I’m going to say something controversial. I wrote yesterday, in the heat of emotion and adoration and nerves, that Frankel does not have an off day.
I think that yesterday he had an off day.
He has just won his fourteenth race, out of fourteen. He is confirmed as the greatest flat horse my generation has ever seen. He retires, unvanquished. Every inch of newsprint this morning is about the power and the glory, so it seems churlish and grouchy even to think of such a thing as an off day. But in my mind, it makes the champion more supreme. Even when not at his crest and peak, he can still dish out a beating to the second best horse in the world.
It is easy to forget how good Cirrus des Aigles is, because he is an older French horse, and we do not see him on our television screens here. On the latest official ratings, he stands on 130, at number two, a full four places ahead of the legendary Black Caviar. He came to Ascot in the form of his life, having destroyed a high-class field over the Arc weekend, cantering away on the bridle. He is a mudlark, relishing the testing ground over which Frankel was untried.
As well as Cirrus des Aigles, there was Nathaniel, fourth best in the world, brought to his peak by John Gosden, who is himself galloping towards the trainers’ championship.
Just to emphasise how difficult the task was, Frankel is in his pomp over a mile. This was only his second go at ten furlongs, and even though he made it look like a party at York, leaving Group One horses labouring in his wake, in testing ground a mile and a quarter will feel like further. Finally, Frankel is a big, heavy horse. In life, he is actually finer and lighter than he seems on the television, but he is still broad and strong, packed with muscle. Whilst his strength would help him go through the ground, he could not bounce over it as a lighter-framed horse might.
When he appeared in the paddock, he was wonderfully relaxed, ambling round like a dopey old Labrador. He used to get in a state before his races; Sir Henry Cecil has taught his horse the art of switching off, so all energy is saved for the race itself. But I started to wonder if Frankel was not a little bit too relaxed. For the very first time, he did not have the white foam of sweat that he always shows between his back legs.
This worried me. The irony is that sweating there is considered a very bad sign indeed. A bit of warmth on the neck is fine, but the hindquarters are a danger zone. I have even heard people say it is a mark of suspect temperament. Frankel always does it, and he always wins. The lack of the trademark white patch scratched away at the back of my mind.
He also looked a tiny bit starey in his coat. This is not surprising at this time of year, as the autumn weather descends, but I missed the gleam and sheen that I saw at York.
He flopped out of the stalls, in a heap, so Tom Queally had to shake him up as if to say, come on fella, this is business. Then Frankel showed his usual smooth power, gunning round the field with his finely balanced stride. Cirrus des Aigles was running on like a tiger, with plenty left, and for the first time this season, Queally had to pick up his stick. Frankel did not float away, as he has done in the past. Yesterday, he could not rely on sheer class, he had to show his heart as well. He put his head down, dogged, resolute, and flashed past the line a couple of lengths in front.
In the end, the victory was more emphatic than the bare distance suggests. In the end, he won cosily; nothing was ever going to catch him. It was not the demolition job that we have seen from him in the past, but in some ways it was more glorious for all that.
I think he had come to the end of a long season. I think that he is such a fine, brilliant horse that he may have got a little grumpy with the cold and the wet. He will have been working in the gloomy October chill of East Anglia, where the winds whips straight across from Siberia. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I think, yesterday, the grand emperor was a tiny bit out of sorts.
But that is the mark of a truly great horse. Any racehorse will have its mysteriously brilliant day. Sometimes they just run into form at a precise moment, which is why you’ll suddenly have a fifty to one outsider streaking home. All horses have their off days too, which is why you see hot odds on favourites go nowhere. Earlier in the afternoon, Opinion Poll, heavily backed for the long distance race, was practically pulled up. The historic ones are those that still go on and win, even when the stars are not aligned in their favour.
Even when Frankel is not at his rampant best, even when he may be feeling a little bit blah, as we all sometimes do, he still pulls it out of the bag. All the great ones have lost; even Mill Reef, Nijinsky, Dancing Brave had their defeats. At the winning post, Frankel has never seen the back of another horse; he does not know what losing is. Fourteen out of fourteen, on different ground, under different conditions, and over different distances, ten of those in Group One races, is an outrageous record. They all came for him, and they all were denied.
In some ways, although I rather longed for an imperial procession, I’m glad he had to scrap for it. We saw yesterday not so much a king, as a streetfighter. It made the drama more complete. It made me admire and love him more, not less. That horse is not a machine, or a freak, as some people say; he can go out with a chink in his armour and still prevail. Even when not at his singing, shining best, he can still beat the finest the world has to offer. Because along with his talent, and his grace, and his romping, raking stride, along with his power and brilliance, there is a brave, beating heart, that does not know how to give up.
And talking of hearts, the other one that is stout as the old oak of England is that of Sir Henry Cecil. There he was, frail and pale, bashing away at a horrible illness, but still pulling off the training performance of a lifetime. To keep any top class horse sound over three seasons is achievement enough; to hit fourteen out of fourteen, at the very highest level, is the stuff of dreams.
As Sir Henry spoke to the clamouring crowd of press, as the cheers and trumpets rang out behind him, his voice was thin and hardly audible. He nodded seriously, as he spoke the bare facts. ‘I can’t believe,’ he said, ‘in the history of racing there has been a better horse.’
There, in their swansong, in the midst of a sea of joy, stood Cecil and his lovely champion, the old fighter and the young warrior, a perfect picture of grace under pressure.
And that, that, was why I cried.
The sun came out, and Scotland put on a show:
My little herd. Not quite world-beaters, but champions all to me:
How I found Red this morning. She can stand for hours and gaze at that view:
With just a hint of the look of eagles:
And in perfect profile: