10/18/2012 4:31PM

Ascot: Frankel to be challenged by distance, course condition in Champion Stakes

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Frankel, here winning the Juddmonte International, will try to improved his record to 14 for 14 in the Champion Stakes, which is likely to be his final start.

Anyone with even half an ear to the international racing scene might be experiencing cognitive dissonance late this week.

On the one hand, racing luminaries have lined up to sing the praises of the mighty Frankel, who will try to win his 14th race without a loss in the Group 1 Champion Stakes on Saturday at Ascot. Everyone is calling him the best in the world. Trainer Andre Fabre called Frankel the best he’s ever seen. Star jockey William Buick rides Nathaniel, the third choice in the Champion, and even he was quoted as saying Frankel “looks unbeatable.”

But then there are the voices murmuring that this will be Frankel’s sternest challenge as he makes just his second start in a race longer than one mile and likely the final race of his career. Frankel won the Juddmonte International over the same 1 1/4-mile trip he tries Saturday, but did so on good-to-firm going while beating a very nice horse named Farhh. But Nathaniel probably is better than Farhh, and Cirrus des Aigles, the 2011 Champion Stakes winner who returns to defend his title, certainly is.

Persistent rain throughout the week has left the Ascot course waterlogged. Frankel’s trainer, Henry Cecil, expressed confidence in Frankel running his race on a soft course, but went on to say, “If it’s heavy, we are in no-man’s land.” Came the news after another day of rain Thursday: The Ascot clerk of course had forecast Saturday’s going as soft, heavy in places.

Cue rising, dramatic music.

Frankel was one of six final entrants in the Champion Stakes, which is worth a little less than $1.2 million this year. Bullet Train, Frankel’s older half-brother, will take his usual position as a pacemaker for his illustrious stablemate. Besides Cirrus des Aigles and Nathaniel, Master of Hounds and Pastorius will have a go at the 4-year-old wonder horse who has captured the imagination of racing fans worldwide.

While Frankel’s owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah, has left open a wisp of a chance that Frankel will race again after Saturday, the Champion is widely expected to end a career that began in August 2010 and has turned its author into a superstar. Frankel won four times at 2, when he was a champion, five times at 3, when he was champion again, and this year at 4 drove a stake into any skeptical sensibilities that might still have remained, winning his four starts by almost 30 lengths combined. The Juddmonte, his first distance test, proved routine, with Frankel winning by seven lengths.

Heavy going, though, might sap Frankel’s typically brilliant turn of foot and give Cirrus des Aigles a chance to end the procession of blowout Frankel wins. Cirrus des Aigles has relished the heavy ground that he has encountered throughout a career that has seen the 6-year-old gelding notch 16 wins, 16 places, and five shows from 44 starts. Cirrus des Aigles has been in dogfights before, while Frankel has not, though there remains the clear chance Frankel’s historic talent will again carry the day.

The Champion, the fifth of six races on the Ascot card, has a scheduled post time of 11:05 a.m. Eastern, and anyone who cares at all about racing is advised to find a way to watch.