Now that the evidence is as finite as any offered for champions past, anyone trying to assess Frankel's relative standing must first separate his achievements from their sentimental context. But either process is surely as pointless as the other. No measurable quality will exalt Frankel in the memory, any more than Secretariat or Sea-Bird or Ribot or the rest. For how do you divorce the euphoria that suffused Ascot on Saturday from communal heartache on behalf of the ghostly genius who welcomed him back to the winner's enclosure for a final time? And how, sensibly, do you compare Frankel's performances – almost entirely within his own comfort zone – against benchmarks set with a greater sense of adventure? The answer, in both cases, is the same. You don't.
Sir Henry Cecil, as he contemplates renewing his fight against cancer without this precious daily succour, can be absolutely indulged his verdict after watching Frankel make it 14 wins from 14 starts in the Qipco Champion Stakes. "I cannot believe in the history of racing there has ever been a better horse," the trainer whispered, raising a cruel contrast between the loss of his own voice and the unfettered vigour with which Frankel had again expressed himself.
For anyone else, however, it is fatuous to pronounce that Frankel retires as "the greatest" thoroughbred in history. It is disrespectful not only to paragons whose claims are interred in flickering film footage, or in the recall of a diminishing few. It also gilds the poignant valedictions of Saturday with a needless veneer of privilege. For once, let us forgo the witless pursuit of a spectacle or occasion, and engage with a drama of the human spirit – whether through the fortitude of Cecil, or the relatively trivial aesthetic and emotional satisfactions Frankel has given the rest of us.
As Tom Queally rode him back along the enclosures on Saturday, hundreds of people sprinted down to the rail to cheer, the surge of their stippled faces resembling pebbles drawn back down the beach by a retreating wave. And there had been a corresponding quality – something primal and inexorable – to the way Frankel once again overwhelmed his rivals. This time, true, there was ebb as well as flow. Cecil has soothed his temperament so completely that Frankel seemed nearly drowsy, both in the preliminaries and in leaving the stalls. And after he eased alongside Cirrus Des Aigles, Queally for once needed to administer a crack of the whip to assert by just under two lengths.
In the end, then, we did learn a tiny bit more about the champion, even from a race entailing so little of the risk that had made alternative challenges – the Arc or Breeders' Cup – seem likely to shed more light on his proper place in the pantheon. Because you would not say he had much left in the tank, on this ground at least. But those who send their mares to Frankel in the spring will be gratified that he decorated his swansong with guts as well as glory.
There are no guarantees of Frankel as a stallion. Many top-class horses have proved relative duds at stud, and anyone who could afford either would be taking less of a chance with his own sire, Galileo, whose reputation has merely been sealed by Frankel. But if his connections disappointed some of us, in their reluctance to explore his full capacity on the racetrack, then nor will they permit incaution to infect the management of his next career. Though he will obviously start off with a handsome fee, Frankel's mates will not be named – or numbered – with anything in mind beyond a worthy legacy.
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