As Frankel faces his final race, Brian Viner talks to his trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, and others who know the world’s greatest racehorse best.Frankel. It is not a name that rolls off the tongue, like those of some other great thoroughbred racehorses, such as Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard.
But in racing people it ignites sheer wonder, for Frankel is the superstar of Flat racing, not simply unbeaten in 13 races, but untouchable.
In monetary terms his potential to sire future champions makes him the most valuable single sporting commodity on the planet. It is said £100 million would not buy him.
At Ascot this afternoon Frankel and his jockey, Tom Queally, will attempt to extend their winning run to 14 races out of 14. Should they fail, the shock will radiate far beyond Berkshire, the more so as today’s big race, the Qipco Champion Stakes, is likely to be Frankel’s valediction. At four years old, the racehorse said by some to be the greatest ever foaled is on the verge of retirement.
If his owner, the billionaire Saudi businessman Prince Khalid Abdullah, does decide to call time on this epic chapter in Flat racing (as distinct from National Hunt, or jump racing), then when today’s meeting is over Frankel will be driven back to the Warren Place stables in Newmarket, owned by his trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, and attention will turn to his forthcoming stud career, where his colossal value now lies. Some 120 brood mares a year will visit him, their owners paying at least £100,000 in the event of a foaling. That might go on for the best part of two decades.
No one could have foreseen all this on the day Frankel was foaled – February 11 2008 – at Banstead Manor stud near Newmarket, the breeding arm of Prince Khalid’s Juddmonte racing operation. True, the young bay colt had a marvellous lineage. His parents were the 2001 Derby winner, Galileo, and Kind, a mare who had won five consecutive races in 2004. But equine breeding is an inexact science. ‘As [the American breeder] Bull Hancock said, “You send the best to the best and hope for the best,”‘ Philip Mitchell, who runs Banstead Manor stud, told me.
The first signs that the progeny of Galileo and Kind might not only live up to expectations but exceed them emerged on a July morning in 2010, the day of Frankel’s first proper gallop, with Queally in the saddle, on the vast Limekilns training ground a couple of miles outside Newmarket. Among those watching was Prince Khalid’s racing manager, Lord Grimthorpe, whose job it is to liaise every day with the 14 trainers of the prince’s 250 horses worldwide, and report nightly to his patron. In a lifetime in racing, he said, he had never seen a spectacle like it. One moment Frankel was bunched up with his stablemates, the next he was streaking away as if the others were hauling ploughs.
‘I have to watch a lot of gallops and know how misleading it can be when you don’t know all the horses, weights or instructions,’ Lord Grimthorpe told the racing journalist Brough Scott. ‘But you could not mistake this. He was going so fast at the end we thought he would finish in Newmarket High Street. When we gathered afterwards, nobody said anything, and Queally was white as a sheet.’
Henry Cecil knew better than anyone that impressive speed on the gallops is not always replicated on the track, yet his natural reticence hid a growing excitement at the possibilities for this still-unnamed colt. ‘I realised he was out of the ordinary about halfway through the year,’ Cecil told me in his oak-panelled study at Warren Place. ‘There was something very different about him.’
The same might be said of the charismatic Cecil. He started training as an assistant to his elderly stepfather, Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, before striking out on his own in 1969. There followed 30 years of steady and sometimes spectacular success, before a precipitous, disastrous decline at the start of the new century in both his professional and personal fortunes. His beloved twin brother, David, died of cancer; his second marriage disintegrated; he even lost his driving licence for five years. Then he, too, was diagnosed with cancer, of the stomach, and all the while the yard produced fewer and fewer winners, hitting an all-time low in 2005, with only 12.
Many racehorse owners severed their ties with him, but Prince Khalid stayed loyal. The 75-year-old prince, the brother-in-law of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, had been involved in British racing since the 1970s, and with Cecil since 1990. They had forged a firm friendship. But business is still business. And although Cecil’s travails had compounded the affection in which he was held by the racing public, plenty felt he was a busted flush.
Happily, the yard returned to form. And little though anyone knew it on the day Prince Khalid sent him ‘the Galileo colt’, Cecil’s greatest triumphs were yet to come. For Lord Grimthorpe it is the comeback of all comebacks. ‘Henry’s gone from the Premier League to practically the Conference and back,’ he said, offering a football analogy. ‘It is one of the great sporting achievements.’
Characteristically, Cecil plays down his talents. ‘I’m qualified to do nothing,’ he said. ‘I was the first student ever to fail Common Entrance into Eton from an Eton prep school. But I got a chance as my stepfather’s assistant. I’ve been very lucky.’
His luck remains variable. Cecil, 69, is currently being treated for cancer for the second time. The weight has dropped off him, the beautifully cut suits hang limply, and, when we talked, a throat infection had reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper. ‘I look like death,’ he rasped, ‘and when people see me they’ll think I’m going to die tomorrow. But I’m not.’ Chemotherapy, he assured me, was doing its job. He would get better. All the same, his illness adds poignancy to Frankel’s success. The horse appears to have intensified Cecil’s already fierce will to live.
‘I love life,’ said Cecil, whose staccato sentences have more to do with his patrician background than his ill-health. ‘I’ve always been a winner. I’ve had bad times – personal or financial, no horses, bad years – but I don’t like being an also-ran. I have responsibilities. I’m married again. And I’m very determined that I have to be there for Frankel. So he has helped to keep me going.’
