NEVER mind ‘The X Factor’, what about the Frankel Factor?
One of TV’s most popular shows might be engrossing the nation at the moment. But in the racing world, all eyes are on this coming Saturday (October 20) and the swansong of probably the greatest racehorse of all time.
It’s the second staging of the Qatar British Champions Day at Ascot. An ambitious, new event, launched last year, to provide a grand finale to the Flat season in this country.
It had is detractors. It could have fallen flat on its face. But it has been a resounding success -- thanks largely to the presence of Frankel.
At last year’s inaugural Champions Day, Sir Henry Cecil’s colt wowed the crowd with a virtuoso performance to win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
Now, the countdown is on to what is almost certain to be the farewell performance of a glittering, unbeaten career in the Champion Stakes.
The Champions Day spactacular has been a sell-out for many weeks. Tickets on eBay are fetching up to £200. Not even the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Derby sell out beforehand these days. So there can be only one reason for the appeal of Ascot -- Frankel.
How disappointing then to hear Channel 4’s head of sport, Jamie Aitchison, pooh-pooh the pulling power of the racehorse when talking at a Leaders In Racing conference last week.
Channel 4 take responsibility for the TV coverage of all UK racing from January 1, and Aitchison said: “What has clearly emerged from our market research is that you can’t target the horse. To get racing out to the public, as much as we all love Frankel, you need to utilise the jockeys and the trainers and tell the human stories.”
Quite who, as part of its market research, Channel 4 asked is, as so often in such cases, unclear. But what is clear is the overwhelming impact Frankel’s remarkable career has had on racing followers over the past two years.
This is a sport where, by and large, racegoers react according to the way they bet. But Frankel’s presence has overriden all gambling tendencies. Affection and admiration for him have ignored the fact that he has been unbackable virtually from the moment he stepped on a racecourse, being returned long odds-on in all but the first of his 13 victories.
I have never known a paddock as thronged as it was for Frankel’s comeback run at Newbury in May. I have never been caught up in such excited emotion that greeted his successful step-up from 1m to 10f in the Juddmonte International at York in August. Racing crowds do not do spontaneous cheers and applause for one horse. They did that day.
They also rushed from the bars to the stands at Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting last month, just to see him lob along in a workout gallop an hour before racing.
We live in a sporting age where gushing tributes roll off the tongue. Even so-called experts use phrases such as “the best ever” or “the greatest in the world” far too readily. Only the other day, I heard Paul Merson on Sky Sports’s woefully stale ‘Gillette Soccer Saturday’ show describe Leighton Baines as the “best full-back in the world”. Give me strength! Has the man not heard of Jordi Alba, of Marcelo, of Ashley Cole even? More to the point, has he not seen Baines defend?
However, with Frankel, it is very difficult to argue against his label as the best racehorse the world has been privileged to see.
Some still try. I have one follower on Twitter who insists he has never seen -- and never will see --anything better than the French colt Sea-Bird, who blasted to his way to the Derby/Arc double in 1965.
Other veteran racegoers refuse to accept that Frankel is better than Brigadier Gerard, superstar of the early 1970s, who took in most of the races Cecil’s colt has won but also added the King George over 12f of the summer of 1972. It still rankles with many that Frankel has not tried 12f at all, even though he’s a son of Derby winner Galileo and his second dam won the Lancashire Oaks.
Cecil’s reasoning behind this is that Frankel’s dam, Kind, was very speedy. And the colt himself tended to be highly strung and brimming with fizz in his early days, tempting the trainer to map out a programme of races that shunned both the Derby and the Arc.
But this still did not prevent racing enthusiast Robert Coppini presenting a most persuasive argument in a letter to the ‘Racing Post’ only last Sunday, suggesting that Sea The Stars deserves a higher pedestal than Frankel.
Invariably, Coppini points out, six of the biggest races of the Flat season -- the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby, the Eclipse, the International, the Irish Champion and the Arc -- are won by different horses. Indeed Frankel landed just one in his three-year-old campaign. But in 2009, Sea The Stars won the lot.
Unlike Sea The Stars, Frankel was kept in training as a four-year-old. A decision that has enabled him to extend his majesty and even to collect the highest rating (147) ever awarded by the Timeform organisation in its 64-year history. Indeed he is the only horse, since Brigadier Gerard retired, to have surpassed 140. And he’s done it six times!
Of course, the debates will rage on long after Frankel has passed the winning post for the final time on Saturday. But it is impossible to sully the flawless racing record that earns such a rating. Nor the unparalleled dominance of his racecourse performances that somehow mix power with grace.
Frankel’s average winning distance is 5.7 lengths. His form is franked wherever you look. And he hasn’t beaten trees either. His defeated rivals have won a total of 43 Group One races themselves.
This is a horse with such a devouring stride that when he completed his aforementioned gallop at Newmarket last month, he broke the 9f track record.
Huge credit, of course, must go to trainer Cecil and owner Khalid Abdulla for the manner in which they have campaigned Frankel. Four races inside nine weeks as an immature two-year-old, followed by a relentless agenda of Group One targets, all met with the same combination of professionalism and panache.
I have been incredibly lucky to witness all bar three of Frankel’s 13 wins. All bar his juvenile debut when he just got the better of Nathaniel who, by perfect coincidence, also takes him on this Saturday, and all bar his two appearances at Royal Ascot.
When asked which is my favourite, I am inevitably reminded of his blistering pillar-to-post success in the 2,000 Guineas, of his extraordinary demolition job in the Queen Anne Stakes this year and also of the sensational way he quickened past fully-fledged Group One opponents on the bridle at York when tackling 10f for the first time.
But in the end, I am always drawn to the very first time I saw him in the flesh. It was a Friday afternoon in September 2010 at Doncaster. All was quiet after the main races had come and gone. And Frankel was sent off at 1/2 in a little conditions race, reduced to only three runners by the late withdrawal of a Godolphin contender called Farhh who, with supreme irony, has become one of the great horse’s main rivals this season.
Some 85 seconds later, my mouth was wide open and my eyes were popping out of my head. I had just seen a burst of speed, the like of which I had never seen before. Within a furlong, it had propelled Frankel 13 lengths clear of a John Gosden filly receiving 12lbs and 17 lengths clear of a Barry Hills colt receiving 2lbs and already rated 90.
Not many in the boozy Town Moor crowd took too much notice. But those who did knew they had witnessed something special. Let’s hope for something similar at Ascot this Saturday. A bit of X Factor to round off the Frankel Phenomenon.
THE COMPLETE FRANKEL RECORD
TWO-YEAR-OLD SEASON (2010)
August 13 -- WON 1m maiden by half a length (SP 7/4)
September 10 -- WON 7f conditions race by 13 lengths (1/2)
September 25 -- WON 1m Group Two by ten lengths (30/100)
October 16 -- WON 7f Group One by two and three-quarter lengths (4/6)
THREE-YEAR-OLD SEASON (2011)
April 16 -- WON 7f Group Three by four lengths (1/4)
April 30 -- WON 1m Group One by six lengths (1/2)
June 14 -- WON 1m Group One by three-quarters of a length (30/100)
July 27 -- WON 1m Group One by five lengths (8/13)
October 15 -- WON 1m Group One by four lengths (4/11)
FOUR-YEAR-OLD SEASON (2012)
May 19 -- WON 1m Group One by five lengths (2/7)
June 19 -- WON 1m Group One by 11 lengths (1/10)
August 1 -- WON 1m Group One by six lengths (1/20)
August 22 -- WON 10f Group One by seven lengths (1/10)
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