10/18/2012 3:49PM

Hovdey: Will Frankel go out like Zenyatta or Personal Ensign?

Justin N. Lane
Blame (5) prevented Zenyatta from finishing her career with a perfect record when he beat her by a head in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

There have been only a handful of training teams who have gone through what Henry Cecil’s crew are going through this week, as their stable star Frankel approaches the final race of his perfect career in the $2.1 million Qipco Champion Stakes on Saturday at England’s showcase Ascot Racecourse, an hour or so west of London.

American racing fans, ever more aware of the larger Thoroughbred world, have grown to care about Frankel, and not just because he enters the Champion with a record of 13 wins from 13 starts, or that he has been the best of his generation for three straight seasons, or that he was named by his owner and breeder, Juddmonte’s Khalid Abdullah, for the very American trainer Bobby Frankel.

American fans will be tuning in to Frankel’s last hurrah – available Saturday morning on both TVG and HRTV – because they have been there before. From Personal Ensign to Cigar to Zenyatta, they know what it feels like to embrace a great Thoroughbred streaking majestically across the sky, year after year, wondering if he or she ever will return to earth while dreading the day it might come.

For Zenyatta, that day came in her final start in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs under the lights and over a surface she had never encountered before. After winning her first 19 races, this was the most difficult test of her life and she fell short, with full credit to the fine colt Blame for beating her a head and handing the sport a lesson that bears repeating: There’s no such thing as an unbeatable horse.

The 4-year-old Cigar already had lost more races than he had won when he began his 16-race winning streak at the end of 1994. Few paid attention, though, to those earlier attempts to find his way, and by the time the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park was in the books no one argued with Tom Durkin’s description of their hero as “the incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!” Nine months later, when Cigar finally lost a race at Del Mar, his place in history was secure. He was still incomparable.

With the exception of her surgically-repaired ankle, Personal Ensign had a career that in many ways mirrors Frankel’s. She was brilliant at 2, 3, and 4, as trainer Shug McGaughey guided her on a steadily upward trajectory until, in the last half of 1988, she beat colts in the Whitney, beat Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the Maskette, then made a joke of the Beldame before heading to cold and rainy Churchill Downs for her final race in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. It’s hardly a stretch for McGaughey to imagine the thoughts swirling around Henry Cecil, as he faces a similar scenario.

“He’s got everything in order, but I’m sure he’s excited, and nervous, too,” McGaughey said this week. “It would be disappointing to go through all they go through to get to that point, and then to get beat. But you’ve got to feel positive going in and that you’ve done all you can, which is about all you can do.”

Pressure and all, there is something about having an unbeaten horse at the highest levels that creates a certain warm glow of confidence. “Her last race had been so good, and her competition hadn’t really been doing that good, so I really didn’t see there were any roadblocks,” McGaughey said of Personal Ensign. “I really didn’t even worry about the weather.”

Bad track and all, Personal Ensign somehow put her nose on the line first to beat a determined Winning Colors and retire with a record of 13 wins from 13 starts.

“When it was over, there really wasn’t any sadness,” McGaughey said. “You’d miss her, sure, being around a horse like that for more than two years pretty much every day. But if we kept going somewhere along the line she was going to get beat, and I didn’t want to see that.”

The party line coming from British media and horsemen is that Frankel is up against his toughest challenge on Saturday.

“I feel like we say that quite often,” confessed British racing commentator Lydia Hislop. “But it really is true.”

Having dismantled Europe’s best milers and dusted middle distance stalwarts Twice Over, Farrh, and St. Nicholas Abbey in his most recent race, Frankel now gets a crack at defending Champion Stakes winner Cirrus des Aigles, who, if his record is accurate, might as well be called “Jean Henri.”

This guy has raced 44 times, won 16, and been another 21 times second or third for earnings of $5.8 million. The 1 1/4 miles of the Champion, around two clockwise corners of Ascot’s vast, triangular course, seems to suit his nimble, persistent style, and he had a perfect prep at home to set him up for Saturday.

Then there is Nathaniel, who like Frankel is a 4-year-old son of Galileo making his final start in the Champion. Nathaniel lives just down the road from Frankel in a stall on a quiet knoll once occupied by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass. He has won three of England’s biggest prizes for trainer John Gosden, who enjoys pointing to a maiden race back in August 2010 that American horseplayers would refer to as a “key heat.”

“It’s fitting, isn’t it?” Gosden offered. “There they were, Frankel and Nathaniel, making their first starts on a quiet Friday at Newmarket, and they finish half a length apart. Who’d have thought that’s the closest anyone would get to beating Frankel for the next two years? Now here they are coming to the end together.”

As for the end, Juddmonte racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe prefers to postpone thoughts of the inevitable letdown.

“The race in front of us is what matters right now, though I’m sure it will hit us eventually,” Grimthorpe said. “The attention alone he’s brought to the sport has been unbelievable, as it has been for all of us lucky enough to have been along for the ride. The Racing Post runs a feature called ‘Where Are They Now?’ Come December I fully expect my name will be listed.”

Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Big surprise. Frankel does it again. But you'd have to be out of your mind to take a stand against him. He is one hell of a horse, but I would have rather seen him go out against 18 rivals instead of 5 ( who were hopelessly over-matched ) Now on to stud and its a bummer we have to wait 3 years just to see the first crop. It was definitely not his most fantastic performance, so the footing probably DID have some effect on his explosive late run. But he won and that is all that counts. And also if he is going to stud why do more than you have to?? Even if he had lost, he'd still be worth a giant fortune as a stud. However, I still would have liked to see him in the Arc. I think his connections were chicken s*** about that whole deal. But a great horse -- one that is hard for U.S. players to follow as its just unless you have tvg -- and I do not -- you miss out on a lot. I also think Black Caviar deserves a little more credit. The two should have raced against one another. 14- 0 and 22 - 0.
Jonathan Yarde More than 1 year ago
Lynn Pierce More than 1 year ago
Good luck Frankel.
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
I don't think he needed too much. As I said in an earlier post its a bummer that he is not going to race again, and also a bummer that we have to wait so long to see his first crop. But they are not like rats who have a gestation period of like 3 weeks. We have to wait until like February then one year, then 2 more until any of them show up at the track. I'm getting to old to be left in anticipation. Good way to go out. Not his most brilliant race, but it was good enough.
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Charlie Cruz, I think it will be a clean safe race. But I doubt their is much betting opportunity. I mean Frankel is going to get hammered so hard, any exacta will pay the same as the win money $2.10. Its not a betting race in my opinion. Although I am going to put a small bet on Nathaniel -- in the event that Frankel just has a bad day. I bet on Blame against Zenyatta, as I did not want to jinx her -- and I was actually rooting against my own stake. So I get money and was still in a grouchy mood as she should have won that race. Whatever talk goes on then swells then fades to almost silence. The true historian is history itself and all the self importance, and throwing numbers around: and I know I am guilty of it tambien, means nothing. Let us all enjoy the race. And as Rabelais said, "let us drink."
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
What the heck. I say clearly, "Frankel has never run a mile faster than 1:37 and change -- and add to that fact that the footing and entire nature of the course is different. And I still get garbage from other posts. I know its slow going even when the track is labeled good. Has nothing to do with anything. It was just an observation. No more, no less.
Charlie Cruz More than 1 year ago
Ponies Payme- If you "never ask a horse to do what he's never done before", you have a horse who never sets foot on the track, much less climbs the class ladder. I don't know if Frankel wins, but he and his connections deserve credit for running....those who bet this race probably don't have an emotional investment in the outcome ( I couldn't bet against Zenyatta in her last race) so I agree there is a betting opportunity here. Let's hope for a safe and exciting race!
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Kyle, Your are correct. He has never raced on 'heavy' footing or at least footing labeled as such. All of his victories save one, have been on some variant of good going ( sometimes good soft sometimes good fast). His one effort where the track was simply tagged as simply 'soft' was his debut ( also his narrowest margin of victory -- but that doesn't matter he was just a baby ) and guess who finished second to him that day: Nathaniel. Who I currently give even a better upset chance than even Cirrus des Aigles. And the ground must have been really soft as the time for the mile was 143 and 3/5. Added he was just a two year old making his debut. The question is even if the track is really heavy and it does impede him, will it weaken him enough for one of his 5 rivals to triumph? I doubt it. If it was the Arc, I would bet against him ( and some -- true or not -- say the surface and distance are why he dodged the Arc 2x ) But, tomorrow, he is not running a mile and a half in an 18 horse field. I can't remember the layout at Ascot, but I have heard it is ( at least for the 10 furlongs ) a triangular shaped run, which means two turns: first time Frankel will face two turns and add that to the heavy footing which is expected: so yes he has some factors which might well work against him. But, just gut instinct, with a such a short field and he being much the best, I think his finale will be similar to his debut. Nathaniel will make a good run but not quite good enough. And as an fyi, as another fan asked in a previous posting, the race goes of at 11:05 ET. Race number 5.
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
When the person comes along that knows more about great European runners than either Henry Cecil or Andre Fabre please step to the front of the line, post a comment and educate the masses with your brilliance.
B More than 1 year ago
Oh who cares. He is a European grass miler and we will never know how he would hold up against our horses, so there just simply is no way for us to judge him, but judge him we will. We like to do that a lot because we are all experts..
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
In the end time will be the judge. Not emotions or some panel of experts. I hope he wins it will be good for the sport. And their have been plenty enough stories that are bad for the sport. Let''s see what happens. ANY horse can loose. I just don't think he will as he is in fine shape and his 5 opponents on their best day could maybe make him run. But my prediction, that is all it is ( no science or any bs ) , he will win under wraps by 2 or 3 lengths -- why push a horse when he is going to stud -- all he has to do is win. I am often wrong. Let us see.
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Dear Jay, I believe Frankel will go the way of Zenyatta not Personal Ensign. The two reasons I say this are because 1) there's a horse named Cirrus des Aigles that could beat him and 2) the ground is supposed to be heavy which could be a detriment to him winning because I don't think he's ever run on let alone won on heavy ground. Sincerely, Kyle Stasierowski 27-year-old loyal TVG viewer, HRTV Live Feed viewer, and DRF FaceBook friend from Alden, New York