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

Can you have too much of a good thing?

Frankel’s first foal was born on the 11th of January.  The dam Chrysanthemum was a Group 3 winner trained by David Wachman for Coolmore connections. In truth, in terms of racing performance and pedigree Chrysanthemum was no more than a middle ranking member of Frankel’s stellar first book of mares.

However what is far more interesting is the pedigree cross it represents.  We are by now, well used to seeing variants of the  Sadler’s Wells (and sons) by Danehill cross , the cross that reached its pinnacle with Frankel himself. It has proved hugely successful with Galileo alone having sired  8 Group 1 winners out of Danehill mares. Chrysanthemum is by Danehill Dancer out of a daughter of Sadler’s Wells and it begs the question can you have too much of a good thing?

Sadler’s Wells and Danehill are the giant names of European breeding in recent decades. Coolmore achieved considerable success with the likes of Horatio Nelson (Danehill ex Imagine), Peeping Fawn (Danehill ex Maryinsky and Chevalier (Danehill ex Legend Maker) bred on this cross.  Given the number of high class broodmares they possess with both names in the pedigree it is perhaps unsurprising that they are considering doubling up what has worked in the past.

They would have been encourage by the results to date for Teofilo (Galileo ex Speirbhean by Danehill) who is similarly bred to Frankel. Teofilo has made a good start to his stud career highlighted by Group 1 success for Parish Hall  (ex Halla Siamsa by Montjeu) and Irish Derby success  with Trading Leather who is out of a Sinndar mare and thus has another cross of Danzig as does Voleuse Des Coeurs (ex Vadorga by Grand Lodge). This new foal is just gone a little further in terms of duplication.

This foal will have Sadler’s Wells 3X3, and Danehill 3X3.  In the first 6 generations Northern Dancer’s name appears 5 times and he appears once more in the 7th generation. Given that Danehill features 2 crosses of Northern Dancer’s dam Natalma, her name appears 8 times in the pedigree! If this was  a human we would be appalled, even if it was a pedigree dog we would be concerned yet when it comes to our friends the thoroughbreds we just think it’s interesting!  As regards the question, whether you can have too much of a good thing,  we will obviously just have to wait until he finishes his racecourse career to answer that one…

Frankel's first foal

6 generation pedigree

Henry Cecil- a belated tribute

With the passing of Henry Cecil in June it is worth considering his place in the pantheon of the great trainers. It is also worth looking back on the subsequent impact of his runners in the breeding sheds.  Surprisingly, for such a successful trainer over such a long career, Henry trained very few important stallions.

Ranking as a trainer

As a ten time champion trainer, its obvious that Henry Cecil must take very high rank amongst the list of great trainers.  However for me, there are a few factors that temper my enthusiasm for ranking him anywhere near Vincent O’Brien, who is the benchmark for trainers.

1. Firstly Henry had it easy. He came from a privileged background being a stepson of champion trainer and Royal trainer Cecil Boyd Rochfort and his early marriage to Julie Murless (daughter of another champion trainer and Royal trainer) meant he was quickly seated at racing’s top table.  His starting position would have taken others a decade or more to achieve.

2. Apart from Wolver Hollow’s Eclipse in his first season his early years were underwhelming. A lot of tributes talk about Henry’s instinctive way with horses, however to me if there is nothing significant happening for a number of years it looks less like genius and more of a gradual tweaking of the same old methods used by others. Henry may have had a reputation for working his horses hard at Newmarket but he wasn’t much of an innovator in his methods. Gradual improvements in staff, methods and stock are a road map to training success but they are rooted in the ordinary rather than in genius.

3. Henry largely ignored the rest of the world. Henry may have felt that British racing was the best in the world but in his heyday he spurned many opportunities for his runners overseas. His tally of two US wins (Yashmak  in 1997 and Midday in 2009) is very underwhelming given the relatively easy pickings available in the US for turf horses. His tally of 6 Irish classics is also less than one would expect.  In my view, his Anglo-centric approach didn’t do justice to his horses or his owners by ignoring the opportunities that were available throughout the world.

4. He didn’t succeed with sprinters. I don’t know the reason for this but it is noticeable that he never trained a really top class sprinter and almost all of the big sprints are absent from his cv.

Great Stallions trained by Henry

none

Very Good Stallions trained

1. Kris (1976 Sharpen Up- Doubly Sure by Reliance).

Kris was a superb miler who should have won the Guineas and won 14 of his 16 races. His first crop yielded the outstanding Cecil trained triple crown winner Oh So Sharp (1982 Kris ex Oh So Fair by Graustark). His second crop yielded Irish 2000 Guineas winner Flash of Steel (1983 Kris ex Spark of Fire by Run the Gauntlet). His final career stats show 75 black type winners from 846 foals, a very creditable 9% and include other Group 1 winners such as Shavian, Rafha and Balisada. However Kris is regarded as a fillies sire and no important sire sons have emerged to continue his male line.

2. Diesis (1980 Sharpen Up- Doubly Sure by Reliance)

A brother to Kris, Diesis was a brilliant two year old who achieved a rare Middle Park, Dewhurst double.  Like his brother he made an immediate impression with an outstanding filly in his first crop-namely Diminuendo (1985 Diesis ex Cacti by Tom Rolfe).  Other Oaks winners followed in Ramruma (1996 Diesis ex Princess of Man by Green God) and Love Divine (1997 Diesis ex La Sky by Law Society). However unlike his brother there was not the same sex bias amongst his offspring who ranged from sprinters such as Keen Hunter (1987 Diesis ex Love’s Reward by Nonoalco) to milers such as Docksider (1995 Diesis ex Pump by Forli) and superb 10 furlong performers in Halling (1991 Diesis ex Dance Machine by Green Dancer) and Elmaamul (1987 Diesis ex Modena by Roberto). His final stud statistics showed 82 black type winners from 1069 foals (8%) and his sire line is just barely hanging on through Muhtathir (a son of Elmaamul and sire of Doctor Dino) and Halling who  has a few sons at stud.

