WHEN great sporting champions take their final bow, it is always a poignant moment. The very nature of sport means that humans tend to finish their careers in their thirties, when reactions begin to slow and healing takes longer.
Swimmers and tennis players often never make it past 30, while golfers and bowlers sometimes go on for ever, but at some stage everyone in sport must call time, especially if they are professionals who have competed at the highest possible level.
Yet I can think of no retirement of any champion like the one which Frankel must undergo next Saturday at Ascot.
Not for him a gentle jog into the twilight. The greatest racehorse most of us have ever seen will not get to saunter round the course and leave the stage draped in medals and finery. On the contrary, Frankel will be asked to prove once more that he is “superequine” by winning the £1.3 million QIPCO Champion Stakes.
He will be running over ten furlongs for only the second time in his life, and unlike the Juddmonte International at York which he turned into a cakewalk, the son of Galileo will almost certainly be competing on ground softer than good. He has form on soft, but would prefer better ground.
He has nothing left to prove except his invincibility. He has already beaten Rock of Gibraltar’s colts record by notching up eight Group One wins in succession. He has won most of his races brilliantly, and no matter what happens next weekend, he will never be forgotten by the sport of racing. His nickname of Usain Colt shows what an impact he has had on racing, roughly similar to that which the great Jamaican has had on athletics.
Though he’s only four, it will be Frankel’s 14th and final race, before going off to a well-earned stint at stud where, rumour has it, his services will be available at £100,000 a pop.
Before that desirable “retirement” Frankel must compete against the finest field he has yet faced.
Chief opponent will be the John Gosden-trained Nathaniel, winner of this year’s Coral Eclipse Stakes and last year’s King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. He is the only horse in just over two years to get within half a length of Frankel, doing so in what was a racecourse debut for both of them at Newmarket back in August 2010.
Last year’s superb winner of the Champion Stakes, French gelding Cirrus Des Aigles, is back to try again and is in excellent form having won the Prix Dollar at Longchamp earlier this month and the £2 million Dubai Sheema Classic at the start of the season. German Derby winner Pastorius and Prix de l’Opera heroine Ridasyna are still declared to run, and probably will take their place even if the ground turns heavy.
There’s the word which might yet scupper Frankel’s hopes of a glorious retirement. Having kept Frankel in training as a four-year-old and been rightly lauded for doing so, his owner Khaled Abdulla would have every right to withdraw Frankel if the ground turned into a quagmire, so we must hope that Ascot gets some relief from the rain which has so bedevilled racing this year.
We must also hope that Sir Henry Cecil is able to attend the course and see his greatest horse perform one last time. It is no secret that Cecil’s treatment for stomach cancer has ravaged the trainer’s health, and if he does turn up, expect tears. If the rain relents, Frankel will turn up and win, probably in his usual imperious manner, though Nathaniel and the rest will give him a race. And if he does indeed leave the scene as a winner, we must learn to give him a new nickname, one borrowed from a sportsman who earned the love of millions – The Greatest.