10/11/2012 12:39PM

Frankel spurs debate over all-time greatest racehorses

Getty Images
Frankel, winning the June 19 Queen Anne Stakes, has never lost in 13 starts. He makes his final appearance in the Oct. 20 Champion Stakes at Ascot.

“There he is,” said Teddy Grimthorpe, pointing in the direction of two horses cantering up the Warren Hill gallop. “He’s the one trailing.”

And there he was. Frankel. The Horse of Horses, perfection on the hoof, cantering along under his regular morning rider, Shane Fetherstonhaugh, at a middling pace behind his older half-brother, Bullet Train.

The pair of them were having a routine bit of exercise on a routine morning beneath the dramatic canopy of a late-summer Newmarket sky. There were no crowds, no television cameras, none of the trappings of Frankel’s widespread celebrity. Just Grimthorpe, who serves as Juddmonte Farm’s racing manager, and the Cecils – Henry and Jane – along with a couple of lucky American visitors who thought it would be cool to be able to say they saw the great horse in the flesh.

“He won’t knock your eye out,” we were warned, by more than one knowledgeable British racing friend. “But the more you look at him, the more you will understand.”

This was not hard to believe. No horse could ever be a physical match for the reputation assembled around Frankel. At that moment, about a month shy of what was likely to be his final race Oct. 20 in the Champion Stakes at Ascot, the 4-year-old Frankel was unbeaten in 13 starts over three seasons, nine of those victories in Group 1 events, including the last eight in a row. His Timeform number of 147 was the highest since the ratings began in 1948, and his Racing Post Rating was a more conservative but no less dizzying 142.

The British press, noteworthy for its descriptive excess, ran out of superlatives after Frankel’s 11-length victory last June in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. It was, from all angles, his 4-year-old answer to the sensation of his wire-to-wire explosion to win the classic 2000 Guineas at Newmarket the year before.

“But this was not just Frankel’s finest performance,” wrote The Guardian’s Greg Wood after the Queen Anne. “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.”

Such giddy praise tends to be both contagious and off-putting. Since June the predictable backlash has bubbled up from contrarians intent on curbing fans’ hysteria and placing the colt in some kind of rational perspective. His six-length win in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on Aug. 1, went the story, was little more than a paid workout, and to many it had become clear that keeping Frankel undefeated had become the point rather than testing him to the fullest extent of his potential.

Then came the Juddmonte International Stakes on Aug. 22. At just over 10 furlongs, the International would be Frankel’s first try beyond a mile. He won by seven, beating Breeders’ Cup Turf winner St Nicholas Abbey, among others, in a tour de force that inspired Marcus Townend of the Daily Mail to write:

“The extra 2 1/2 furlongs Frankel raced over for the first time, which had asked questions about his stamina, merely provided 528 extra yards for the crowd to cheer him home.”

For all his considerable ability, Frankel has earned his matinee idol reputation based not only on what he has won and how often, but how he has done it. There is considerable sizzle to this steak.

“He’s the first horse in my experience of racing in Europe that has developed a truly significant following,” said the Racing Post’s Julian Muscat. “Last year the crowd for the International Stakes at York was 19,500. This year the crowd was 31,300.”

Muscat spent a good portion of his career with the Times of London chronicling the exploits of the world’s best Thoroughbreds. He was at Del Mar when Cigar tried to win his 17th straight, at Lone Star for Ghostzapper’s Breeders’ Cup, and at both Santa Anita and Churchill Downs when Zenyatta faced males in the Classic.

“Frankel has got a truly extravagant action,” Muscat said. “He looks different to other horses when he runs. And because he’s very exuberant he tends to win by a long way.”

In the wake of the Juddmonte International, Marcus Armytage or England’s Daily Telegraph took a crack at getting to the essence of Frankel’s excellence and did a pretty good job.

“Generally a horse’s ability is limited by his whereabouts in the speed-stamina spectrum,” Arymtage wrote. “Horses have either one or the other . . . or, in the case of middle-distance horses, a blend of both but, until Frankel, never lots of both. What makes him unique is his ability to go a top-class sprinter’s pace over distance.”

But all that’s on the ground. It is the feeling Frankel leaves in the air that sets him apart, a buzz that lingers long after he’s home and dry, packed off back to Newmarket.

“You take a horse like Sea The Stars,” said Muscat, referring to the once-beaten, 2009 European Horse of the Year. “When he beats a Group 1 field by half a length fairly much in hand, the first-time racegoer isn’t going to get it. They expect the champion to put away his field. Watching Frankel do his thing is almost like watching a driver dominate a Formula 1 race, or Michael Johnson run the 400 meters.”

