10/19/2017 2:26PM

Hovdey: Across the pond, then up and over in Jersey


Look for the name of Frankel to be invoked frequently on Saturday in England, where the Qipco Champions Day figures to rivet the attention of anyone serious about the best possible racing.

Frankel, as in Bobby, owns the record for the most Grade 1 or Group 1 wins in a single season being madly pursued by Aidan O’Brien. The Irishman enters Saturday’s Champions program at Ascot one win shy of catching Frankel’s mark of 25, accomplished in 2003, and with contenders in all four Group 1 races on the card, clearly O’Brien is attacking the record in force.

O’Brien hit a speed bump at Woodbine last weekend when neither Idaho nor Rain Goddess showed up with their best race. Then again, perhaps karma took notice of O’Brien’s excessive behavior the previous day at Newmarket, when the steamroller of Ballydoyle finished 1-2-3-4 with a fleet of 2-year-old colts in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes.

Frankel, the stallion, gets a headline every time one of his sons or daughters does anything noteworthy, which could happen in very large type on Saturday if Epsom and Irish Derby runner-up Cracksman wins the featured Champion Stakes. O’Brien will try to steal Cracksman’s thunder with either Highland Reel or Cliffs of Moher.

But it will be Frankel, the perfect racehorse, who will have the last say on a day marking the fifth anniversary of his grand finale on the racetrack. Having already achieved the status of solid-gold celebrity, the 4-year-old colt went out with a bang on Oct. 20, 2012, by winning the Champion Stakes. It was his 14th victory without a defeat.

And he did it with class, on soft ground that was not to his liking, in his first and only race beyond a mile. At the end of the mile and one-quarter, Frankel had a length and three-quarters on Cirrus des Aigles, the defending champ and richest gelding in the history of the sport.

“In four years’ time, Frankel’s first crop of foals will arrive on the racecourse,” wrote Greg Wood as a farewell in The Guardian, “and, if there are spectators in the stands who found racing through Frankel, his legacy will endure on both sides of the running rail.”

He got that right.

The elements will be in play on Champions Day, with storms predicted for the region around Ascot and all hatches being battened down. In one rather unsettling comment in The Racing Post, clerk of the course Chris Stickels assured participants and fans that “we’ll make the infrastructure, including all the railings out on the track, as secure as possible.”

While England reels in the wind, the cream of the U.S. jump set will be basking in the glow of a glorious autumn afternoon in New Jersey, where the Grand National Hurdle offers a purse of $400,000 and a chance to nail down an Eclipse championship at Far Hills in Somerset County, about 40 miles due west of Manhattan.

The Grand National requires speed, skill, and endurance over 2 5/8 miles and 14 hurdles. Beyond that, the Far Hills gathering has become legendary in its gaudy excess. At $100 or $200 a pop, the ticket prices alone dictate that the demographics will lean a certain way. And yet the place will be packed with some 40,000 souls, a number that would top Ascot’s Champions Day no matter what the weather.

This time last year, Jack Doyle had to watch from the Far Hills sidelines as his sweet ride Rawnaq won the Grand National under super-sub Ruby Walsh. Less than a month before the race, Doyle had suffered lower spine and pelvis fractures in a fall at Belmont Park.

“I was happy the horse won, but it was definitely tough to watch,” Doyle said. “The doctors said I wouldn’t be back on a horse for six months. After 3 1/2 months I was back riding.”

Doyle felt good enough to climb aboard Rawnaq for a light training session in January. A few days later it was announced that the Eclipse champion suffered what was described as a soft tissue injury, and his 2017 season was over before it began.

“It was a blow, but when something like that happens you’ve just got to get on with it and try and find the next one,” Doyle said.

Doyle got his wish. He’ll get another crack at the Grand National this time around aboard Modem, a 7-year-old son of Motivator bred in England and imported last spring. Trainer Elizabeth Voss turned to Doyle for the ride and watched them finish second in three Grade 1 events while giving away from 14 to 18 pounds to the winners. The Grand National is run at level weights.

“He’s a very straightforward horse,” Doyle said. “He does pretty much anything you ask. He can go close to the pace, or if they go quicker he can sit in. He gives you everything every time.”

Modem’s record puts him in the thick of the championship race along with All the Way Jose, winner of the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont for Jonathan Sheppard, and Moscato, who is on a roll for Jack Fisher. They will be Modem’s toughest challengers, along with European invaders Katnap and Hammersly Lake.

“He’s going the right way,” Doyle said. “It’s a different track and different type of race for him, but I think it will suit him. We’ll know after Saturday.”