Unbeaten phenom Frankel crowned his glorious career with a victory over
Cirrus des Aigles in Saturday's Group 1 Champion Stakes at Ascot, but only after
his fans endured drama both before and during the highly-anticipated contest.
With torrential rains pelting Ascot in advance of Champions Day, the ground deteriorated to soft, and even heavy in places on the Round Course. Frankel's connections -- trainer Sir Henry Cecil and Prince Khalid Abdullah's Racing Manager Teddy Grimthorpe -- had not been concerned about softish conditions, but the prospect of heavy going prompted a re-think.
On Friday, Grimthorpe revealed that they intended to run if possible, but a final decision would only come in the morning, following a walk of the course.
Those unmistakable signs of hesitation plunged the racing world into speculation: would Frankel run? Would the Champion be his swan song as long forecast, or would the day be rendered anticlimactic by his withdrawal?
Thankfully, Grimthorpe's walk over the course provided the reassuring answer. While the course did have heavy spots on the backside, it was soft down the straight, and Frankel was given the green light to take part in the historic 1 1/4-mile prize.
"I was worried last night when everybody kept ringing me to tell me how much rain there had been at Ascot," Grimthorpe said, "but Henry was insistent that he would run. When I walked the track this morning I was more than happy."
But the nerve-wracking tension didn't end there. As if aware of the pre-race uncertainty, Frankel uncharacteristically missed the break, spotting the field a couple of lengths and forcing his rider Tom Queally, and his pacemaker Bullet Train, to make a few on-the-fly adaptations.
Bullet Train's rider, Ian Mongan, showed himself a master decision-maker under intense pressure. Looking back to try to see where Frankel was, Mongan did not go on to set the pace, but rather held back in order to let Frankel regroup and secure position.
As the Juddmonte team had to go to tactical Plan B, Frankel's principal rival, the French mudlark and defending champion Cirrus des Aigles, took up the running. The other top-class contender, Nathaniel, also has tactical speed, and he pressed on to keep tabs on the dangerous front runner.
Meanwhile, Mongan was alive to what was unfolding behind him, and realized that Queally had settled Frankel into a sensible spot off the pace. Although it still wasn't according to the playbook, for Frankel couldn't drop in behind him at this point, Mongan now grasped that it was time to get on with the pacemaker's job.
Driving Bullet Train forward on the rail, Mongan went to the lead, but the smooth-traveling Cirrus des Aigles continued to hold a perfect spot off his flank. Cirrus des Aigles cruised past at the head of the straight, clearly reveling in the conditions, and bidding to repeat his triumph of a year ago.
By this time, Frankel was improving his position on the outside, but Queally was riding him with tender consideration. Even when the 2-11 favorite loomed up to Cirrus des Aigles, Queally appeared to wait before asking him in earnest.
When Queally did push Frankel on with a more energetic hand ride, the world's top-ranked horse confirmed his superiority. The majestic son of Galileo slogged past Cirrus des Aigles, not with his usual burst, but in a more grinding fashion in keeping with the testing ground.
Frankel forged clear to defeat Cirrus des Aigles by 1 3/4 lengths, and cemented
his status as an undefeated legend with a glittering 14-for-14 mark.
"I cannot believe in the history of racing that there has ever been a better racehorse," Cecil stated. "I have enjoyed every moment of training him, although it has been slightly stressful at times. He's the best that I have ever had and the best that I ever seen.
"He was laboring on the ground and not happy on it, but he was very relaxed throughout. I have probably got him too relaxed -- it used to be the other way.
"In the end, he had plenty in hand," the trainer summed up.
"That is the end of it and he will retire to stud now," Prince Khalid confirmed. "Today was important because it was his last race.
"I knew he was going to win beforehand," his owner-breeder averred, "and I think he would have been further in front of the other horses if it hadn't been for the ground."
Queally agreed that the ground blunted his usual dominance.
"There's no doubt that he is better on better ground," his rider said, "but his class really showed today.
"I walked the track and I was a little bit worried about the conditions. But, having walked it in the home straight, I knew that it wasn't too heavy for him to quicken up, go about his business and win."
Although Frankel's margin was not gaudy, the victory served to enhance his reputation. Cirrus des Aigles, Europe's champion older horse of 2011, is a world-class performer on all types of ground, but he has spread-eagled his opponents on soft or heavy going. By beating a rival of Cirrus des Aigles' caliber, in conditions that tilted the playing field in his favor, Frankel only added to his luster.
As further evidence of the merit of his performance, multiple Group 1 star Nathaniel was left another 2 1/2 lengths astern in third. German Derby winner Pastorius was relegated to a well-beaten fourth, trailed by Master of Hounds and Bullet Train.
"This was a career-defining performance," Grimthorpe said. "He was slowly away, but the great thing is that he is so relaxed and he got into a rhythm again. He's unhustled and relaxed and he had a trouble-free run into the straight. I was confident that he'd put the race to bed and that's what he did."
Frankel will now embark upon a stud career at Prince Khalid's Banstead Manor near Newmarket.
"I won't miss him because he'll be 200 yards from my office," Grimthorpe enthused.
"He'll let down first back at Warren Place Stables and come to Banstead Manor when he's ready. He's been on high octane fuel so it's a gradual letting-down process and when everyone is happy he'll come to the stud.
"Interest in him as a stallion has been worldwide, and I mean from every part of the world. The next process is to decide on a stud fee which Prince Khalid and (the stud's general manager) Philip Mitchell will do.
"People wanting to breed to the horse will send their mares' CVs in and Prince Khalid will send his best mares that suit. They will also decide how many outside mares will go to him. It would be good to get a good breadth of mares in terms of size, scope and pedigree, and that is an ongoing process."