Frankel was racing’s undoubted star of 2010-12 and was a horse the like of which we may never see again. In this magazine feature I looked back on the incredible career of the unbeaten superstar and the Hollywood-style story surrounding those connected to him…
Miracles of the sporting kind are so few and far between that those with an emotional attachment to them can’t help but turn into evangelists. They take on a significance that borders on the spiritual and memories of them are carried around as they go about their enriched daily lives, ever ready for inculcation to anyone who might unwittingly lend a receptive ear.
Just as those present when Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 watched in the knowledge that the experience would go with them to their deathbeds, followers of flat racing in the UK and beyond saw the story of Frankel unfold over three seasons increasingly sure that they were witnessing a sporting fable like no other. While the end result would be unique in itself – the horse would retire unbeaten in 14 starts and be officially rated as the greatest flat horse since records began – it only told a fraction of the tale. Central to it were sub-plots that would have been beyond even the most imaginative writers of fiction.
The horse took everything asked of him in the stride that devoured the ground it covered, including the burden, of which he was thankfully unaware, of being the central figure in one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of modern sport, preluded and ultimately footnoted with tragedy and premature death.
To find its origins we must go back around ten years to the early 2000s. Back then two men, born on different continents 18 months apart, bestrode the sport of kings on each side of the Atlantic. Sir Henry Cecil and Bobby Frankel were at the top of the training ranks in Britain and America respectively. The languid, upper class Cecil – privately educated and stepson of the Queen’s trainer – had sent out more Classic winners and more Royal Ascot winners than any Briton in history, and had been crowned champion trainer ten times. Frankel, a streetwise, self-made man from the tough neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, was about to have the most successful season that any trainer in the world had ever enjoyed by saddling 25 Group/Grade 1 winners in 2003 – a record that still stands.
In terms of their backgrounds the two men couldn’t have been more different, but they were bound together by common ground: unsurpassed genius in the handling of thoroughbred racehorses; and the patronage of one of the world’s most powerful owners: Prince Khalid Abdullah, the founder of Juddmonte Farms.
At around the time that Bobby Frankel was breaking records in the USA, Cecil’s private and professional life took wrong turns. His second marriage broke down publicly and his beloved twin brother David lost a battle against cancer. As Cecil was then diagnosed with the disease himself, the winners dried up, and with it the patronage of some of his once-loyal owners and breeders. The ten-time champion trainer had been used to regularly sending out more than 100 winners in a season. By 2005 he had reached a nadir of just 12.
Throughout all of this Prince Khalid remained loyal to the man who’d brought him so much success and by 2007 Cecil’s name was being mentioned more frequently again in the racing press after plenty had concluded that it had disappeared for good. Two Abdullah-owned horses, Twice Over and Midday, played key roles in kick-starting Cecil’s incredible racing resurrection. But over in America, tragedy was about to strike.
Looking for a legacy
Bobby Frankel died in November 2009 at the age of 68 after a spirited fight with leukaemia. Racing in America was plunged into mourning and the news particularly saddened Prince Khalid. More than anyone the Brooklyn boy had enabled the Saudi prince to make a success of his operation in the US. The likes of Empire Maker, Sightseek and Beat Hollow (sent to Frankel from Cecil’s stable) provided Prince Khalid and his trainer with some of the most memorable moments of their careers. As he said goodbye to Bobby Frankel that autumn, the prince formulated a plan for a lasting tribute to his deceased trainer.
A safe bet would have been a statue. In the end Prince Khalid decided on the far riskier strategy of naming his most promising yearling of 2009 after the American in the hope that the Frankel name could be further immortalised on the racetrack and then in the breeding stables. Even the most optimistic of those closest to him didn’t expect his plan to work.
“Bobby had died in the November of 2009 and he had trained for the prince for roughly 20 years,” says Prince Khalid’s racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe. “A large majority of the successes we’d had over in the USA was down to him and the foundations that he had laid down there for us.
“Prince Khalid was always keen to honour Bobby in some way and so when this horse came along he liked him and decided eventually to name him after Bobby. That’s not to say that he was going to end up as a champion, as plenty of people who have named horses with a specific tribute or purpose in mind have found out. It usually ends in disaster.”