European ratings are based on the subjective identification and evaluation of a horse’s very best performance. Frankel earned his 147 in the Queen Anne and will carry it into the Champion Stakes. Epsom Derby/Arc winner Sea-Bird had a 145, Brigadier Gerard a 144, Mill Reef a 141, Sea The Stars a 140.

In reality, however, the great ones are held as great because of a cumulative effect. The impact of a single, brilliant performance pales in the face of Brigadier Gerard’s 17 wins in 18 starts over three seasons, of Cigar’s 16 victories in a row over nine tracks, of Zenyatta’s 19 straight triumphs going from last to first before her late run fell just short in her final start.

LIFETIME PPs: Frankel's career past performances (PDF)

And now Frankel, walking calmly down the path, having a break before another canter up Warren Hill. Partially covered by Cecil’s monogrammed, black, red, and gold striped exercise sheet, the bay colt there before us, with black mane and tail, four short white stockings and distinctive star, was neither dramatically tall nor especially long. His forearm, though, was huge, his hindquarters imposing, while his neck, head, and shoulder were set at angles that would defy criticism from the most discerning analyst.

“The only thing I can liken it to, in a funny sort of way, was when I went once to the Forum in Los Angeles, not long after Bruce McNall had bought Wayne Gretzky,” Teddy Grimthorpe said. “I’d never been to an ice hockey game, so the people I went with ask if I wanted them to point out Gretzky. I said, ‘If I can’t spot him myself it will be very disappointing.’

“Then this guy came out and just glided around the rink – just effortless,” he added. “Frankel has that sort of beauty of motion, rare and remarkable.”

Frankel is a son of Epsom and Irish Derby winner Galileo out of the Danehill mare Kind. He was bred and raised in England by Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farm and named by the prince for his primary American trainer, Robert Frankel, who died in November 2009 at age 68 after a yearlong battle with cancer. Frankel trained Juddmonte’s only American classic winner, Empire Maker, along with a host of champions and major stakes winners that included Marquetry, Honest Lady, Flute, Wandesta, Ryafan, Sightseek, and Beat Hollow.

Racing writer Brough Scott was asked if the typical British racing fan understood the reference when Frankel burst onto the scene. He laughed.

“Well, they tended to know the reality show star, didn’t they?” he said, referring to Frankel’s daughter, the former New York Housewife Bethenny Frankel.

“As far as Bobby, people in the business knew, of course,” Scott said. “But ordinary persons, no. And the pity is they still don’t, really, because now the name is so comprehensively identified with the horse. But in a way it is rather wonderful he – Bobby – was immortalized in this way. They truly got it right.”

DRF WEEKEND: New fad in Florida? Quarter Horse meets | Handicapping roundups

In fact, there have been two other Thoroughbreds registered with the name Frankel. The first, a foal of 1957, raced in Japan without distinction, and the other was a California-bred foal of 2001 whose sire, the Juddmonte runner Tinners Way, was trained by Bobby Frankel to win back-to-back runnings of the Pacific Classic. The Cal-bred Frankel raced six times, all at age 3, and for the last time in an $8,000 maiden claimer at Bay Meadows, in which he broke down while on the lead and was vanned off the track.

“I remember training a horse named Frankel, but I don’t remember much more than that,” said Mike Puype, the second of three trainers to handle the Cal-bred Frankel. “I don’t know if any other horse named anything will be as good as this Frankel though.”


By now Frankel and Bullet Train had gone by a second time – along with the other 50 or so horses in the set – giving Henry Cecil the chance to describe the challenge Frankel presented in his first year as a racehorse.

“He’d want to pull hard all the time,” Cecil said. “If he was going to make it, he needed to learn that it had to be the rider who said go, not him.”

Cecil, 69, was wearing a dark blue cap and quilted jacket, both adorned with the stylized “Frankel” logo under which a variety of merchandise is being marketed for charity. The trainer spoke in a whisper because of the throat cancer he’d been fighting with, to that point, three sessions of chemotherapy.

“It wears you out, and I have one more treatment,” Cecil said. “But I’m hopeful. The scans have looked good.”

Frankel’s tearaway style as a 3-year-old nearly got him beaten in the 2011 St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot when he opened a huge lead that dwindled to three-quarters of a length at the wire. Cecil and jockey Tom Queally learned from that experience.

“What he needed was a lot of work,” Cecil said. “A lot of work.”

That work was applied at the sweeping variety of training facilities available to all the centrally located Newmarket stables. There are the several synthetic strips – with names like Long Hill, Side Hill, Warren Hill – along with the vast Limekilns turf grounds and the racecourse tracks at nearby Newmarket.

