Saturday, 20 October 2012

The final Frankel Day

It’s Frankel day. Normally, I wake on Frankel days like a child at Christmas. I am light with excitement. This morning, I overslept and woke heavy. I had been up half the night checking the weather forecast at Ascot, working out millimetres of precipitation in my mind. The connections were to walk the course to see if the ground was safe. There was uncertainty as to whether Frankel would even run. Sir Henry Cecil would not risk his wonder horse in the mud, and it gets famously boggy at Swinley Bottom.

To take my mind off it, I went up to see my own horse. I reminded her that she was Frankel’s second cousin once removed. She did not seem that interested. She laid her head on my chest and dozed off. She was in that kind of mood, sweetness coursing through her blue blood like wine.

Back at home, with three hours to go, I discover that Frankel will run. Then, the terror strikes. I had been rather cavalier about him running on soft ground; now doubts began to swarm. He’s won on it before, but not since his very first race, when he battled to see off Nathaniel, the horse who has come closest to him. It was easy ground at the Lockinge, early in the season, but, despite the torrential summer, Frankel has mostly had the good going.

Oh, I told myself, the people who know always say that the great horses will go on any ground. Frankel is such a balanced horse, so strong, so deep through the girth, with such a powerful, rhythmic stride, an almost skating movement that dances over the turf, that he can deal with anything.

But the haunting spectres still come. Rhythm wins races, and rhythm is Frankel’s special subject. He never deviates; he has a smooth, unrelenting cruising speed; he is as regular and pitiless as a metronome. It is that astonishing set-your-watch rhythmic action that breaks other horses’ hearts. What if, round the back, running down into that heavy ground, he loses his stride? What if the shock of the mud sends him off balance?

Don’t be absurd, says my hard, practical head. Frankel is a stone better than the next best horse. A stone. He is the greatest racehorse in the world, on official ratings. Tom Queally could do handstands on him and he would still win. He will cruise to the front and pull away and keep his crown; the doubters will look like monkeys.

All the same, this is a delicate Thoroughbred, for all his might and power; it is racing, where anything can happen. The excitement builds, but there is fear in it too.

I think, as I wait for his last ever appearance on a racecourse, why it is I love him so much, why he is so viscerally thrilling. I always wonder this, every time he runs, every time I wake with the twist in my stomach that announces Frankel day. I usually run out of adjectives.

It is that great, dancing stride. It is one of the most beautiful, pure things I’ve ever seen. It is the astonishing sense of floating over the green sward, combined with the powerhouse engine, hammering away like an industrial machine. To see grace and power together in this way is a rare thing indeed.

It is that every inch of him is lovely, from his great, muscled body, to his fine, wide head, to his deep, intelligent eye. When he stops, and pricks his ears, and lifts his head, and surveys his crowd like an emperor, he has, as my mother always says of the great ones, the look of eagles.

The best horses have something extra about them, something that can hardly be defined. Racing people call it presence. It is as if they are somehow aware of their greatness. As the crowds whoop and cheer, making a noise that should send any flight animal running for its life, Frankel takes it in as if it were merely his due. He used to be a bit spooky and highly-strung, in his early days. His adoring admirers, massed in ranks of joy, are aware that a racing horse, hopped up on the finest Canadian oats, may be startled by too much raucous clapping. When he went down at York, the crowd were tentative at first, not wanting to upset him. The slightly subdued cheer was rather touching, as if they were holding back, from politeness. Then, when they saw that the champion was almost basking in it, they let rip, and Frankel nodded his head in acknowledgement, and bounced over the turf as collected as a show pony.

When he comes back into the winner’s enclosure, there is no restraint. Trumpets sound, three cheers ring out, hands are red from clapping. He does not turn a hair. If ever there were a time for a horse to freak out, that would be it. Frankel’s presence is such, his seeming knowledge of his own brilliance is so ingrained, that he really does appear to know all this jubilee is for him.

But perhaps, most of all, it is his effortlessness. Tom Queally has not had to use his stick once this season. He hardly has to ask a question. He just shakes up the reins a little, and the horse responds instantly, powering forward, leaving good Group One horses labouring in his wake like selling platers. The best have gone up against him and been found ordinary. Everyone else is scrubbing away from the two furlong pole, and Frankel is running for fun.

All horses have their off days. There are times when they get out of bed on the wrong side, and they just do not run their race. No one knows why. There is an intrinsic mystery to the breed, which is why people say there is no such thing as a sure thing in racing. Frankel is as near to a sure thing as you will ever see. Commentators shout in disbelief as he pulls away from top class fields. ‘They can’t get him off the bridle,’ cried Simon Holt in astonishment, as Frankel tore over the Knavesmire.

‘Everything, for him, is so easy,’ said Willie Carson, at Ascot.

It is that easy, effortless, shining brilliance that sends shivers up the spine. It has such fineness, such purity, such sheer singing delight that it brings tears to my eyes. Not since Dancing Brave has anything given me so much untrammelled pleasure.

This afternoon is a risk. It is why I want to write this before the race. It is my final salute. I don’t want to see my great hero brought low, but he owes us nothing. He has lifted so many spirits, given so much joy. He is the best in a generation; he has nothing left to prove. Win or lose, and I still say win, he is the champion of my heart.

 

Royal Ascot 2012: Frankel destroys rivals to win Queen Anne Stakes by 11 lengths

At Ascot, this June, in a lovely shot by Getty Images.

There will be regular pictures later. It was a pretty day, and the mountain has reappeared from the cloud. But for now, it is all about Frankel. He is the mountain.

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