The breeding of racehorses and their graduation to the track is a notoriously unpredictable process. Those with the most regal of pedigrees often disappoint, as the ultra-knowledgeable and hugely successful connections of Snaafi Dancer and The Green Monkey will attest to. The former cost Sheikh Mohammed $10.2 million at auction in 1983 and never saw a racecourse, while the latter cost the owners of Coolmore Stud around $16 million in 2006 and never won a race. Prince Khalid himself breeds and purchases around 200 yearlings a year. Identifying the one that might one day do Bobby Frankel’s memory justice appeared to be as likely to succeed as choosing some lottery numbers in the hope of paying the gas bill.
In the end Prince Khalid and his advisors settled on a striking son of Galileo, one of the world’s most successful sires, and one of his former race mares, Kind. It was a pedigree that blended speed and stamina, but more than a fair share of luck would be needed for him to win a race at the highest level. Believing that he would prove to be a lasting tribute to his namesake required an enormous leap of faith. As for him becoming, on official ratings, the greatest horse ever to grace a racecourse – talk of that was likely to end with a visit from some men dressed in white coats.
Cecil had displayed a toughness and resilience in his own fight with cancer and his dwindling fortunes that belied his demeanour. Unlikely as it may have seemed to those that had followed his career and his life, he showed Bobby Frankel-esque qualities in battling the disease that his late friend across the Atlantic would have respected. Whether it was this, or simply Prince’s Khalid’s unwavering faith that Cecil’s genius as a trainer had not deserted him, that led the owner to send the young horse to Cecil’s Newmarket base, is an answer that only the prince and those closest to him know. Almost immediately the connections began to realise that they had a horse that looked capable of becoming a star.
“He was always a nice foal and he really began to develop when he was a yearling,” says Grimthorpe. “He was broken in during the September of his yearling year and by the time October came he was looking a pretty impressive horse in every way and we were all very excited by him.
“He went into training at Henry’s yard, Warren Place, in the January of his two-year-old season in 2010. Prince Khalid does all the naming of his horses at around that time and he was our nicest by a considerable margin in looks, pedigree and everything else. He began to develop in the spring of that year and into the summer he started to look like he could be something very special. Every time he ran he encouraged us to think higher and higher.”
The journey to immortality begins
The horse made his long-awaited racecourse debut at Newmarket in August 2010 and ran out a cosy winner by an unremarkable half-a-length. Hindsight now tells us that the result was better than it looked on paper at the time. Behind him that day were Nathaniel, who would go on to win the King George and the Coral-Eclipse Stakes, and Colour Vision, who was a future winner of the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. Frankel’s starting odds that day were 7/4. It was the one and only time throughout his career when he started at odds against.
By the end of Frankel’s juvenile campaign he was undefeated in four starts and was crowned Europe’s champion two-year-old following wins in the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes and the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes. He had won both races easily but on each occasion he had displayed flaws in his temperament, making it difficult for his jockey Tom Queally to settle him into a smooth rhythm early on in his races. The horse had so much natural talent and an almost unprecedented love of galloping that he was proving difficult to train. It’s not that he was a reluctant pupil – the polar opposite was true. In more than 30 years at the top of his profession Grimthorpe had never seen a horse display such enthusiasm.
“There were many things about Frankel that were special but for me the most amazing aspect of him was that he had a huge will to run and to please,” Grimthorpe says. “He just loved to run and he had a huge stride – none of us had ever seen a horse like him, and let’s not forget that there were some pretty experienced people connected to him. He was doing too much in his racing and in his work at that point. To come back to normality we needed to rein him in a little bit.
“Of course it just so happened that we had one of the best trainers of all time looking after him. Henry did a super job teaching him and letting him learn to settle. As a juvenile and as a three-year-old he wanted to do too much, but by the time he was four you could pretty much settle him anywhere in a race. That was all down to the genius of his trainer.”
