St Nick may give Frankel a searching new test
Wednesday 22 August 2012
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When racing purists clamour for Frankel to be tried over longer distances, it isn’t just versatility we want him to display. It is to take on – and conquer – an entirely new group of horses and confirm that his brilliance has a greater reach.
The world’s best horse can do that in the Juddmonte International at York. Having made hacks of the rest of the horses in the miling division, he will encounter a new foe in St Nicholas Abbey, who is stepping back from a mile and a half.
For commercial reasons, thoroughbred breeders have long since tried to make the miler the beau ideal of stallions. But, rather inconveniently for them, the majority of champion sires have been middle-distance horses whose progeny take longer to come to hand and have less appeal to yearling buyers who want a quick turnover of their profit.
And so, the strongest division in Britain and Ireland tends to be middle-distance category, in contrast to Australia and the Far East, for example, where sprinters rule the roost. In America, by contrast, the best horses run on dirt at around nine furlongs.
That Frankel has the ability to dominate races over 10 furlongs there is little doubt. He settles so much better these days and has the pedigree to do well at the trip. But it is still for him to prove that his dazzling speed does not have its limits, that he can’t be outlasted even though he can never be outrun.
The late-running St Nicholas Abbey makes for a different test from some of the rivals Frankel has battered in the miling division. Back on his favoured left-handed track after a very good third in the King George, he will be a lot stronger in the final furlong than Frankel’s biggest threat hitherto, Excelebration.
No horse runs away from St Nick without using considerable energy – he was staying on well behind the Arc winner Danedream from a poor position at Ascot.
In all this talk of an unthinkable defeat for Frankel, what makes the International a particularly significant race is the venue.
Nowadays, it is said to say that York has one of the strangest surfaces in the country. It is common to see jockeys racing on the stands’ side, even on fast ground, and some horses – particularly those of Mark Johnston – seem not to show their form at the track.
Even in the good old days, however, York had the reputation of a graveyard for favourites. And the most famous example concerns a horse with whom Frankel has been compared – Brigadier Gerard.
In an 18-race career, the only race The Brigadier lost was the forerunner of the International Stakes, the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup. He started 1-3 for the 1972 renewal but was turned over by front-running Roberto, who shattered the course record.
It was claimed that the favourite’s defeat was down to his being sick but many, with other similar instances in mind, still blame the track.
Frankel will be a lot shorter than 1-3 on Wednesday, but in many ways this is a more difficult hurdle to cross. At last, he has the chance to prove he can gild his brilliant speed with a precious layer of extra stamina.
Can he actually improve again, or is this a bear trap?