10/21/2012 12:57PM

Is Frankel an All-Time Great?


There is no denying Frankel’s greatness as a race horse. But is he one of the all-time greats?

How could anyone truly know?

Without question, and by a long way, the horse I consider the greatest of my racing lifetime was Secretariat. Secretariat did things that, until he came along, race horses just could not do. And I’m not thinking only about his Belmont Stakes here, although that should be enough to win the discussion. I’m also thinking about his first turn of the Preakness, his Marlboro Cup, his Man o’ War, heck, his Hopeful. There is a reason why Secretariat remains the standard by which the modern thoroughbred is measured.

But for other people, it’s Seattle Slew, or Affirmed, or Spectacular Bid, or Zenyatta who rings their bell. That’s fine. Many years ago there were a few old timers who told me independently that Citation was better than Secretariat. One of them told me, and the words still ring in my ears, that Citation could have beaten Secretariat “pulling a wagon.” This guy was sharp, very sharp, and he wasn’t kidding. I laughed as though he was, though, knowing that he was way off base like I know that, while Secretariat had a couple of off days, at anywhere close to his best, he would have run rings around Slew and The Bid, and everyone else. Rings, I’m telling you. I know this with every fiber of my being, but of course, it is impossible to prove and is, in the end, only my opinion, although it is shared by many others.

The point is, evaluating great horses from different eras (or even years) is an extremely subjective exercise. At least here in the U.S., we have speed figures to help with such comparisons. Of course, there is a subjective element in making speed figures, too. A racing surface that one speed figure maker finds fast by one second, another figure maker might find fast by 1.5 seconds, and that will create a difference in the end product. But at least speed figures are grounded in one totally objective component: Time.

In Europe, the most popular race horse ratings incorporate some far more subjective factors, the most glaring of which is the quality of the field. Another component in these ratings, the level of the race, is something you would think would be more of an objective ingredient in this mix, but often isn’t. For example, we know that not all Grade 1 races are equal. I don’t think you could find even anyone at Keeneland who thinks the Darley Alcibiades is as strong a race as the Santa Anita Handicap. But they’re both Grade 1’s. Incorporating the face value of level of a race can be misleading, but adjusting for obvious disparity between races within a certain level adds yet another layer of subjectivity. Either way, you wind up farther away from objective analysis.

You can sit around all day and compare Frankel’s ratings to the European superstars who preceded him, but if those ratings are largely subjective, what is the value of comparison beyond entertaining discussion? Instead of trying to determine whether Frankel is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with Mill Reef and Sea Bird, maybe it’s better to simply acknowledge Frankel as being a great horse, and leave it at that, even if that is a little unsatisfying.

And I don’t believe for one second that Citation could have beaten Secretariat. Forget about pulling a wagon, with a head start.