So it has come to this. Just two rivals in against Frankel and Canford Cliffs this afternoon and yet the racing world is beside itself with expectation. Never can we have been more challenged by the disbelieving words of Paul Mellon’s father Andrew about the enthusiasms of Mill Reef’s owner – “all that damned fuss about whether one horse runs faster than another.”
But the sheer simplicity is the key to it. When those four gates slam open just before 3.15 this afternoon we will be less than I minute 40 seconds away from a piece of history that will be forever written on the racing page. It is indeed just four horses running across the Sussex Downs but those 8 furlongs of effort will strain our emotions and link us from the present to the past like no other unscripted drama on this earth.
The thoroughbred racehorse may only have three hundred years of lineage compared to the South Downs’ 6 million but through those three centuries it has evolved as a breed to become the fastest weight carrying creature the world has ever seen and Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom. The quest throughout this time is to create the ultimate equine athlete and central to this afternoon’s excitement is to see whether the still unbeaten Frankel can be ranked as a contender towards that title.
Don’t let’s pretend it’s anything less. Part of racing’s seductive charm is how quickly we can fall for another “Wonderhorse.” With Sea The Stars two seasons ago we got as close as we have got in recent years and yet by the end of the season we were swooning, wrongly it transpired for St Nicholas Abbey. In May we were hailing Frankel’s 2,000 Guineas as one of the most astonishing performances we had ever seen but by June we were trying to ascribe his fading finish at Ascot merely to tactical error. It is to Frankel’s infinite credit that we have laden him with such superlatives but it also means that nothing less than emphatic victory this afternoon can keep the “Wonderhorse” dream alive.
That’s the challenge of it. Of course, as in much of life, it can all end in ante-climax, but every racing fan waking up this morning will have felt the frisson that before the sun has set we will know what happened in the showdown between Frankel and Canford Cliffs on those Sussex Downs. Whatever their convictions, wherever their money has gone, they will wonder what will actually happen when Tom Queally launches that massive Frankel stride and Richard Hughes tries to hook Canford Cliffs on to his quarters.
It is the sort of challenge that the game was built on in its original match racing days. How perfect a complement that the big two are trained by two men who for all their current prowess have such a ring of permanence that it is easy to imagine them in some Wooton sporting print. Richard Hannon and Henry Cecil combine more than 80 years of experience yet it feels as if it could be a couple of centuries more. Hannon says unequivocably that Canford Cliffs is the best horse he has ever trained. Cecil, with so many champions in his gallery, is reluctant to be drawn but you know he believes Frankel already high amongst their number.
Whole forests have been felled to provide enough pages for the predictions already penned. But having had the pleasure of watching Frankel in home action quite a lot this year it has become hard not to think that one was watching something quite unusual. Even at the walk there is a powerful, pantheresque purpose to his stride which at full gallop develops itself into a raking stretch I like to believe is actually even more impressive than all the others I have seen before.
But that’s me now falling for racing’s seductive charms. The truth will out this afternoon. All those plans, preparations and predictions will count for nothing as those four horses get loaded in. Let the gates swing open and the runners come.