After winning his prep race at Newbury as a three-year-old, Frankel put up a performance in winning the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in May 2011 that bewildered anyone who saw it. Still headstrong at this early point in his career, Cecil and Queally decided to allow him to race freely from the front, sensing that restraining him would be counter-productive. The result was one of the most eye-catching performances ever seen in the ancient Classic. By the halfway point of the contest, Frankel and his jockey had left their own pacemaker and Europe’s best three-year-old milers fifteen lengths in their wake. Bored by the isolation, he idled slightly in the final couple of furlongs but was still six lengths clear as he passed the winning post. It was a performance so unique in its brutal physicality that many seasoned observers hastily concluded that like a boxer who pushes himself to the limit in the ring and is never quite the same fighter afterwards, the race might have left an indelible mark on him.
A sixth sense
It was an understandable theory to all but those who knew him best. Cecil insisted that far from the Guineas representing Frankel’s peak, much more was to come. He proved it in three more mile contests over the course of the 2011 season, the highlight of which was his destruction of the brilliant Canford Cliffs in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. His final appearance of the year came at British Champions Day in October, again over the mile, in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Afterwards it was announced that he would be staying in training as a four-year-old to the delight of every racing fan in the country. Despite loud protestations from some sections of the media, Cecil was adamant that for the time being the horse would continue to race over a mile instead of stepping up in distance.
“The clamour for Frankel to run over further started immediately after the Guineas, with people saying that if he simply turned up for the Derby [over a mile-and-a-half] he’d win,” says Grimthorpe. “On the female side of his pedigree it looked as if he had the stamina to run but Henry was pretty reluctant to do so. After the Guineas it was pretty evident to those who know about racing that it would have been a mistake. He still had some learning to do to keep himself in check.”
What happened during the winter of 2011-12 will remain a mystery between horse and trainer. It has long been said that the greatest trainers have a sixth sense in understanding the horses in their care, a way of interpreting the messages given out by the animals that borders on sorcery. Over those long winter months, in between debilitating treatment for his stomach cancer, Cecil drew on all his experience and genius to transform Frankel from brilliant tearaway into the ultimate professional racing machine. It was reported that his legendary attention-to-detail even led to a live CCTV feed between Frankel’s box and his own bedroom. The story has never been denied and it is far from unbelievable.
After an injury scare in the spring of 2012, Frankel started off his four-year-old season by winning three more Group 1 races over a mile. All three victories, which came by an aggregate of 21 lengths, were jaw-dropping, though his 11-length win at Royal Ascot in the Queen Anne Stakes stands out. By now the horse was creeping into the wider consciousness and capturing the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people with little or no previous interest in the sport.
“People in my circle – my teammates in the dressing room for example – started talking about him,” says British Champions Series ambassador and recently-retired footballer Michael Owen. “These are people who didn’t normally follow racing at all. You need a horse like Frankel so that racing can reach the parts of the population that it usually doesn’t. In most cases it’s been jumps horses that have done that because they’re around for longer and people have more time to form an attachment to them. It’s rare that a flat horse does it. But he was such a brilliant horse and the way in which he spectacularly thrashed his rivals caught everyone’s attention.”
The final furlong
After a repeat win in the Sussex Stakes in July 2012, it was announced that Frankel would finally be racing over further in his next outing, the Juddmonte International Stakes at York over an extended mile-and-a-quarter. A different distance produced the same outcome as he handed a seven-length beating to subsequent Lockinge Stakes winner Farhh, with Breeders Cup hero St Nicholas Abbey further back in third. For the purist it was arguably the most impressive performance of Frankel’s career and it was made extra poignant by the appearance of a visibly frail Cecil, who by this stage of his illness could barely speak and collected his trophy with the aid of a walking stick.
Frankel’s swansong came on October 20th at British Champions Day, where he was scheduled to run his final race in the QIPCO British Champions Stakes. Tickets for the event sold out in a matter of hours and thousands flocked to Ascot to pay their respects to the horse of a lifetime and a stricken trainer who had risen from the ashes of a failing career to guide him through 13 races without defeat, rewriting his obituary to the delight of the millions who loved him. Men, women and children waved flags in Frankel’s honour and held aloft signs in his colours. Clare Balding, broadcasting for the BBC, said on air that the day had an Olympic feel to it. Just three months earlier she had hosted the corporation’s London 2012 coverage so was suitably qualified to comment.
Almost everyone in attendance – even, you suspected, the connections of some of his rivals – were desperate for the horse to bow out with a final victory to end unbeaten and retire as the now gravely ill Cecil’s ultimate masterpiece. But on the morning of the race he wasn’t even a confirmed runner, with the ground so wet that the going was bordering on heavy. The race would represent a thorough test of stamina and was certain to suit the defending champion Cirrus Des Aigles much more than Frankel. The pair had never met on the track before and the French horse, who was rated second in the global ratings over the race’s distance of ten furlongs, would relish the soft conditions. Eventually, after walking the course, Cecil and Grimthorpe gave the all clear for Frankel to take his chance and avoid the biggest anti-climax ever seen at a racecourse in Britain.
“I walked the course and it certainly was very soft,” says Grimthorpe. “Frankel has got quite big feet, which is an advantage in soft conditions, and we felt that being by Galileo, who was by Sadler’s Wells, he should be ok on it as most of their progeny are. Having said that, when it becomes heavy, or soft/heavy in places, it becomes specialist ground. He definitely didn’t enjoy it. He’s a horse with a great long stride and soft ground horses tend to have less exuberant actions.
“Had we pulled him out he could have gone to the Breeders Cup, probably in the Mile. Prince Khalid had always been keen to run him in America because of the connection to Bobby. If Santa Anita had stuck to their polytrack instead of switching back to dirt then sending him for the Breeders Cup Classic would have come under serious consideration.
“But in the end the beauty of Champions Day was that it provided a different test for the horse and enabled everyone to see that he was versatile as well as brilliant. Winning over ten furlongs in very soft ground highlighted that he wasn’t all pure speed. On that day he proved that he had plenty of stamina as well. In fact you could say without exaggeration that by the time Henry had finished with him he could have raced at any distance from five furlongs to a mile-and-a-half.”
Despite being tested more seriously by Cirrus Des Aigles than many had expected, Frankel repelled his challenge to the delight of everyone present and finished his career with an unblemished record of 14 consecutive victories. He broke slowly from the stalls – evidence of just how far the tearaway had come under his trainer’s teachings – but quickly made up the ground and as the field turned for home Queally was in the perfect position to deliver one final challenge. Frankel quickened up past the hardy French horse, who refused to lie down and battled all the way to the line. In the end the winning margin was one-and-three-quarter lengths. As the crowd in the grandstands composed themselves they looked up to see Queally and Frankel still cantering half-a-mile from the winning line – the jockey had been unable to pull him up. The career of the horse that loved to run more than any other was now over. You could have been forgiven for thinking that somehow he knew it, and just wanted an extra few minutes savouring the thrill of the track.
A monument to two very different men
In June of this year Sir Henry Cecil, with Frankel long out of his care and ensconced in a new career down the road as a stallion, lost his long fight with cancer at the age of 70. The disease claimed him just as it had claimed both his twin brother and Bobby Frankel. It was a premature end to the life of a man who had climbed to the greatest heights and fallen back down again, only to find redemption in his final years in the shape of a horse that he transformed into one of the greatest racing has ever seen.
“I always said that half of the horse was killing Henry – the worry and the strain of having to train him – but that the other half, the joy that he gave him, was keeping him alive,” says Grimthorpe. “Frankel deserved Henry and Henry deserved Frankel. They were deserving of each other and they were the perfect partnership.”
In 2016 the first generation of Frankel’s blue-blooded sons and daughters will appear on the track, ensuring his legacy and those of his late trainer and the man after which he was named will live on. As he enjoys his retirement at stud he will, of course, be unaware of his own significance: that he enriched so many lives; that he rewrote the racing record books; and that he is a monument to the memory of two very different men, who together, from above, are sure to raise a glass to him from time to time.
This feature originally appeared in the Official Guide to QIPCO British Champions Day 2013
© Future Publishing/Mark Robinson 2013