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.
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).