Is Frankel the Greatest Racehorse of All Time?

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Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Tom Quealy on Frankel celebrates after winning The Champion Stakes during the British Champions Day at Ascot racecourse in southern England October 20, 2012.

At this point, what else is there left to say about the wonder horse named Frankel? For the uninitiated, going into Saturday’s Champion Stakes at Ascot, just outside of London, the four-year-old colt had won all 13 of his races, a feat which simply defies belief.

But we’ll try and find some words. It’s well known that the British love their horse racing, and take certain horses to their hearts. Whether you’re in favor of or against the annual running of the Grand National, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion every April when the TV networks re-run the incredible escapades of Red Rum, who romped to victory three times during the 1970s.

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And yet Frankel could be in a league of his own. First the backstory: his trainer is the great Henry Cecil, who has been working with horses for over four decades. In 2006, Cecil was diagnosed with stomach cancer but said that training this special horse made him feel “20 years better.” What’s more, he considers Frankel the finest he’s ever worked with as well as the best he’s seen. “I am so lucky to have been allocated Frankel to train. He has been an inspiration and challenge, which I really needed so badly. Through my illness, I feel that the help from my wife Jane and the determination to be there for Frankel has helped me so much to get through the season.” There’s also a grim irony, for Frankel was named after the legendary American Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who died from cancer in 2009

Next the racing reality: Since making his debut as a 2-year-old, in August 2010, Frankel has remained unbeaten, with his sheer speed – especially down the final stretch – simply beautiful to behold (he covers an incredible 22 feet with each stride, as well as having an unusually large heart). The following April, at the 2,000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket in April 2011, he actually had a lead of a quite staggering 15 lengths at one point, before easing to the line six lengths clear. No wonder Frankel has been called the –ahem — Usain Colt of horseracing, for that’s exactly the way the Jamaican sprinter has dealt with his competition (for what it’s worth, Frankel can cover 100 meters in 5.2 seconds).

It’s impossible to keep up, both in terms of his rival horses and fans of the sport trying to figure out this unprecedented run of success. Most recently, as a 4-year-old, Frankel won the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot by 11 lengths and the International Stakes at York by seven — rather shabby by his standards. His eighth straight European Group One win resulted in his rating with Timeform (the firm that ranks the performance of horses) going up to 147, its highest ever mark. In terms of comparison, that elevates him above the likes of such magnificent beasts as Dancing Brave (who, it should be noted, holds a slight edge in the international rankings), Sea Bird, Brigadier Gerard and Tudor Minstrel.

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But the question on sports fans’ lips Saturday, in what was expected and later confirmed to be Frankel’s final hurrah before going out to stud, was whether his career could possibly end in defeat. There were only five horses standing between a 14th victory and a retirement earning in the region of $160 million for owner Prince Khalid bin Abdullah by producing winners of the future. What’s more, one of his challengers was his half-brother and the 100/1 pacemaker, Bullet Train. Admittedly, two of his rivals were deemed considerably tougher challengers, as they’re in the top five of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ (IFHA) world thoroughbred rankings. One of them was Cirrus Des Aigles, who happened to be the defending champion, so he clearly liked the Ascot ground, and Nathaniel is a class contender. Adding to the potential woes, the ground was forecast to be soft, and heavy in places, which Frankel is almost unaccustomed to. He experienced such conditions on his debut and only won by half a length. (All that said, he still went off as the 1-5 favorite Saturday, which meant you had to bet $5 to win just $1 back.)

One of the jockeys, who was expecting to admire Frankel from quite some distance, was Frankie Dettori, who rode on Pastorius. “I haven’t seen his face; I only see his backside. But even if you do get beat, you have to admire him and clap him. I’m a sportsman and I really appreciate him being around,” he said. Dettori told the BBC that “the competition is very strong, but I can see it being another walk in the park for Frankel. He’s a true champion.” When you consider that Dettori has finished behind Frankel on no fewer than eight occasions – losing by an aggregate distance of over 104 lengths – his generous words gave an indication of how much the superstar horse is loved.

Even more special was that, among the 32,000 sellout crowd on Saturday was a certain Queen Elizabeth II, who enjoys the sport as much as any of her subjects. They all got a slight shock at the start as he hesitated out of the gate, which could well have resulted from his feeling so relaxed due to the applause which greeted him. It meant that his regular jockey Tom Queally had to work him harder than usual to get him back in contention but it was the only moment of doubt as he glided towards the front and then Queally let him roar home, to see off Cirrus Des Aigles by a length and three-quarters. The crowd went wild and even the Queen herself seemed to offer a wave in the direction of Queally and Frankel. “He was happy all the way, his class really really showed today,” Queally told the BBC. “He was in great heart today. What can I say about him that hasn’t already been said?”

Indeed. Some have carped that because all of Frankel’s 14 victories came on home soil, rather than foreign fields, it means he’ll never be considered a true great of the sport. Utter nonsense, for we should consider ourselves fortunate to have witnessed his true brilliance and cherish the memories.

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