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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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide