Frankel was great but Secretariat was the greatest
Time brings perspective. Throughout 2012 we had to listen to a racing press repeating the mantra that Frankel was the greatest horse ever. The poignancy of this great horse arriving as Henry Cecil entered the final stages of his storied life transferred the story from the racing pages to the front pages. As an unbeaten winner of 14 races, encompassing 10 group 1’s and 9 consecutive group 1’s there is no doubt about his greatness but I would be very slow to accord him the accolade of ‘the greatest’. Now with the passing of time and the reduction in hype it’s easier to properly consider his place in the pantheon of the greats.
Firstly what constitutes greatness? For me it its firstly a matter of brilliance backed up by consistency, durability and versatility. To be the greatest ever you must demonstrate more of these qualities than any other racehorse in history. For me Frankel scores exceptionally well in terms of brilliance and consistency, he scores reasonably in terms of durability but he scores lowly in terms of versatility. Is there a horse who can outscore him using these 4 criteria? I believe there is – and his name is Secretariat.
Frankel vs Secretariat for brilliance: Verdict = draw
Frankel had brilliance. His Guineas performance looked the most impressive since Tudor Minstrel although we subsequently learned that the form was moderate for a classic with only Roderic O’ Connor ever subsequently winning a Group 1. As a three year old his Sussex win over Canford Cliffs was impressive (although Canford was injured) and as a four year old his performance in the Queen Anne was astonishing and his Lockinge and Juddmonte performances hard to fault. Frankel showed brilliance in abundance. However so did Secretariat. His two year old performances (eg his 8 length victory in the Laurel Futurity)made him not just champion two year old but horse of the year. He was a better two year old than Frankel who was unimpressive in winning the Dewhurst. At three his achievement in setting track records in the triple crown races and three other track records (one tied) is remarkable. And then there is his Belmont performance- it really is an extreme in terms of performance. Watch again to remind yourself of the horse who ‘ran a hole in the wind’ in a time of 2:24 to win a classic by 31 lengths. Frankel had time to mature to reach his peak at four, Secretariat wasn’t given that opportunity but he didn’t need to further prove his greatness. I have attached videos of Frankel’s Queen Anne and Secretariat’s Belmont to remind readers of how great they were in their prime.
Frankel vs Secretariat for consistency: Verdict = Frankel
Frankel was unbeaten in 14 races, ten of them Group 1’s. His only slightly disappointing run was the 2011 St James Palace Stakes where he was all out to hold off Zoffany by three quarter’s of a length. However that is only nit-picking in a perfect record. Secretariat by contrast lost his unbeaten record on his first start. A disqualification in the Champagne Stakes meant his two year old record finished as 7 out of 9 wins. His three year old career started with two victories before a defeat in the Wood Memorial (he was suffering from an abcess). After his triple crown he mixed the good with the bad and suffered surprise defeats in the Whitney Stakes and the Woodward Stakes. His busy three year old season eventually finished with a record of 9 wins from 12 starts to give an overall career record of 16 wins and 5 defeats.
Frankel vs Secretariat for durability: Verdict = Secretariat
Frankel raced 14 times over three seasons. Secretariat raced 21 times in two seasons and retired sound despite having 19 of his races on the less forgiving dirt tracks. Big Red had plenty toughness to go with his talent whereas Frankel was wrapped in cotton wool by comparison.
Frankel vs Secretariat for versatility: Verdict = Secretariat
In his first two seasons Frankel raced in distances that ranged all the way from 7 furlongs to…..8 furlongs. He waited until he was a mature four year old before finally stepping up to 10 furlongs. He never left England and never had to cope with the demands placed on a horse by long distance travel. He was also unimpressive on his final run when tackling officially soft ground for the only time since his debut.
Secretariat won from 6 furlongs to 13 furlongs in the Canadian International. His final two races (the Man o’ War and the Canadian International ) were on turf. On dirt he ran on fast and he ran on sloppy tracks and he coped with all of these diverse conditions.
Conclusion- Some horses like Hawk Wing in the Lockinge Stakes are capable of one extraordinary performance but incapable of reproducing it. In contrast his stable mate and contemporary Rock of Gibraltar produced high class performances with great consistency but nothing extraordinary. Sea the Stars produced very very high class performances with great consistency over a variety of distances but for me he never produced a breathtaking performance. Frankel and Secretariat both were capable of extraordinary performances and both did so with regularity. I scored the decision marginally in favour of Secretariat but would respect the views of any Frankel fans who think otherwise. Moving on to the next question- will Frankel prove to be a better sire than Secretariat? I would be certain he won’t be a better broodmare sire and I’ve a hunch that like Secretariat he might prove slightly disappointing considering the level of expectation that exists.
Enjoy Frankel in the 2012 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot
Watch Secretariat’s amazing win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes