Seven years ago, a horse sporting the famous green, pink, and white silks of Khalid Abdullah rocked up at York for the penultimate start of a flawless career. On an afternoon laced with emotion, Frankel won the Abdullah-sponsored Juddmonte Stakes by seven lengths to stretch his winning sequence to 13.
Tomorrow, seven years to the day, another horse sporting the same green, pink, and white silks will make the same trip for what will almost certainly be the penultimate start of a near flawless career. Symmetry doesn’t come any neater.
Unlike Frankel, Enable has tasted defeat. However, she clearly didn’t care for it so, since finishing third to Shutter Speed and Raheen House at Newbury on her just her second start, she has stitched together an immaculate 11-race unbeaten run, nine of them Group 1s.
Now, Enable will bid to win the Darley Yorkshire Oaks for a second time ahead of a date with destiny on the first Sunday in October when she will attempt to become the first ever three-time winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Immortality beckons and should she achieve it, questions that seemed unthinkable seven years ago will have to be asked: Is Frankel really the best Flat horse of all time? Is a horse Henry Cecil described as ‘the best I’ve ever had, the best I’ve ever seen and I’d be very surprised if there’s ever been anything better’ even the best Abdullah-owned horse of the decade? Can even a prince be that lucky?
As is the case with other sports, comparing horses from different eras is always tricky. After all, Frankel was devastatingly impressive over a mile while Enable’s optimum trip is over a mile and a half. However, both have done it over a mile and a quarter, Frankel adding the Champion Stakes at Ascot to his York victory while Enable was a decisive winner of this year’s Coral-Eclipse at Sandown.
Though they continued to shine as older horses, both peaked in their Classic campaigns. Four of Enable’s Group 1 successes as a three-year-old came by an average of five lengths while Frankel’s most jaw-dropping display came when demolishing his opposition from the front in the 2000 Guineas in 2011.
Dalo's Final Podcast: Businesslike Tipp. Hogan's red. Hogan & Hawkeye, One-dimensional Cats?
However, as admirable as she is, Enable doesn’t tug on the heartstrings in quite the same way as Frankel did. After all, whatever happens at York this week and in Paris in October, her trainer, John Gosden, has plenty big days ahead of him.
It was different for Frankel’s trainer Henry Cecil. When Frankel lined up at York seven years ago, it was obvious time was running out for the man who had masterfully overseen his career.
By this point, Cecil had fought stomach cancer for six years and it was now horribly clear it was a battle he wouldn’t win. Cecil had missed Frankel’s previous engagement, the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, due to the disease but was determined to make the journey to the Knavesmire. “I just cannot miss that day and want to be there for Frankel,” Cecil said on his website.
That website was overseen by sports journalist Tony Rushmer, who linked up with the veteran trainer at a time when his career seemed to be in terminal decline and this year wrote a superb book, The Triumph of Henry Cecil, about one of the greatest sporting comeback stories ever told.
British champion trainer 10 times, Cecil sent out just 12 winners in 2005. However, he crucially retained the support of Abdullah and tenaciously clawed his way back to the bigtime.
By August 2012, the comeback was complete but his health was failing. Shortly before the Juddmonte Stakes, Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager to Abdullah, even tried to dissuade Cecil from making the trip to York.
“I’m coming,” was Cecil’s defiant response.
Come the day, Cecil was a tense figure, Rushmer writes. He needn’t have been. Frankel delivered.
Derek Thompson was tasked with getting Cecil’s reaction by Channel 4.
Reflecting on the interview where Cecil said Frankel’s victory made him feel “20 years better”, Thompson tells Rushmer: “It was, I’m certain, my most emotional ever moment on Channel 4 , talking to the great man. Every few months I’ll think of that interview and think of him. That, to me, was a very special moment. He could hardly speak, but he wanted to express what it was like. It was wonderful.
“Remember the pressure that was on him. Although he had the best horse in the world he has to train it, he had to win races.
Grimthorpe said that of all the great Frankel days, York was the one he remembers with most fondness.
“No question. The crowd, the track, the horse, the trainer; all those things. We ran the gamut of emotions because nobody could believe Henry would live another six minutes, let alone another 10 months. From that point of view, the contrast of the strength and virility of Frankel against the frailty of Henry was just part if the whole dynamic of the day.”
Fittingly, it was Gosden who would write the foreword for The Triumph of Henry Cecil. After all, it was the Gosden-trained Nathaniel who would run Frankel closer than any other horse on the racecourse, a half a length separating the pair when they clashed on their debuts at Newmarket in August 2010.
Retired to stud, Nathaniel would sire a certain filly by the name of Enable. In his thought-provoking foreword, Gosden describes Cecil as a “unique person” with an “extraordinary tale”. However, he doesn’t shy away from Cecil’s faults.
“A key element of him was he required piece of mind and stability, which he lost in difficult times,” Gosden writes, adding that Cecil became a much more rounded human being when he emerged from the doldrums.
“He wouldn’t have been easy to be a close friend with during the 80s. But after the downturn — when he came back — he was just lovely.”
Gosden hasn’t had to face adversity on such a huge scale but his handling on Enable has been no less magnificent than Cecil’s training of Frankel. While Enable isn’t as temperamental as Frankel was in his early days, she has tested Gosden’s skill in different ways, winning her second Arc off the back of an injury-disrupted prep.
Things have run significantly smoother this season, Enable following up her Eclipse success by regaining the King George at Ascot last month. She had to dig deep to do so but the same was the case when Frankel finished his career at the same venue.
Like him, she got the job done that day and while it’s a big statement to say she’s his superior, if she wins tomorrow and crowns her career with a third Arc, there’s a debate to be had. That in itself is quite the achievement.