Sunday 19 November 2017

Nerves fray in drive for line

The pressures faced by top jockeys came to the fore at Ascot, writes Ian McClean

Seldom has triumph seemed so tragic. Seldom has big-race victory placed so much strain on the victors as when racing's latest sensation Frankel toughed it out to grimly maintain his unbeaten career record in Tuesday's St James' Palace Stakes at Ascot.

As the Queen's carriage passed the winning line in front of the press balcony before racing, one colleague crowed: "That's the first of two processions today". But whilst Her Majesty passed the post in front with the result never in doubt, the expected re-enactment 90 minutes later, whilst it duly appeared, did not materialise in the manner everybody anticipated.

Newly honoured trainer Sir Henry Cecil should have been exulting in his 73rd Royal winner -- and his first as a knight of the realm -- but instead he described the experience of witnessing Frankel cling onto victory as "nerve-wrecking". Prompted further, he continued: "If I were to run that race again in another half an hour, it would be very different. Right? End of story."

If Sir Henry appeared aggrieved at the manner of Frankel's win, then Tom Queally, the man responsible for discharging the tactics, was even more palpably ill-at-ease in the post-race press conference. His body language said it all. It spoke more of a bereavement than a celebration, inferring that although racing's top bill had extended his unbeaten record to seven, Frankel had done so in spite of the strategy, not because of it. Tom Queally's hasty move from travelling with delicious comfort one moment to riding Frankel's ears off the next provided an object lesson in how pressure scrambles thought. The solitary argument in the jockey's defence is that the horse won. But at what cost?

Whilst connections argued that Frankel was simply idling -- and it was that which reduced his six-length advantage at the two-furlong pole to a diminishing three quarters of a length at the post -- the more plausible view is that the spontaneous mid-race burst had reduced Frankel to exhaustion by the finish.

Without the 21st century standard of sectional timings to shed absolute light on it, a hand-timed reading suggests Frankel ran the last three furlongs (38 seconds) four seconds slower than the preceding three furlongs (34 seconds).

While Frankel's victory in the 2,000 Guineas elicited gasps of awe, the fearsomely aggressive manner also caused some seasoned race-readers to question the need and even go so far as to wonder if the rest of his season hadn't been left behind on the Heath that day in early May.

Tuesday's performance was now the third time in a row that unorthodoxly pugnacious means have been employed to defeat inferior opponents -- unnecessarily it transpires. Significantly, the brilliance that characterised both previous Group Ones was absent by the finish on Tuesday.

Apart from the obvious victory, the major positive from Tuesday's race is the fact that the hot-blooded Frankel is now proving more tractable and was settling better than he ever has done before being prematurely set alight. Cecil acknowledged this and ventured "We can now ride him like a normal horse". To date it seems this unconventional talent has been matched by an unconventional ride. His next assignment appears now likely to be in the Sussex which sets up the clash of the season (or all seasons?) with Queen Anne winner Canford Cliffs. That horse's jockey Richard Hughes, reflecting on Queally's exploits on Tuesday in his Racing Post column yesterday, said: "If he (Frankel) is ridden the way he was ridden on Tuesday I'll definitely beat him, but I think we all know he won't be ridden that way again."

At least in winning the feature on Tuesday Tom Queally didn't infringe the rules of racing -- which is more than can be said for the winners of the feature races on Wednesday and Thursday. Both Frankie Dettori (Rewilding) and Jamie Spencer (Fame And Glory) were in breach of the whip guidelines and incurred a suspension each as a result.

This follows on the back of Jason Maguire's five-day ban for using his whip with "unnecessary frequency" on Ballabriggs in the Grand National. Unfolding in the spotlight of horseracing's shop window you can be sure of one thing -- it doesn't look good. If jockeys are resorting to breaking the rules in showcase races to ensure victory with such high-profile frequency, it means that both the rules and penalties need to be closely examined. Even the normally circumspect BHA was forced to admit through head of communications Paul Struthers that "all this week's events showed is that the rules and penalties don't work".

Indeed, the BHA is already engaged in a full-scale review of the whip -- where Jamie Steer, head of raceday operations and regulations, admitted "everything is on the table" -- and this week will only serve to sharpen their pencil. On that note, even a layman's understanding of brain science will reveal that the metrics by which jockeys are evaluated are wrong and will never yield a satisfactory outcome.

The whip rules allow that a jockey can hit a horse 16 times during a race. Frankie Dettori used his whip 24 times in the last two furlongs to get Rewilding home in front of So You Think in the Prince of Wales's on Wednesday. Do you think Dettori had any idea how many times he hit the horse? Was he counting? The fact is that he wasn't capable of counting in the last two furlongs.

The brain is made up of two parts -- cognitive and emotional. One part is always in control. Mostly it's the cognitive, rational side. But at moments of high intensity (two-year-old temper tantrums, episodes of road rage etc) the emotional, limbic side takes control and hijacks rational thought. This combines with a cocktail of body chemicals that top athletes in full flight describe as putting them "in the zone". Does Dettori know the rule about whip frequency? Does Spencer know not to hit a horse down the neck in the forehand position?

Of course they do cognitively -- but it is not humanly possible in the heat of the drive to the line to make that rational call. It becomes all too apparent in the aftermath -- which is why Frankie was said by Simon Crisford to be "philosophical" about his infringement. Interesting that amongst the many lessons at Ascot this week there was even one on philosophy . . .

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