Three months after his first gallop at Limekilns, the horse, by now named Frankel (after Bobby Frankel, one of America’s most successful trainers, who trained many winners for Prince Khalid, and who died of leukaemia in 2009), demonstrated his abilities where it really mattered, at Ascot. The Royal Lodge Stakes was Frankel’s third race, but the first in which he obliterated top-class opposition, winning by 10 lengths and pulling clear of the others ‘like a greyhound that had just slipped its leash’, according to Brough Scott.
It was becoming clear that the length of Frankel’s stride would be the main weapon in his armoury. Along with a formidable lung capacity, it helps him to accelerate more than once in a race. Even the finest racehorses can normally find only one extra gear; Frankel has two, sometimes three. The horses that can keep pace with him the first time he quickens have nothing left to give when he quickens again. And although he is not huge, he has unusually large feet, which even in a gallop he sets rather than stamps down, making him less reliant than most horses on the condition of the ground.
Following the Royal Lodge Stakes, the bookmakers, always a nose ahead of the betting fraternity, immediately slashed Frankel’s odds for the following year’s 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, the first of the Flat racing season’s so-called Classics (five prestigious races open only to three-year-olds).
On April 30 last year Frankel started the Guineas as the shortest-priced favourite since 1974, and went on to make his 1/2 odds look downright generous: his performance was simply one of the most dominant in the venerable race’s 200-year history. In the Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot this summer, which he started at odds of 1/10, Frankel won by 11 lengths, compelling racing correspondents to reach for new superlatives. ‘This was not just Frankel’s finest performance,’ Greg Wood wrote in the Guardian, ‘it was possibly the best single performance by any horse, on any track, since three Arabian stallions were imported into Britain to found the thoroughbred breed in the early years of the 18th century.’
Of course it isn’t simply Frankel’s natural assets that propel him across the turf so much faster than the competition; he has been impeccably handled by Cecil and his devoted team at Warren Place, all of whom speak about him with great affection, and some as if he were human.
‘He’s very much his own person,’ Cecil said. ‘He has a presence. It’s rather like people. Through my training career I’ve come across so many people I’d never otherwise have met, whether it be princes or successful businessmen. Most have an ambience about them, a lot of presence and panache. Good horses have the same thing.’
Shane Featherstonhaugh, a 35-year-old Dubliner who rides Frankel daily in training, agrees. ‘He’s a big alpha male,’ he says. ‘He’s not one for petting.’ Like his colleagues, Featherstonhaugh tries not to think about Frankel’s eye-watering value. ‘They talk about hundreds of millions, but that has no meaning to me,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand those numbers.’
What he does understand is riding, yet neither he, nor Cecil, nor anyone else, can make any racehorse run quicker than muscle and sinew allow. All they can do is minimise the dozens of imponderables that might obstruct its development.
‘What people don’t sometimes understand,’ Lord Grimthorpe explained, ‘is just what it takes to get a horse to the races in good fettle once. To get him there 13 times, to get out of him the sort of performances that people crave, want and adore, is quite extraordinary. The combination of things that have to go right is not quite the Lottery… but it’s up there.’
Among those charged with ensuring that the Lottery balls fall as favourably as possible is Frankel’s groom, Sandeep Gauravaram, a 32-year-old former jockey from Hyderabad. An engaging but shy man, he is still not comfortable with the attention that Frankel’s fame has brought his way. But, brought in to Cecil’s study to talk about the wonder horse, he became animated.
‘He wants things done his way,’ he said. ‘We tried to move him to one of the bigger boxes, and he didn’t like it. He tried to jump out, he sulked, he wouldn’t eat.’ This was the stretch of stables known by staff as Millionaires’ Row. It is where Cecil has kept all his most prized horses, but not Frankel. He stayed in his swanky new surroundings for less than two days before being returned to the barn in the oldest, least salubrious part of the yard, where lorries come and go all day, and where, traditionally, the also-rans live.
Such willpower made Frankel tricky to handle early on in his career. As Cecil’s travelling head lad, responsible for getting horses to courses, and for their welfare once they are there, Michael McGowan had a few run-ins with the rising star. ‘As a two-year-old he was quite difficult,’ McGowan recalled. ‘But at three he became more settled, and now he’s the complete professional.’
This was confirmed by the 29-year-old Irishman whose happy destiny it is to be forever bracketed with Frankel in the record books. ‘He’s grown up no end,’ Tom Queally told me, as he sat outside the weighing-room at Newmarket Racecourse. ‘He’s so mature now, much more relaxed. Even as a three-year-old he could be very fiery, but pure class got him through. Now, I’ve amazing belief in him. I couldn’t pull him up at York [where Frankel last raced, in August, winning the Juddmonte International Stakes, sponsored by Prince Khalid, by a street]. Some horses are triers, but they’re normally low-grade animals. For a horse with so much at his disposal, he just gives you so much. I’ve ridden some very good horses, but when they get to the front they think they’ve done enough.’
Henry Cecil has grown used to the claim that Frankel is the greatest racehorse of all time, and treats it with a mix of pride, gratitude and self-deprecation. ‘Good horses help make successful trainers,’ he said, ‘and I’ve had a lot of champions. And I didn’t live in the days of Sceptre [the only horse to win four British Classics] in the early 1900s. So it’s very difficult to compare. But it would be wrong to say he isn’t the best horse there’s ever been… because he could be.’
Cecil admitted that there will be a tear in his eye on the day Frankel leaves the yard. ‘I may be training for 30 more years,’ he said – with a wry smile, as if daring me to contradict him – ‘but it’s very unlikely that I’ll get another one like that.’
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