10/18/2012 3:49PM

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

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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.”