Usually, when a racehorse is trying to pull off an undefeated career, a horse comes along to spoil the party and bring them down to reality. Native Dancer lost the Kentucky Derby to Dark Star. Man o' War lost the Sanford Stakes to Upset. Zenyatta lost the Breeders' Cup Classic to Blame in the final start of her otherwise-perfect career.
On Saturday at Ascot racecourse, the undefeated and brilliant Frankel made the final start of his career in the QIPCO Champion Stakes (Eng-I). At a distance perhaps a bit beyond his best, and racing over a course labeled soft, there was concern that the colt's brilliant turn-of-foot would be compromised by the conditions -- and there was even talk of scratching him.
Furthermore, he would be facing some of the best horses in all of Europe -- Cirrus Des Aigles and Nathaniel. Both had impressive credentials. Cirrus Des Aigles had won the 2011 Champion Stakes over So You Think and Snow Fairy, and backed that up with a victory in the Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-I) the following March. Coming off of a nine-length victory in the Prix Dollar (Fr-II), the veteran gelding loomed a serious threat to upset Frankel, especially given his fondness for soft turf.
Nathaniel's record was even more interesting. Winner of the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I) earlier this summer, the colt had run against Frankel once before, in their mutual debut way back in the summer of 2010. Over a course labeled soft -- wouldn't you know it? -- Nathaniel finished just a half-length behind Frankel, which remained the closest anyone had ever gotten to beating the superstar.
For an ordinary horse, these obstacles would loom as nearly insurmountable. But Frankel had proven time and time again that he was no ordinary horse. As he entered the starting gate for the final time, with a mile and a quarter of rain-soaked turf in front of him, it seemed that -- assuming everything went well -- Frankel would be able to overcome the odds and retire undefeated.
Then the gates opened, and Frankel broke slowly.
It's difficult to say with certainty what caused Frankel to get away as poorly as he did. He seemed to be a bit unready, and even dull. But for whatever reason, Frankel missed the break by a length or two before racing up to settle into the fifth position in a field of six.
Up front, Cirrus Des Aigles had secured the early lead, having beaten Frankel's pacemaker, Bullet Train, to the front. Nathaniel was also fairly close to the front, while Master of Hounds and Pastorius were toward the rear of the field with Frankel on their outside.
And so the race continued, with Cirrus Des Aigles daring Frankel to try and catch him. A true stayer, the distance would prove no problem for him, and he was clearly relishing the conditions of the course. Frankel was clearly in an awkward position. Racing behind a slow pace, over soft turf and going ten furlongs, this was not the race that anyone had envisioned unfolding. Wasn't Bullet Train supposed to be on the lead? Wasn't Frankel supposed to be just a length or two behind him, daring Cirrus Des Aigles to try and catch him?
Suddenly, the superhorse appeared vulnerable. Would he be able to make up the necessary ground? Would he be able to accelerate over the sodden turf course? Would he be able to retire undefeated, joining such true greats as Ribot, Sea the Stars, and Nearco? Or would he end his career with valiant -- but disappointing -- defeat at the hands of a mere mortal?
If he had been alone, the result might have been defeat. But Frankel was not alone. He had his pacemaker and half-brother, Bullet Train, running with him. For months, Bullet Train had toiled in the shadows of his more illustrious stablemate, acting as a target for Frankel to run at in the homestretch. Now, with more at stake than ever before, it was his turn to shine.
With a sudden burst of acceleration, Bullet Train made his move, rallying along the rail to engage Cirrus Des Aigles for the lead. The latter horse accepted the challenge eagerly, increasing his speed to try and reclaim the advantage. But Bullet Train refused to yield, holding his own against his stronger rival and forcing him to increase his speed. All around the sweeping Ascot turn Bullet Train held his own against a vastly superior rival, courageously performing above and beyond the call of duty while finally enjoying an all-too-brief moment in the spotlight.
Then they turned for home and Bullet Train gave way; there was nothing left in his tank. He had done his duty admirably for one final time. He would finish last, as most pacemakers do, but his reward was still to come.
Cirrus Des Aigles had now taken back over the advantage. His run with Bullet Train had taken its toll, but one does not win group I races in multiple countries if one lacks courage. Having disposed of Bullet Train, Cirrus Des Aigles now had his sights set on a repeat victory in the Champion Stakes, and nothing less than a superhorse could possibly stop him.
Then Frankel came running.
As Bullet Train retreated through the field, a bay horse that didn't care for the course and didn't care for the distance and didn't break well was rallying into contention on the far outside. For a brief moment, the two colts raced on even terms. Two half brothers, one an immortal legend of the turf; one a mere footnote in the annals of history. But for that brief moment, they were equals; playing two halves of the same song. Bullet Train had completed the verses to perfection. Now it was time for Frankel to play out the crescendo.
Four hundred meters for home, Frankel moved up to engage Cirrus Des Aigles for the lead, and the two great champions matched strides. This time, there would be no brilliant turn-of-foot; no double-digit margin of victory. Visions of Dark Star, Upset, and Blame danced through the minds of horse racing fans everyone. This was the moment of truth. Frankel had overcome countless obstacles to reach this point; a point few horses in history have ever reached. With his undefeated record on the line, Frankel entered the final two hundred meters of his racing career; a rival of unquestionable talent and determination clinging to his inside and stubbornly refusing to be beaten.
Then something happened that no racing fan who witnessed it will ever forget. With thousands of fans cheering him on, Frankel dug deep and found something extra; another gear buried deep within his brilliant form. Slowly at first, and then faster, he inched away from Cirrus Des Aigles. As the cheering reached unprecedented heights, Frankel finally opened up an advantage; the denouement of his career had arrived. During the final hundred meters, the final chapter of Frankel's career came to a close. He answered every question asked of him, and passed every test thrown his way. He had beaten Dream Ahead in the Dewhurst; Canford Cliffs in the Queen Anne; and St Nicholas Abbey in the Juddmonte International. Now, he had beaten Cirrus Des Aigles.
The final margin of victory was 1 3/4 lengths. The final time was 2:10.22. Neither was particularly impressive by Frankel's own lofty standards. But at the same time, it didn't matter. He had accomplished everything that had been asked of him and overcome incredible odds to retire undefeated while racing against the best horses in Europe.
As Frankel headed to the winner's circle as the crowd roared in appreciation, an ordinary bay horse came to a stop far behind the others and soon headed back to his barn. History will not be kind to him. With time, few will even remember his name.
It will be many, many years before we encounter a horse of Frankel's equal. But at the same time, it will be many, many years before we see an ordinary pacemaker complete his duties so perfectly, on the biggest of stages, against the strongest of rivals.
In the end, Frankel will receive all of the accolades, and deservedly so. But this writer would like to acknowledge Bullet Train's role as well, for if hadn't been for his brave run on the Ascot turn, the story of Frankel might have had a very different ending.
So thank you Frankel, for giving us a fairytale ending. And thank you Bullet Train, for making it all possible.
A certain American trainer would be proud of you both.