Unbeaten from 13 starts, the white-faced champion hailed as horse racing’s Usain Bolt is odds-on to end his turf career in scintillating style in the six-runner Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot and extend his record-breaking winning sequence at Group One level to nine contests.
Each triumph has seen Frankel’s reputation and official rating soar; he is regarded as the best in the world on current form and perhaps the greatest of all-time.
Each win has also intensified the pressure on Cecil, and big race jockey Tom Queally, as racegoers became captivated by this trailblazing horse whose freakish turn of foot makes class horses – champions in any other era – look like plodders.
The 69-year-old trainer, who has been overseeing Frankel’s final preparations from his sick bed, admits to feeling the pressure – even though he has developed a special telepathy with his priceless stable star named after the legendary US trainer Bobby Frankel.
“If I get beaten at Ascot this time, I have got no time to redeem him, bring him back here and go again,” said Cecil, who has a stud at Helmsley, in a rare interview. “So for me it’s very important.
“Horses are not machines. They start going to work in February and March, and it’s a long year. Horses go off, so I’ve got to try and make sure he doesn’t do that, because nature sometimes says enough’s enough. He hasn’t had as hard a year as last year, racewise, which is in my favour and his.”
Most of the 35,000-plus crowd at Ascot for the £3m Qipco Champions Day expect Frankel to turn the race into a procession after allaying any doubts about his stamina with a stunning career-best victory in the 10-furlong Juddmonte International at York – an emotional race that was a gaunt-looking Cecil’s first public appearance after his latest chemotherapy treatment.
But the French raider Cirrus Des Aigles, last year’s winner, and the mud-loving Group One contender Nathaniel – narrowly beaten by Frankel when the two clashed on their racecourse debuts – are formidable opponents. The heavy ground is another imponderable. And, as Cecil gently pointed out, horses are more fragile than finely-tuned athletes, an enduring lesson he learned from a chance conversation between Sir Noel Murless – the nine-times champion trainer who began his career at Hambleton in North Yorkshire – and Herb Elliott, Australia’s iconic middle distance runner who won 1,500m gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
“Herb Elliott; he came racing, and said to Sir Noel Murless, ‘I didn’t know you trained these top horses for top races five, six, seven times in a year’. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do it because when I was running I came to my peak once every two years’,” said Cecil by way of illustrating the difficulty in training Frankel – or any horse for that matter – to perfection for 13, and hopefully 14, races.
“Everything I do is by instinct; I don’t bother about form books and whether a horse beat me one length last time out if I’m running against it again...I just do it by instinct or feeling. You’ll go away and say ‘Doesn’t he talk a lot of rubbish?’, but actually horses talk to you.
“If you actually study horses, their expressions and their mannerisms, then they tell you when they’re not right or what’s wrong or whether they’re well or not, just by looking at them.
“Since I’ve had cancer, I used to ride three lots a day, walk with my horses everywhere, when they went to work, actually gallop with them...and when I had a lot of chemo I couldn’t even open a bottle, let alone ride a horse.
“When I used to ride with horses you’re at an advantage because you could watch them; and I’d be able to say that filly’s coming into season, or that colt’s not trotting quite as well as I think he should, or that one’s getting too excitable – so by the time I got to work the horses I’d be able to change things around.
“Now, unfortunately, I have to go out in the car, so I’m at a disadvantage. But horses do talk to you; like people, you can see when they’re well.”
A master of the turf steeped in racing, his first winner came in May 1969 when Celestial Cloud won at Ripon. Yet, as the eight-times champion trainer’s private life unravelled, his success rate dwindled from 113 victories in 1996 to a paltry 12 wins in 2005. One man stayed loyal throughout these travails – Khalid Abdullah – and he never doubted Cecil’s abilities, despite the trainer being afflicted with cancer five arduous years ago. The Dubai prince, whose horses include the brilliant 1986 Arc winner Dancing Brave, knew this was the man to transform Frankel from a tearaway who ran away with the 2000 Guineas in 2010 to a mature four-year-old whose stud career could be worth up to £100m.
“He’s not a normal horse, he finds everything so easy,” explained Cecil.
“He’s got more professional; he always just sweated slightly between his back legs, but that’s not because he’s nervous. He couldn’t care less about anything, it’s just the adrenaline. When I’m asked if he’s the best horse I’ve ever seen, or the best in the world, I always say that I’m very lucky over the years because I’m qualified to do nothing, a porter on a railway station, the first student ever to fail common entrance to Eton. I wasn’t very qualified to do anything, and luckily I had a chance of getting into my stepfather’s yard (Sir Cecil Charles Boyd-Rochfort) as assistant because he didn’t know what to do with me.
“I went and trained and have been very lucky because good horses help make successful trainers and jockeys. If you have bad horses, then you’re no bloody good, especially with the owners nowadays, but if you’re winning good races you’re marvellous.
“You’re only as good as your last winner, but I’ve been very lucky to have had a lot of champions, whether it be fillies like Bosra Sham, Oh So Sharp or Reference Point, Kris or stayers like Ardross.
“I didn’t live in the days of Sceptre in the early 1900s. I can only go back to Molvedo and Sea Bird. I think it’s very difficult to compare.”
Cecil, who will not take today’s race for granted, will shed a tear afterwards because Frankel gave him a great sense of purpose during his cancer struggle.
“I’ll probably relax a bit more but I’ll also miss him,” he added. “When I’ve had chemotherapy and I’ve come out, I’m still up at 4.30am, out on the gallop. I wouldn’t have him running without selling myself. You’ve just got to be there for him, so I think he’s helped keep me going. They always say that a good horse is dangerous in anybody’s hands; it’s a great saying, so he must be good.”