Only once in a generation does a horse create a buzz like thisby David Goldblatt / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
A winning team: trainer Henry Cecil, jockey Tom Queally and three-year-old colt Frankel
Usually the pinnacle of the British racing season is the Epsom Derby, which is held in early June. But this year all eyes will be on Royal Ascot, a few weeks after the Derby meeting. The focus of attention will be Thursday, traditionally Ladies’ Day. No doubt many members of the House of Windsor, old and new, will be putting in an appearance, but even they are going to be eclipsed. The racing world will only have eyes for the sporting alchemy of horse and trainer, in this case Frankel and Henry.
Frankel is a three-year-old colt owned by the Saudi prince, Khalid Abdullah. Unbeaten last year, he won his first two races this year by a distance, and in late April he won the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, one of Britain’s five classic races. With a starting price of 2-1 on (so you win 50p for every pound that you stake) he was the shortest-priced winner in almost 200 years. All of this makes him exceptional. But now the talk is of greatness; of the kind of horse that comes once in a generation.
As with any sport, what makes Frankel so compelling is not merely that he wins, but the style in which he does so and the story with which he is entwined. Some racing observers worried that his long stride, over-exuberance and tendency to race his rider not the field could see him beaten by steadier competitors. In the Guineas, he swept such scepticism aside and led from the front, amassed a 12-length lead at the halfway point and utterly dominated the field. Newmarket was delirious.
But in the winning enclosure the biggest cheers were for Frankel’s trainer Henry Cecil. One of racing’s permanent fixtures, and at one point the country’s leading trainer, his stable has seen hard times, reaching a nadir in 2005 with just 12 winners in a season. Worse, Cecil has been struggling with stomach cancer. Frankel, who has revived Cecil’s fortunes, is named after the hugely popular and successful American trainer Bobby Frankel, who died in 2009 after himself suffering from cancer. Racing crowds, sentimental at the best of times, have been in emotional meltdown over the coincidences and connections.
Many winners of the 2,000 Guineas go on to race in the Derby in June, but Cecil has suggested strongly that we shouldn’t back Frankel for the Derby. At just over one and a half miles, the Derby is probably too long a course for such a lightning and unrestrained horse. He appears much better suited to the one-mile St James’s Palace Stakes, a prestigious and lucrative race held on Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot. If Frankel races and wins, as I am sure he will, the Windsor soap opera will be a mere warm-up act; don’t expect a dry eye in the house.