Flat fighter

Lifestyle | Sat 21 Apr | Author – Business & Finance

After the unfortunate deaths of of Synchronised and According to Pete at the Grand National, the return to the Flat game was a relief, not least for the valiant presence of Frankel. By Ian Parker.

It is perhaps understating the case at this point to observe that enough has been said about last month’s Grand National at Aintree. It is a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless, that Neptune Collonges’ narrow victory over Sunnyhillboy after a thrillingly protracted battle up the long run-in at Liverpool was almost completely overshadowed by the horribly unfortunate deaths of Synchronised, the Gold Cup winner, and the popular Malcolm Jefferson-trained veteran According to Pete.

However much the committed jumps racing fan may protest at how the achievement of the Paul Nicholls-trained grey was relegated to footnote status in the subsequent media coverage, despite his carrying 11 stone 6lbs to victory and becoming the first horse of his colour to win the race since Nicolaus Silver in 1961, it must be accepted that the circumstances of the loss of Synchronised in particular were always liable to elicit more than the usual welter of negative publicity.

This has become a recurrent nightmare for organisers at Aintree in spite of the fact its three-day festival now enjoys unprecedented popularity among race-goers, with the Friday card enjoying a sold-out attendance for the first time this year. Aintree’s problem is, of course, a huge concern for jumps racing in general, as the one race which guarantees the sport the sort of attention it craves for much of the rest of the year is the same contest which leaves it hopelessly vulnerable to public hostility should anything go wrong – and Grand National 2012, despite attracting a domestic audience of over 11 million for the BBC’s farewell coverage of the race, brought this dilemma into sharper focus than ever before.

For once, then, it is with a sense of relief as well as regret that racing fans turn their attention from the winter game to the Flat. It is a fact not well-understood among those non-racing fans who like to pontificate about the dangers of races like the Grand National, that thoroughbreds are prone to pick up injuries in the most innocuous circumstances, and this season’s Flat campaign briefly looked as though it may been reduced to anti-climax before it began when news broke recently that Frankel, last year’s all-conquering three-year-old miler, had sustained a suspected tendon injury on the gallops at his trainer Sir Henry Cecil’s Warren Place headquarters.

Winner of all nine of his starts since making his debut with a maiden victory as a two-year-old in 2010, Frankel lit up the 2011 Flat season with a string of terrific performances beginning with his all-the-way demolition of his peers in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. Having seemingly come close to defeat under an ill-judged ride from regular jockey Tom Queally at Royal Ascot in the St James’ Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, he then posted the definitive performance of his career to date with an emphatic defeat of the year-older Canford Cliffs in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood in July before signing off with an imperious dismissal of a top-class field back at Ascot in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Champions Day in October.

The success of that inaugural Champions Day owed a lot to the drawing power of racing’s new wonder horse and much the most exciting news for Flat aficionados as the season drew to a close, was that connections would not take the easy option of retiring Frankel to stud as an unbeaten three-year-old champion but would keep him in training as a four-year-old with a view to upping him in trip in mid-summer to take on the best at 10 furlongs and maybe beyond. Hence the bitter sense of looming disappointment when the story emerged of the horse’s ‘superficial’ injury on April 12; there was widespread pessimism as to Frankel’s chances of racing again, let alone doing so to his original schedule.

Mercifully, subsequent scans have given the son of Galileo the all-clear to re-commence full training. A putative seasonal debut in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 19 looked highly unlikely before the result of the second scan became known but now looks a distinct possibility with Cecil anxious to get a run into the Khalid Abdulla-owned superstar before taking on the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.

If he is to turn up at Newbury, it is likely Frankel will face So You Think, once an all-conquering force in his native Australia but a horse which has endured mixed fortunes since being brought to the northern hemisphere to be trained by Aidan O’ Brien last year. Given a very busy campaign over a variety of trips, the imposing son of High Chaparral picked up three Group 1s in Europe in 2011 and ran some honourable races in defeat but has now run unplaced on three of his last four runs, putting in a particularly flat performance when starting a well-backed favourite for the Dubai World Cup in March. It will count as one of his trainer’s more notable feats if he can successfully drop So You Think back in trip to provide a meaningful challenge to Frankel, never mind beat him. For the neutral fan, it is to be hoped that Sir Henry Cecil’s charge can resume where he left off last autumn and confirm the impression left by his enormous talent last year.