Monday 20 February 2017

Freak show lives up to the hype

Frankel's Sussex Stakes victory sets the scene for a tantalising duel closer to home, writes Ian McClean

Published 31/07/2011 | 05:00

It might have simply passed unnoticed when Charming Native scored at Windsor on May 14, 1979. But the Jeremy Tree-trained winner ignited a fire in Saudi Arabian businessman Khalid Abdullah that would continue to blaze throughout the next four decades.

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The infant spark, which began when renting a house in London during the 1960s, grew to an inferno that has seen the prince become the only current owner to have owned and bred all five British Classic winners. And although Wednesday's Goodwood Sussex Stakes had fallen to him on three previous occasions (with Rousillon, Warning and Distant View), it is certain that none will have been received in the manner of Frankel.

There was, uncharacteristic for Flat racing, an immediate stampede to the winner's enclosure on the Sussex Downs after the race. And there, amid prolonged cheers and tears, one gentleman in a Panama called three cheers for Sir Henry, and was heartily obliged. Most knew of the vicissitudes Cecil had conquered to be here, both private and professional; while some, including Khalid Abdullah, will also have remembered Bobby Frankel, the legendary trainer with whom he enjoyed tremendous US success and who in 2009 lost his own battle with cancer, the same illness Cecil has been fighting. Not for the first time in horse racing, poignant nostalgia was being grafted to euphoria.

The horses -- unlike anywhere I've been -- walk anti-clockwise in the parade ring at Goodwood. That there were only four for the Sussex didn't prevent the paddock from being thronged to capacity.

It is also rare but when you see senior jockeys abandon the weigh-room to go paddock-side for a race where they don't have a ride you know it must be serious. Paul Hanagan, Ryan Moore, Hayley Turner and many more emerged to catch a view of Frankel and Canford Cliffs in the immediate prologue to the Duel on the Downs. Frankel had visibly matured in condition since Ascot, becoming every inch the "monster" Cecil once described, and was far more tractable too in the preliminaries. Simply looking, it made you wonder even before the race about the fairness of the weight-for-age concession. You could never have gleaned just from physical constitution which of the pair was the older horse.

Watching the race about a furlong and a half from the post was most revealing. When Tom Queally reported afterwards of Frankel, "He's got that turbo, he's a freak", you knew exactly what he meant. For it was roughly at that point Queally engaged "that turbo". From there the physical transformation was palpable as Frankel instantly crouched lower to the ground and extend that raking stride of his, creating immediate daylight between he and a toiling Canford Cliffs. The 'duel' was over in three strides.

It all meant that on Wednesday we got an unforgettable performance from the (now officially) best horse in the world. What we didn't get was a duel, but then you can't have it both ways. It is medieval that we still do not have sectional timings for these races but one hand-timed report clocked Frankel's last half mile at 44 seconds and the last furlong in under 11. The overall time is less informative because of the initial dawdle out of the gate.

In terms of measuring the merit of Wednesday's performance, BHA senior handicapper Dominic Gardiner-Hill said afterwards: "I can't see any way Frankel won't be rated the best horse in the world after that. Before today's race he was on 130, which was the same as the Australian sprinter Black Caviar, but in terms of a published figure, I think he will go up to at least 133 and quite probably 134 or 135.''

Timeform has been in the ratings business since the 1940s and Frankel is now nudging up towards Timeform's 145 benchmark for greatness held by Sea Bird. Ironically, one of the other horses in the 140s is Dancing Brave, also owned by Khalid Abdullah, but the prince had no hesitation in declaring Frankel superior even to him after Wednesday. The other horse rated above 140 is Brigadier Gerard, coincidentally the only horse in the last 40 years to win first the 2,000 Guineas, then the St James's Palace and afterwards the Sussex by a five-length margin.

It seems remarkable that just two years ago we were celebrating Sea The Stars as the horse of a lifetime -- and that just one year after the remarkable filly Zarkava retired after an unbeaten 7/7. If she had raced outside France, we might have had a better idea as to her true merit.

If the Sussex showcased Frankel's best performance yet, and is contrasted with the St James's Palace (his worst), it provides us with a neatly summarised handbook for tactical approach. It seems after Wednesday that Frankel has been mopping up Group Ones in spite of the tactics employed. Before the Sussex, connections were guilty of over-complication. The pattern shifted from 'accelerate-then die' in the James's Palace to 'conserve-then accelerate' in the Sussex -- an approach described almost surprisingly by Queally in the aftermath as "incredibly straightforward". Then again I suppose every day is a school day in this game.

The good news-bad news story of Frankel's future is that he will likely stay in training as a four-year-old but may have just one more run this season, the QEII at Ascot in October. The decision by the prince to stay in training has to be applauded as it means forfeiting a pile in stud fees for 2012. Bloodstock experts estimate his stallion fee would amount to at least €80,000 and that multiplied by a conservative 100 mares equates to a conservative revenue of €8m in year one at stud.

As for this year, realising that York's Juddmonte International might come too soon after Goodwood for Frankel, wouldn't it be great if there was a Group One mile-and-a-quarter race between then and October?

Cue Leopardstown's Champion Stakes, ideally poised on September 3 with no less than So You Think lying in wait. And remember connections of Frankel sent over Twice Over for the event last season so there is a precedent. Now there's a duel. As I consult my diary, I see my wife is due to give birth that day. Now there's a dilemma.

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