Frankel: A career unfulfilled?

He's hailed as the greatest horse ever but, says Chris McGrath, it's an ill fit as he's left it until today, the twilight of his days, to ride outside his comfort zone

To discover a want of courage in the genius who has supervised his career would be churlish. It is impossible, after all, to resist the sense that Frankel's emergence – as one of the great thoroughbreds in history – represents a concession prised from a destiny otherwise so cruel to his trainer. Sir Henry Cecil has shown such fortitude, in a six-year battle with cancer, that the dynamism and vitality of his champion almost seem expressive of the resilience, and dignity, abiding within his own enfeeblement.

Only the flint-hearted, then, will admit to exasperation that it has taken Cecil so long to risk any kind of gamble with Frankel. But the fact remains that the horse's unbeaten record, through 12 races, has been compiled entirely in his comfort zone. Only today, in what may prove his penultimate start, does Frankel venture into uncharted territory.

Even so, nobody is entertaining any possibility of defeat in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York – Frankel's first race over a mile and a quarter. But he has established such epoch- making quality, over a mile, that an extra two furlongs should scarcely enable another rival to bridge the gulf in class through mere dourness.

True, another great champion contrived to get beaten for the only time in this race, back in 1972. Brigadier Gerard was a sick horse, however, and Frankel will certainly start at microscopic odds, as usual. He was 1-20 for his last race, at Goodwood three weeks ago, and the best you can hope for today is around £3 for every £20 you risk.

Frankel was once so energetic that one professional, watching him on the gallops in the spring of last year, predicted burnout by midsummer. His fulfilment since can be traced to an increasingly relaxed approach – and so, in turn, to the mastery of his trainer. At the same time, however, it should not be sacrilegious to remark that Cecil has also discouraged exploration of Frankel's full capacity. In his element at Royal Ascot, Goodwood or York, he has never shown the slightest interest in introducing Frankel to fresh rivals, and a fresh challenge, abroad.

In fairness, Cecil has been abetted by the insularity that has disastrously undermined one of the boldest innovations of the modern British Turf. Unlike the ludicrous "Champions' Series", Qipco British Champions' Day itself has proved a thoroughly worthwhile concept. A ruinous misapprehension, however, is evinced by its scheduling – this year, as late as 20 October. That is just two weeks before the Breeders' Cup, in the United States, long established as the stage for the champions of Europe to test their status against new opposition, in an alien environment, before retiring to stud.

At the top level, Flat racing is an international sport. Its calendar enables British horses first to establish a pecking order within their own generation, in the Classics; then among the European elite, in such summer carnivals as the one starting at York today; and then, finally, on the world stage, whether at the Breeders' Cup, or elsewhere.

The race won by Frankel on the inaugural Champions' Day, last year, was historically staged in September – leaving an optimal interval to the Breeders' Cup. Kept around that time, then, the new Ascot day would maintain its stated purpose as climax of the domestic programme, while dovetailing with the international autumn. Instead, it has been crassly set up in direct competition, inviting horsemen to choose between twin obligations – one, to the local racing economy; the other, to the reputation of their horses. And the net result is likely to prove that Frankel, as last year, must stand idle for two months of his prime.

In four of his last eight races, Frankel has beaten a colt named Excelebration into second; in another, he had him back in third. Excelebration has proved himself top-class, in other races, and so persuaded everyone it is pointless to take on the champion – at least over a mile. Frankel was opposed at Goodwood last time by just three others, including his pacemaker.

Plenty of people at York today will claim they are looking at the greatest racehorse in history. Hitherto, however, the only measure of Frankel has been the increasing margins by which he has humiliated Excelebration. Yes, he finally tries something different today, partly because the race is sponsored by Khalid Abdullah, the Saudi prince who will be retiring Frankel to his Juddmonte Farms at the end of the season. But Cecil anticipates running him only once more, again on Champions' Day. In which case, he will leave us without beginning to approach the limits of his potential.

If Frankel can win easily today, then why not try him over another 352 yards in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe? If he is seriously proposed as the best horse ever, moreover, he would lap them at the Breeders' Cup – even in the Classic, on dirt. That would be the perfect climax for a horse named in honour of the late Bobby Frankel, who trained Prince Khalid's horses in the United States until his death in 2009.

Well, that certainly isn't going to happen. The idiotic scheduling of Champions' Day is one reason; but it is not as if Cecil needs excuses for his innate reluctance.

The depressing likelihood, now, is that Cecil himself may not be equal to travel anyway. He could not even get to Goodwood, though he intends to be on the Knavesmire today. And he will see there, once again, just how cherished he is.

For ultimately Frankel has disclosed the substance of character previously immured behind Cecil's relish for the exquisite: from his wardrobe, to the baronial drawing room at Warren Place, to the gorgeous milieux of the English racing summer. But flesh and blood are no less transient than silk and velvet, and it turns out that Cecil has always had deeper reserves.

So if his obstinate resistance to the same disease that claimed Bobby Frankel extends to the campaigning of the latter's namesake, then none of us can really complain.

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