WHEN Dawn Run triumphed in the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup, her arrival in the winner’s enclosure sparked scenes of delirium among the crowd that I had never witnessed before on a racecourse.
I never expected to witness the like again - although Desert Orchid’s Gold Cup victory three years later and the exploits of Kauto Star and Denman in recent times went close to unleashing similar tear-jerking joy.
However, I was wrong. The euphoria that greeted Frankel after his farewell heroics at Ascot last Saturday trumped them all.
Scenes of unreserved jubilation touched a track normally noted for its reserved conservatism.
The noise from the sell-out crowd was deafening as Frankel defied a slow start and deep ground to ease past Cirrus Des Aigles in the home straight and complete his flawless career record of 14 wins from 14 starts in the Qipco Champion Stakes.
But that was a mere tea-party to what was to follow as jockey Tom Queally paraded Prince Khalid Abdulla and Sir Henry Cecil’s superstar in front of the packed stands.
To a man and woman, they rose from the seats. They cheered, they applauded, they waved flags. From the winning post to the furlong marker and back again, the adulation was unstoppable.
Frankel, such a fizzy and highly-strung colt in his earlier years, took it all in, ears pricked. Testament to the skilful way in which Cecil has refined and defined the horse’s temperament.
And yet there was more. For back in the winner’s enclosure, another baying, beaming crowd was waiting. Another hero’s welcome erupted. It was as if Ascot’s huge bowl of a parade ring, so criticised when first erected, had been built specially for this moment.
It was an unforgettable half an hour in the glorious history of the Turf. A true “I was there” occasion. When everyone connected with racing had it confirmed to them that yes, oh yes, they were in the right sport.
As the hysteria began to die down, a man I’d never met before, wide-eyed with amazement, nudged me on the paddock terraces and said: “That was quite something, wasn’t it?” For one of the first times in my life, I was unable to come up with a suitable reply. Enveloped by emotion, I simply nodded my head, smiled and warbled in agreement.
Given that my first Cheltenham Festival was Dawn Run’s Champion Hurdle back in 1984, I would consider myself to me a seasoned racegoer, hardened to all the sport can throw at me. But last Saturday’s Qipco British Champions Day and Frankel’s swansong was something else.
You got a sense of it as early as ten in the morning at Waterloo station. There was a buzz, an anticipation in the air as the crowds waited for the trains to Ascot. And even though those crammed trains were diverted and delayed on torturous, slow journeys, the excitement refused to be dimmed. Not just with racing fans but also with members of that mysterious clan, the “general public”, whose presence was proof positive that Frankel’s aura had transcended a mere minority-sport.
The woman sat next to me spent the whole journey fiddling with her new iPhone 5, trying desperately to find news of confirmation that Frankel was to run after heavy rain had drenched the track.
But when we arrived at last, the confirmation was relayed -- and it was all systems go.
The rest, of course, has now propelled itself into the history books. The final chapter of the extraordinary career of an extraordinary horse.
As for the Champion Stakes itself, I was surprised that neither Olivier Peslier, on Cirrus Des Aigles, nor William Buick, on Nathaniel, tried to make it more of a stamina test, especially after Frankel’s tardy exit from the stalls.
But I was more surprised by claims in some cynical quarters of the media that the quality of the support races was not sufficient. I felt it was terrific, especially when factoring in the time of year at the end of a long, hard season and the infancy of the entire Champions Day concept.
The performances of Rite Of Passage, Sapphire and Maarek were worthy of any championship day. The electric explosion of Excelebration was one of the performances of the season and, of course, franked the peerless prowess of Frankel, who has thrashed him five times by a combined total of 22-and-a-quarter lengths!
Now that we have waved our last goodbyes to Frankel, what now for Champions Day? Particularly as the same cynics insist it could not have been such a success without him.
Of course, it couldn’t. But I prefer to tip that argument on its head and ask: where would our salutes and tributes to the great horse have been without the advent of Champions Day?
The event, which owes so much to Racing For Change’s impresario, Rod Street, provided THE perfect stage and setting for Frankel’s swansong and enabled us all to be part of it. Had the son of Galileo and Kind been born in 2006, instead of 2008, the denouement would have been very different and the vast and voluminous publicity that racing gained from last Saturday’s exercise would not even have left the drawing board.
No doubt, Street and Co now face fresh challenges to maintain the flying start Champions Day has made. Not least in how to give credence to the associated Champions Series, which is lagging behind in its purpose of forming a threaded narrative to the entire Flat season.
But it would be harsh to stick the knife into a project that, if last Saturday is anything to by, is invigorating and uniting racing’s followers in equal measure.
When Racing For Change was first launched, too many of us thought it would be a vehicle for fanciful gimmicks and sideshows to create an artificially inflated audience for the sport. Some, including a handful of courses, still believe that.
But in fact, the initiative’s flagship event has served to remind all that the sport is best promoted, and best received, when the focus and concentration is on its participants. Its horses, its trainers, its jockeys, its owners, its stars.
As word has spread across the nation, Frankel has shone like a beacon -- even in the midst of a remarkable year that has created a wealth of heroes through the Olympics and Paralympics.
More’s the pity, he is not eligible for a vote at the Sports Personality Of The Year bash. But surely racing should consider lobbying the BBC about the event’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his trainer.
I began this blog in awe of the cheers that rang from Ascot last Saturday. But I tell you what: the biggest cheer of all in the winner’s enclosure was reserved for Sir Henry Cecil when he was called to collect his Champion Stakes trophy.
To most, the gentlemanly removal of his hat revealed a frail, gaunt frace, fronting an almost hairless head, both ravaged by the passing of cancer. To those who knew, it revealed a man who had battled the worst of personal health to produce the very best of racehorses.
I leave the rest to Paul Hayward, sports correspondent of the ‘Daily Telegraph’, very much a non-cynic, whose inspirational piece in Monday’s paper opened like this:
“At its core, racing is not really about the betting, the drinking or the boy-band gig after the last. It is about the horse, the thoroughbred work of art: a truth well known to Sir Henry Cecil, whose handling of Frankel ranks as one of the great feats of training, in line with the horse’s own unsurpassable talent. Frankel is Cecil’s masterwork, the monument he will leave in racing folklore.”
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