Cecil insists Frankel is the best he’s ever been around. This from a man who, over the last 43 years, has trained the winners of 25 English classics and earned 10 English training titles. Cecil’s admiration for the colt seems boundless, but he is protective as well. While acknowledging the public’s adulation, he bristled at the fantasy league attitude that wanted to see him run more often, in more countries, over more ground.

“You listen to that, and you won’t have a horse,” Cecil said. “They’ve never trained a racehorse, or ever ridden one for that matter. What would they know about where he should run?”

The Champion Stakes will be Frankel’s ninth straight appearance in a Group 1 event. This is not exactly dodging a challenge.

“Everybody has always wanted more,” Grimthorpe said. “They wanted him to run in the Arc. Someone told me he should have been running over six furlongs to prove he was good at that. My reply is that if you haven’t made up your mind about him yet you haven’t been watching. The racing professionals I’ve talked to – or at least the ones who offered me their opinion – say they’ve never seen anything like him.”

Brough Scott, whose long and respected career as a racing journalist and author has had the benefit of his early experience as a professional jumps jockey, has observed Frankel with both a raised eyebrow and an open heart. Unlike many of the fans and media who have rushed to anoint the colt “greatest ever,” Scott would prefer to first establish a few ground rules.

“When Mill Reef won the Arc in 1971 it was a breakthrough, a real benchmark for greatness,” Scott said. “He wasn’t necessarily the greatest, but you were going to have to measure up to that.

“Of course Frankel fits with all the benchmarks of greatness, and he will be THE benchmark for all milers in the future,” Scott added.

The class system is alive and well in British racing, where sprinters, milers, middle-distance runners, and stayers each have their own pew in the cathedral. If the point is identifying the best horse to have ever run in the British Isles, good luck and fair sailing, Scott says. It takes more than a 147 posted by Timeform, a company now owned by the promotionally aggressive Betfair, to define greatness.

“Racing is not just how fast they go,” Scott noted. “It’s measured against other things, and Frankel simply hasn’t been subjected to the tests that all these others were. And that’s not being a curmudgeon. That’s a fact.

“Brigadier Gerard’s mile performance beating Mill Reef in the Guineas is, I believe, something unique,” Scott continued. “Frankel’s Guineas was very exciting. Nobody’s seen anything like it. But the fact remains, and I know it’s not his fault, that Frankel has never had the opportunity to beat a Mill Reef.”

Nor will he. With a purse of $2 million, the 1 1/4-mile Champion Stakes – centerpiece of the Champions Day extravaganza of five rich races – will attract the best of whatever is left of the middle-distance division. As to its being Frankel’s final race, his people defer to Abdullah for any official proclamation, and that word will not come until after the Champion is run.

“The competition at Ascot will be against history, against fate,” Scott said. “Will something go wrong? Will he lose a shoe? Will the stalls bang him? Will Queally get stuck on the rail?”

Which is to say, it’s still a horse race, and the anythings that could happen are too numerous to consider. Seattle Slew lost at Hollywood Park, Cigar lost at Del Mar, Zenyatta lost at Churchill Downs. It is not for those races they are remembered, and they are considered among the best.

“No one’s ever done it like Frankel,” Scott said. “That might be enough, and moreover that should be enough. Anyone asking for more is asking the impossible.”

Teddy Grimthorpe agreed.

“Whatever it is, it will be a very emotional day,” Grimthorpe said of Oct. 20. “In one way or another he’s dominated every single one of his races, and he’s dominated our lives. It’s hard to imagine life without him.”


World Thoroughbred Rankings (since 2003)

Rk. Horse Race Rating
1. Frankel 2012 Queen Anne/Juddmonte Int'l 140
2. Sea The Stars 2009 Irish Champion 136
3. Harbinger 2010 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth 135
4. Hawk Wing 2003 Lockinge Stakes 133
5. Black Caviar 2011 Newmarket 132
  Dalakhani 2003 Arc de Triomphe 132
7. Manduro 2007 Prince of Wales's 131
8. Curlin 2008 Dubai World Cup 130
  Ghostzapper 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic 130
  Goldikova 209 Jacques Le Marois 130
  Hurricane Run 2005 Arc de Triomphe 130
  Mubtaker 2003 Arc de Triomphe 130
  New Approach 2008 Champion Stakes 130

Timeform (since 1948)

Rk. Horse Born Rating
1. Frankel 2008 147
2. Sea-Bird 1962 145
3. Brigadier Gerard 1968 144
4. Tudor Minstrel 1944 144
5. Abernant 1946 142
  Ribot 1952 142
  Windy City 1949 142
8. Mill Reef 1968 141
9. Dancing Brave 1983 140
  Dubai Millennium 1996 140
  Harbinger 2006 140
  Sea The Stars 2006 140
  Shergar 1978 140
  Vaguely Noble 1965 140