Tuesday 16 January 2018

'One of them has to get beat'

Tactics should prove the key factor when Frankel and Canford Cliffs clash this week, writes Ian McClean

Every sport has its legendary head-to-heads. Borg-McEnroe. Ali-Frazier. Coe-Ovett. England-Germany. Arguably the most talked-up duel in the history of European Flat racing took place at precisely this time of year back in 1975. Video replays of Grundy defeating Bustino in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes appear almost as frequently as Arkle or Red Rum footage over jumps -- and those old enough to remember the event still swear it was the greatest head-to-head of all time. And its aura has only grown with the retelling.

The recipe of champion youth (Grundy) confronting his champion elder (Bustino) has an echo that resonates all the way back to the origins of ancient mythology.

There have been ladles of equine face-offs throughout the intervening years but rarely has any reached the cacophony of anticipation generated by the 'Duel on the Downs' scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at Glorious Goodwood between unbeaten Frankel and his elder Canford Cliffs.

The clamour began within moments of Frankel crossing the line in Royal Ascot's St James's Palace Stakes. Invincible amongst his own age group, his triumph came just an hour after Canford Cliffs had lowered the colours of the indomitable Goldikova over the same distance in the Queen Anne. Speculation that the two champions might cross swords in the Sussex Stakes began almost immediately and, unusually for these things, we are now safely on the verge of the event.

Moreover, preparations have gone like clockwork and we arrive here with both sets of connections unable to countenance defeat for their runner. "It's going to be a hell of a race, no doubt," said Canford Cliff's trainer Richard Hannon. "Unfortunately one of them will be beaten. Frankel is the best horse in the world and if Canford Cliffs beats him then he takes that position."

The Sussex Stakes has itself a chequered history. First run in 1841, it was confined to two-year-olds for the first 37 years and was uncontested (including 14 walkovers) 25 times in that period. Since those inauspicious beginnings it has gradually morphed into the definitive all-generation mile championship of the summer.

Henry Cecil claimed last year that Frankel was his best two-year-old since Wollow, and Frankel bids to emulate that horse by becoming the eighth horse to follow up his 2,000 Guineas win with a victory in the Sussex. Frankel, even from before his debut, has always been heralded as a champion. He has started odds-on for six of his seven races. Unbeaten as a two-year-old, he won the Greenham before destroying the opposition at the prohibitive odd of 1/2 in the Guineas. Canford Cliffs, by contrast, was defeated in his final two-year-old outing (at Deauville), was beaten (by stablemate Dick Turpin) in the Greenham and started a remarkable 12/1 for the Guineas in which he finished third to Makfi.

So far, so Frankel. However, Frankel's subsequent performance in the St James's Palace has served to cool the ardour of his perceived invincibility. It was summarised neatly at the time by BHA Mile handicapper Dominic Gardiner-Hill: "Yes, Frankel kept his unbeaten record intact but, to be perfectly honest, left me a little deflated immediately after. Like just about everyone else on the Heath, I was hoping for another demolition job but it didn't happen."

The deflation led to a rating of 122, a dramatic reduction when compared to his Guineas annihilation mark of 130.

Canford Cliffs, just one hour before, had run to a rating of 127 in beating Goldikova with the handicapper adding almost presciently afterwards: "I am still of the belief that Canford Cliffs has a 130 performance in him but given his style of running he needs a top-quality target to pull him through to that figure." So is it that Canford Cliffs is still on a belatedly upward curve while Frankel's extraordinary precocious edge is being irreconcilably eroded?

All of this tees us up neatly for the item that will probably decide which wins the duel: tactics. This equation, however, is totally one-sided because wherever Frankel is in the race Canford Cliffs will be sitting behind and stalking him. So the tactical question is all about Frankel.

It is going to be a small field and this time the Frankel team have elected not to enter a pacemaker. The Frankel challenge for connections in all his races has been to try to keep his fizz in the bottle. The pacemaker couldn't even get to the pace in the Guineas, which resulted in that spectacular if unorthodox jump-and-run assault so devastating at Newmarket. The pacemaker fulfiled his duty up to a point in the St James's Palace, before Tom Queally perpetrated that mid-race move which drew so much criticism at Ascot.

So how do they keep the fizz in Frankel's bottle before uncorking it at precisely the right moment? Richard Hughes, rider of Canford Cliffs, has his doubts that they can. "I'd imagine there won't be much pace, and not much pace means you run free. And if you're a Frankel supporter . . ."

He also has an interesting take on the Ascot race. "We were going a million [miles an hour] up the hill. I was on Dubawi Gold, sitting second and I couldn't have gone an inch faster. So that's why he [Frankel] settled so well. But I think, if they were going slow, then he'd be keen."

There is the real prospect that Frankel might have to make his own running unless Henry Cecil has managed to calm the natural impetuosity inherent in his talent.

The dressing on the Frankel-Canford Cliffs salad stems from the additional narrative that neither Henry Cecil nor Richard Hannon, champion trainers of 1993 and 1992 respectively, succeeded in winning another trainer's title between them until last year. Both have suffered their own traumas.

Hannon had triple-bypass cardiac surgery while Cecil has returned from a personal and professional wilderness so dense many would have thought it impossible.

But for about a minute and a half all that will be set aside and it will be all about the horses, and perhaps the jockeys. Hannon nailed it when he said: "If there are any weaknesses in Canford Cliffs, I haven't found them. Frankel is rated the best horse in the world. But one of them has to get beat."

Sunday Indo Sport

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