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Frankel, a wonder horse for all the ages

This horse appears to possess an engine with twice the power of that of any other.

It is very rare for a racehorse, or indeed any athlete, to perform at an altogether higher level of ability than that of its contemporaries. One that did was the 18th-century champion Eclipse, effortless winner of all 18 of his races – “Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere,” as his owner said. American racing fans treasure the memory of Secretariat’s Triple Crown victories, culminating in a pulverising, 31-length triumph in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. And there was the Irish Grand National champion Arkle, so good that he could defeat the best of his rivals while carrying an extra two and a half stone on his back. Now, 19 generations down from Eclipse in the paternal line, there is Frankel.

If Frankel wins his final race, the Champion Stakes at Ascot on 20 October, you won’t get rich by backing him. Not unless you’re comfortably off already. His price at the moment is 1/10 – that is, to win £100, you’ll have to bet £1,000. Betting £1,000 in each of Frankel’s last three races, you would now boast a return of £250. Top-class horse racing has never seen prices as mean as this.

The betting market is one way of expressing the extraordinary ability of this horse. Another is handicap ratings. Timeform, which in the racing world carries a biblical authority in such matters, rates the unbeaten Frankel the best horse it has ever assessed – superior to Sea Bird II, imperious winner of the 1965 Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and superior to Brigadier Gerard, widely regarded as the paragon of British-trained racehorses of the 20th century.

The main proof of Frankel’s greatness, however, is the breathtaking impression he leaves on all those who see him race. He appears to possess an engine with twice the power of that of any other horse. His rivals gallop hard, their jockeys urging them frantically, while he canters, his jockey motionless. Then the jockey, Tom Queally, presses lightly on the accelerator and Frankel surges, six, seven lengths clear, sometimes further.

Straight ahead

Frankel’s first great victory was in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket in May last year. Newmarket is a straight course, at which the horses appear at first to the spectators as an indistinct mass in the distance. On that day, one horse came into clear view much earlier than the others – Frankel. The rest were nowhere. The Racing Post described his performance as “astonishing”.

During the 2012 season, Frankel has inspired further astonishment, winning the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot by 11 lengths, the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood by six lengths and the International Stakes at York by seven lengths. Most of the best horses of the day have trailed in behind him. In the Champion Stakes, his main rival is Cirrus des Aigles, ranked third in the world but available to back at an insulting 8/1.

Frankel’s owner is Prince Khalid Bin Abdullah, a mild-mannered member of the House of Saud. But no one pays much attention to him. It is the trainer whom racing fans are interested in; and Frankel’s is the trainer they love above all others, Sir Henry Cecil.

Cecil is one of those toffs who somehow inspires more affection than any meritocrat – such as the trainer Sir Michael Stoute, son of a Barbadian policeman – would muster. A dandy, impeccably dressed, Cecil tends to address people with a disconcerting obliqueness, the physical manifestation of which is a tilting of his head. His father was the younger brother of a baron, his mother was the daughter of a baronet who owned Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire, and his stepfather was the celebrated racehorse trainer Sir Cecil Charles Boyd-Rochfort.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Cecil trained a series of top-class horses, winning numerous Classics and enjoying particular success at Royal Ascot. But from the mid- 1990s his life and career started to go wrong. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai, who had become the most powerful owner in British racing, withdrew his string from the stable. Cecil’s marriage broke up amid lurid allegations. He was convicted of drink-driving after injuring an elderly couple – an offence that, one might have thought, would lower him in the public’s esteem. Not at all: his flaws are part of the appeal.

In 2006, he began treatment for cancer, from which his twin brother had died six years earlier. But during the period of Cecil’s illness he has enjoyed his biggest successes since his heyday. And now he is the handler of the greatest horse that he, or perhaps anyone else, has ever trained.

At York in August, Cecil appeared to be desperately ill and was able to speak only in a whisper. If he makes it to Ascot on the 20th, and if Frankel wins as expected, neither he nor anyone else will be able to make themselves heard above the cheers.

Nicholas Clee is the author of “Eclipse: the Story of the Rogue, the Madam and the Racehorse That Changed the World” (Black Swan, £9.99).

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.