Really Disappointing Stallions Trained by Henry

1. Reference Point (1984 Mill Reef ex Home on the Range by Habitat)

An above average Derby winner who won a Futurity at two and seemed to have the pedigree to succeed at stud.  He was very disappointing and his early death was not lamented by many breeders.

2. Hello Gorgeous (1977 Mr Prospector ex Bonny Jet by Jet Jewel)

As a winner of a Dante and Futurity (aka Racing Post Trophy) and a son of the new American sensation Mr Prospector, Hello Gorgeous proved popular at Coolmore and big money was paid for many of his early offspring. He was a disaster and led to a distrust of sons of Mr Prospector in Europe that took a long time to fade.  His final stats show 10 black type winners from 510 foals (2%).

2. Old Vic (1986 Sadler’s Wells ex Cockade by Derring Do).

From the first crop of Sadler’s Wells, Old Vic was a brilliant winner of the Irish and French Derby’s. Retired to Dalham Hall he was very disappointing as a flat sire before proving to be an exceptional jumps stallion.

Mixed bag

Of Henry’s other Derby winners, Oath (1996 Fairy King ex Sheer Audacity by Troy) and Commander in Chief(1990 Dancing Brave ex Slightly Dangerous by Roberto) found themselves in Japan and failed to make much impact.  Slip Anchor (1982 Shirley Heights ex Sayonara by Birkhahn) did reasonably well, but as a stamina source was never fashionable enough to attract sufficient high quality mares.

National Hunt sires

Henry was associated with many great stayers such as Le Moss (1975 Le Levanstall ex Feemoss by Ballymoss),  Ardross (1976 Run the Gauntlet ex Le Melody by Levmoss) and Buckskin (1973 Yelapa ex Bete A Bon Dieu by Herbager) . He trained a lot of other horses who also made names as national hunt stallions such as Gunner B (1973 Royal Gunner ex Sweet Councillor by Privy Councillor), Moscow Society (Nijinsky ex Afifa by Dewan). In addition to the previously mentioned leading jumps sire Old Vic, he also trained the King George winner King’s Theatre (1991 Sadler’s Wells ex Regal Beauty by Princely Native) who became champion NH sire.

Conclusions

Henry’s standing as a great trainer is not in doubt and only Michael Stoute has stronger claims to be regarded as the outstanding British trainer of the modern era. A trainers job is to train horses for the racecourse and he has no influence on whether they succeed as stallions. It is of no relevance to Henry’s standing as a trainer that he was not associated with any horses who proved to be great stallions. It is just one of those statistical curiosities. His  success as a trainer of stayers inevitably meant that he was associated with horses who ended up earning their oats as national hunt stallions. Henry’s greatest project, Frankel is now embarking on his stud career and he has every prospect of success, so there could yet be a great stallion associated with the Cecil name.

 

 

the opposite of nostalgia

So now its official- Frankel is the top rated horse since the beginning of the international rankings.  So how did he achieve this feat? Well his stunning performances in the Queen Anne and Juddmonte International certainly played a part, but they were not in themselves sufficient to garner him that accolade.  The fact that the handicappers strangely rated his 11 length Queen Anne victory as being akin to 12.5 lengths and his 7 length Juddmonte victory as being akin to 9.25 lengths also helped, but was still not enough to give him the top honours. No he achieved the top spot by virtue of the handicappers rewriting history.

At the end of his three year old career, Frankel was rated 136, a long way short of Dancing Brave’s 141. At the time Phil Smith, the British Horseracing Authority’s senior handicapper was quoted as saying “I don’t believe that Dancing Brave would get that rating now, but it’s in the book and that’s what [Frankel] has got to aim for, because we are not going to rewrite history.” Fast forward twelve months and rewriting history is exactly what Phil and his colleagues have done. I can’t find a suitable antonym for nostalgia but it is clear that the handicappers don’t think much of the greats of the past and  they don’t trust their predecessors. When Phil Smith explained that Shergar’s rating was a retirement ‘gift’ to a former handicapper it hardly counted as an endorsement of his predecessors and somewhat undermined a statement in their explanatory piece see link that “the purpose of this paper is absolutely NOT to say that the current Handicappers are right and those who compiled the ratings between 1977 and 1991 were wrong”. Some of the other arguments in their justification are also odd as for instance “Much easier travel coupled with an increase in valuable International races enabled connections of the better horses to avoid each other” could just as easily be an argument supporting the thesis that we have more competition not less between the best horses of the world. Also the statement that “The ownership of so many of the top horses in just a few hands meant competition and higher ratings suffered.” is as valid now as ever before. The statement that ” The extension of the Classification to 115 and above in 1985, to 112 and above in 1989 and to 110 in 1990 had a depressant effect as there was now a safety net in which to include the type of horse that had been overly promoted in the past”, again seems to imply that past handicappers were assigning ratings for reasons other than merit. Finally I’m not sure there is a solid basis to the statement that the increase in the number of handicappers means “It is much more likely that horses will be downgraded with a larger Committee” unless larger groups are somehow assumed to be more negative in mindset, and a strong voice is somehow incapable of swaying a committee.

In Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry for Truth was responsible for updating records to ensure that the recorded ‘facts’ of history matched the current needs of the regime. History was rewritten on a daily basis and documentation was destroyed or updated as required. To be fair to the handicappers they probably won’t resort to destroying my books containing old ratings.  There were three slogans outside the Ministry for Truth namely “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”, perhaps if there was a section dealing with sport, a fourth slogan “FRANKEL IS THE GREATEST” would have been included?