Only the mud can mar farewell parade for Frankel, champion of champions
Cecil's unbeaten colt can shine one last time on a day for celebration – and Excelebration
It will probably turn into another procession, and that would certainly lend a suitably ceremonial quality to what is likely to prove the last piece of evidence submitted in favour of Frankel's promotion among the greatest of his breed. For celebration of his bewitching talent, and admiration for the mastery and fortitude of his trainer, should not require the suspension of every critical faculty on Qipco Champions' Day.
By declining the opportunity to explore his full capacity – through a career confined entirely to home soil, and largely to the same distance and opposition – his connections have made it difficult to endorse the theory, recycled so widely, that Frankel is a colt without precedent. In fairness, however, their options have been limited by fidelity to an innovation that retains grievous flaws, despite all the shrill cheerleading on its behalf. Unlike the preposterous Champions Series, to which it ostensibly provides a climax, there is clear merit in the showcase card inaugurated at Ascot last year. But it is scheduled far too late in the calendar.
For one thing, it is insular, arrogant and obtuse to stage the meeting in direct competition with those overseas targets that would tell us something new about champions who have already established their local superiority. (It falls just 13 days after the Arc, and 14 before the Breeders' Cup.) For another, the autumn rains that have today guaranteed horrible conditions for top-class horses confirm that last year's weather was a benign aberration. Combine the two, and both the big races in effect boil down to simply this question: can an odds-on favourite reiterate his status in bad ground?
To that extent, then, a frisson of uncertainty has in the end been contrived even from Frankel's relatively cautious tilt at the Qipco Champion Stakes. Imagine if he did forfeit that immaculate record, purely because the surface proved inimical to his brilliance – which possibility, of course, was precisely why Sir Henry Cecil never entertained the risk of testing Frankel's murderous rhythm against America's best, over dirt, in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Frankel (4.05) will almost certainly prove immune to the conditions. His physical fluidity, after all, owes as much to strength as grace. True, it is hardly a chance worth taking at microscopic odds, not least against Cirrus Des Aigles, a top-class rival in his own right, with a record of annihilating all-comers whenever given the chance to race through the mud.
In fact, anyone so emotionally sterile as to require the extra stimulation of a bet here should probably back Cirrus Des Aigles each-way. He has certainly been campaigned with a due adventure, flown all round the world to explore the princely abilities latent in his pauper's pedigree. Nathaniel could push Frankel, however, assuming he is back on song after being forced to sit out the Arc. Still the rival to get closest to Frankel, beaten just half a length on their debut in 2010, he can hardly finish as near this time but will enjoy the ground.
For Nathaniel to finish second in Frankel's first and final starts would certainly bring things full circle. And the sense that the whole day revolves around the champion is compounded by the fact that Excelebration is hot favourite for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. This colt was for a long time the best measure of Frankel, having finished second to him four times, and third once. With his nemesis having finally stepped up in trip, he has confirmed himself best of the rest at a mile, and was last seen beating Cityscape and Elusive Kate – the next two in the betting today – at Deauville in August. If he copes with the ground, Excelebration (3.30) will duly reiterate his status; if not, it might yet be that Carlton House can bounce back in a race lacking the depth associated with its old place in the calendar.
The stayers' race does look strong, having drawn three Gold Cup winners. But it is hard to know which, if any, remains in top form – and conditions may enable the upgraded Ile De Re (1.45) to bridge the gap. Sirius Prospect is also interesting, promoted from handicaps in the sprint, but Society Rock (2.20) matches a fine course record with proven calibre. Great Heavens, meanwhile, has not had long to absorb a generous effort in the Arc, and Sapphire (2.55) will be at home in the going.
But the principal hope from these other races, among a sell-out crowd, is that the track does not get too cut up before Frankel ventures on to it. So let's suspend all the quibbles over ratings, and indignation on behalf of champions past. Let's just enjoy the colossus who rightly bestrides the whole occasion, with all its controversies. And let's hope he leaves us something to remember him by.
Chris McGrath's nap:
Giorgio's Dragon (9.20 Wolverhampton)
Smarty Socks (4.45 Ascot)
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