Sir Henry, Frankel and Royal Ascot plans...

It’s been a long time since I’ve been really moved by the loss of a public figure. However, I’m not ashamed to admit that news of the passing of Sir Henry Cecil on Tuesday brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

I don’t have any personal stories to tell of the man nor can I claim to have met him beyond catching glimpses of him many times at racecourses around the country. What I can say is that his achievements as one of the greatest trainers to ever grace our sport is one thing.

It’s quite another to see the incredibly high regard in which he is held by the ordinary man and woman in the street – and in that I think we get a true measure of the man.  Gracious and dignified whatever life threw at him, he was a true gentleman of the old school.

Thank goodness he had a horse like Frankel to light up the final years of his life

If you are in the mood for it, there are some very moving tributes and personal memories on the Sporting Life website here.

RIP Sir Henry Cecil


With the loss of Sir Henry and the imminence of the Royal Ascot Festival, my thoughts inevitably turned to (arguably) the greatest racehorse of all time, Frankel.

A few weeks ago, Nick Hardman wrote a piece on that most wondrous of wonder horses and I thought today would be a particularly good day to post it:


On the 20th of October 2012 I was privileged enough to see Frankel win his final race and enter retirement with a perfect record of 14 wins from 14 races.  Had I just witnessed, in the flesh, the swansong of the greatest racehorse of all time?  Whilst the equine superstar and his genius trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, had undoubtedly captured the hearts and minds of every racing fan on the planet, people will always debate whether Frankel is the greatest flat racehorse of all time.

Qualifying or quantifying the simple words “the greatest” is, in my opinion, a near impossible task.  Is this accolade defined by what you achieve or how you achieve it? Or is it simply a combination of both?  Or most important of all, does it really matter?  When asked who or what is the greatest you are not giving an answer, you are giving your opinion.  Opinions, unlike answers, are neither right nor wrong.  They are just different.

The case for Frankel being the greatest racehorse of all time is easy to make.  All you need to do is look at the facts and the statistics:

  • 14 races, 14 wins
  • 10 Group 1 wins
  • Just shy of £3m in prize money
  • An aggregate winning distance of 76.25 lengths
  • An average winning distance of 5.45 lengths
  • The highest ever official rating of 140 (World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings)
  • The highest ever Timeform rated horse (147)
  • The only horse to have topped the world rankings as a two, three and four-year-old

And it’s easy to go on.  For instance, Timeform (the acknowledged experts of racehorse ratings since the late 1940’s) have only ever afforded a rating above 140 to 7 horses.  Four horses achieved it once, three did it more than once and Frankel did it six times.

These statistics are only half the story.

Yet the harshest of critics will build a counter-argument that these achievements do not necessarily afford Frankel the title of “the greatest racehorse of all time”.  They will point out that he never raced beyond 1 mile and 2 furlongs, and he should therefore be known as “the greatest miler of all-time”.  Others will argue that he did not line up for what many consider the ultimate tests - The Epsom Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  And many will point out that he never raced outside England.

Comparisons are inevitable.  So if not Frankel, then who?

Let’s start with Sea The Stars.

His achievements as a three-year old can be described as phenomenal, winning the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the Arc.  He was unbeaten as a three-year old, winning 6 times from 6 races.  They were all Group 1.  Unlike Frankel he did not retire unbeaten, having won 8 times from 9 races.  However, failing to win his maiden at the Curragh in July 2008 is surely irrelevant given what he went on to achieve.  And there the comparisons end.  Since Sea The Stars was retired at three, we will never know just how good he would have been as a four year old, let alone what he would have gone on to achieve.  One could simply point out that Sea The Stars won the “Big Two”, the Derby and the Arc, two races in which Frankel did not compete.  But then one can counter with the fact that Frankel continued his total domination of all-comers as a four year old, and if anything, his form was even more impressive in that year.  You can also throw in the fact that Frankel’s average winning distance of 5 ½ lengths is even more remarkable considering it was achieved racing at shorter distances.  It’s a debate no side can win.

And what of the others?

Nijinsky is the only triple crown winner of the modern era - the incredible feat of winning the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger over the respective distances of 1 mile, 1 mile 4f and 1 mile 6f.  His starting odds for those races were 4/7, 11/8 and 2/7.  Like Frankel he invariably went off odds-on favourite and also like Frankel, he was a champion at two years and at three.  Nijinsky had won all 11 of his races when he went down by a head in the Arc and was then beaten ¾ of a length in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket just two weeks later.  His jockey, Lester Piggot and his trainer Vincent O’Brien later declared that Nijinsky was probably past his best by the time he ran his final two races.  In the modern era, Nijinsky may well have been retired after his St. Leger win.  Since the official world ratings were only introduced in 1977, seven years after Nijinsky retired; it is very difficult to compare Nijinsky’s ability and achievements to those of Frankel.  Either way, this remarkable horse can also stake a claim to being the greatest racehorse of all time.

What about Dancing Brave?

Until recently he was the highest rated horse of all-time with a rating of 141 (only to be “re-calibrated” down to 138 in late 2012).  He was raced only 10 times, winning 8 including the 2000 Guineas and the Arc.  His only defeats came in the Derby by ½ a length and in the Breeders Cup turf, which was probably one race too many.  Many felt he should have won the Derby, having been produced late from the back of the field.  However, that was what made him so great.  His racing style was to be held up and delivered late with an electrifying turn of foot.  No more so was this evident than when flying past around a dozen horses in the final 200m to win the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in breath-taking fashion.

There are many others who, like the three examples above, can have a solid case made for them for being the best there has ever been.  Ribot, unbeaten in 16 races, winning back-to-back Arcs in 1955 and 1956.  A winner in his native Italy, he also won in France and was victorious in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.  Like Frankel, he remained unbeaten as a two, three and four-year old.  Unlike Frankel, and perhaps most remarkably, Ribot won races from 5f to 1mile 7f.  When discussing the best of the best we cannot leave out Brigadier Gerard, winner of an incredible 17 of his 18 races including a 2000 Guineas and multiple Group 1 races from 6f to a 1mile 4f.  We must also include Mill Reef, winner of the Derby and the Arc and a total of 12 of his 14 races.  I’m sure there are even more horses from many generations whom you feel I have left out.  But that is exactly my point, the greatest of all time is impossible to qualify.

And so back to Frankel.

Whilst others may have won more races, won more classics and prevailed in more countries over more distances, there is something unique about Sir Henry Cecil’s colt.  Whilst some may wish to mull over the numbers and the statistics, I prefer to let the visual spectacle of his astonishing performances do the talking.  I will never forget how, time and time again, Frankel destroyed high class opposition with sheer brutality, yet beautiful elegance.  This unique combination of power and grace, and a turn of foot the likes of which I have never seen before, will always jump to the forefront of my mind every time I hear his name.  Not the numbers, nor the ratings, nor the records – just the visual spectacle of a simply phenomenal horse.

Whether Frankel is the greatest flat racehorse of all time is irrelevant to me.  What is relevant is that he achieved what he did in our lifetime; we could see it, feel it and live it.  He brought something tangible to a generation of race fans for which we will always be privileged to have been a part of.  The lasting impression of his remarkable performance in the 2000 Guineas is as fresh in my memory as when it unfolded before my eyes on April 30th 2011.  Seeing the way he cruised past a high class field of multiple group 1 winners on the bridle in the Juddmonte at York a year later, still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  Those memories define greatness.  We will never see another Frankel in our lifetime.  As for being the greatest of all time, well let’s leave that discussion to those that think it’s important.

And I haven’t even mentioned Black Caviar…


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Have a great day



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