest list. He even asked a slightly startled Michael Stoute to share a photo. But then he and we had watched Frankel at the breeze.
Some of us had not being paying attention. At the head of the string Frankel was following Bullet Train for what is normally the opening canter. As Frankel loped past us, it seemed that Shane Featherstonehaugh’s arms seemed less stretched than usual. Then we looked at the lead horse. It was being ridden flat out while the Guineas favourite just coasted behind it. Here was an image of raw power and easy speed only arrived at by three full centuries of sending horses up this very hill. In the car back to Warren Place, Henry was unusually animated. “I have a plan,” he said taking those big hands off the steering wheel. “I don’t think there is any point in worrying about the others or about the pacemaker and the draw. I want him to use his stride. If he had to, he could go all the way.”
Having been the regular work rider of both Midday and Motivator Shane Featherstonehaugh is not un-associated with greatness nor quick to overpraise. But pressed on the phone a fortnight ago he dropped his voice to an almost awestruck whisper and said “you just cannot imagine the feeling of power that this horse gives. If you let him stride he doesn’t seem to be going fast but then you look round and they are miles behind you. I honestly think we might see something incredible at Newmarket.”
Five minutes after the call, a worried Shane rang back. “That’s not going to go in the paper before the race,” he said. It didn’t. But it is now.