October 19, 2012 7:26 pm

Goodbye to UK’s greatest ever athlete

I have seen some amazing runners, but never one as dominating as the racehorse Frankel

There will be readers of this column who disapprove of horse racing, including some of those who spend their weekdays betting on other markets. However, this is a day when all kinds of principles are being forgotten, including the one whereby everyone on a racecourse talks through their pocket.

Anyone near a television at 4.05pm on Saturday afternoon ought to tune to BBC1, because there promises to be a moment that transcends sport: one of beauty, drama and history. Perhaps history above all: this is the end of more than one era.

The 4.05 at Ascot, the Qipco Champions Stakes, is scheduled to be the last race for Frankel, the greatest racehorse that ever lived. The last part of that statement is of course both unprovable and undisprovable. It would not even be settled in the 4.05 in the Elysian Fields, because horses specialise in different distances and conditions; and his nearest all-time British rival would probably be Arkle, who was a steeplechaser, not a flat horse.

But I have seen some amazing athletes in my life – four-legged, two-legged and, in the Paralympics, fewer than that. There has never been one as dominating and domineering as this.

Frankel has won all his 13 races since he first appeared on a racecourse two years ago. Whatever happens in number 14, he is due to spend the rest of his life in luxurious uxoriousness, receiving visitations from the world’s finest racing mares, which he will be encouraged to entertain, at even greater profit to his owner, in the eternal quest to find another horse that might be anything as fast.

This is what we are constantly being told is Britain’s greatest summer of sport: the year when, for the first time ever, a British cyclist (Bradley Wiggins) won the Tour de France; a British tennis player (Andy Murray) won a major championship after a 76-year wait; the European golf team (which we happily adopt as British for these purposes) overcame a seemingly impossible deficit to beat the US in the Ryder Cup; and Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians won enough gold to restock the reserves. Amid all this, Frankel has received little attention from outside the increasingly enclosed and marginalised racing community.

Britain’s intelligently liberal gambling laws and the internet have produced a huge increase in betting. But horse racing is less and less essential to that process. People now punt on subjects on which they consider themselves more expert – football above all.

Racing’s role is becoming analogous to the Church of England’s – part of the traditional fabric of society; patronised by royalty; its calendar and rituals as time-honoured and beautiful as the liturgical equivalents – but its complexities are too time-consuming for a busy urban society to grasp. And after all, we know little more about the mind of a racehorse than we do about the mind of God.

This meeting will be the last big racing occasion to be shown on the BBC. There will be a last farewell in the unroyal surroundings of Chepstow on December 27. The only conceivable purpose is to have an orgy of self-indulgent Beebish nostalgia. Thereafter, racing will be confined to Channel 4, plus all the satellite channels that make it possible to watch races from somewhere in the world pretty much 24 hours a day.

This was not exactly the BBC’s choice, but its interest had become so confined to a handful of major days that the sport’s authorities finally told them not to bother.

For the moment, though, the national broadcaster has the story. It is not just about the horse, and his surges of inexorable power the moment his jockey, a previously little-known Irishman called Tom Queally, presses the accelerator. It is not about his owner, the self-effacing Saudi billionaire Prince Khalid Abdullah. At the heart of it is Sir Henry Cecil, Frankel’s fey, aristocratic trainer, a man who exudes a curious mixture of charm and unease. Now 68, he has been a trainer for 43 years and has found himself responsible for the horse of a hundred lifetimes. At the same time, he has been undergoing chemotherapy, and has appeared after some of Frankel’s victories looking alarmingly gaunt.

Unlike Frankel, Sir Henry has tasted disaster as well as triumph. Early in the last decade his second marriage collapsed – messily and very publicly – along with his business: his owners died or deserted him, and his stable was reduced to a rump. Prince Khalid stayed loyal, and the rest will become history.

Frankel will start long odds-on, as he always does. But it is late in the year, and the going will be soft enough to make strange things possible. Perhaps the young colt’s fancy is already lightly turning to thoughts of love. Yet if there is a conqueror lurking in the small field, the owners – aiming for the juicy place money – will themselves be a bit mortified.

All along Sir Henry has said that his – mostly cautious – decisions about where and when Frankel will run have been dictated by the horse, as though they have a mystical bond too profound for ordinary mortals to grasp. And there is something about the pair of them that passes normal understanding. Perhaps the analogy with religion goes further than we know.

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