Sunday, 1 May 2011

Frankel dishes the dirt

It might have been run on a strip of England's green and pleasant land, but the 2000 Guineas followed an energy dynamic more in common with races on dirt.

Frankel's brazen display of early pace turned the generally expected slow-fast pattern of turf races on its head. And it thereby put the emphasis on conditioning - a factor usually discussed more with regard to the first colts' Classic in the US, the Kentucky Derby.

The placed horses all came into the Guineas with the edge of fitness. Frankel had maintained his unbeaten record in Newbury's Greenham Stakes; runner-up Dubawi Gold had won twice in 2011 for new trainer Richard Hannon; while Native Khan had landed the Craven Stakes over course and distance, having come to hand earlier than trainer Ed Dunlop expected.

At this early stage of the season, the strong pace took the rest of the field out of their comfort-zone. Neither Pathfork, Casamento, Roderic O'Connor nor Fury had been given a prep race - understandable, perhaps, as this is normally not of overwhelming importance in grass races run at less than full tilt. 

On this occasion, however, the physical demands of the race may have been too much for horses without the necessary foundation.

Of course, the order of merit expressed by the finish of the 2000 Guineas may well persist to the end of the Flat season. But the magnitude of the 11-length gap which separated Native Khan from the rest is likely explained by something other than the equivalent margin in ability. 

Immediately after the race, two conclusions seemed to be drawn on Channel 4 from the outlandish manner of Frankel's victory. I disagree with both.

First, that the winner had a punishing race which will limit his potential. 

Why? I find myself strongly opposed to this view. I think Frankel will get a lot out of the race and move forward off it.

This is a very talented horse who was asked to run outside his envelope for far less a period than the horses who finished behind. The inherent stress of this effort cannot be judged by his relativity to the rest of the field.

And, even when tiring, he showed clear signs of expressing some control over his exertion. (I wrote about this principle in my series on Equine Flow Psychology and believe it to be important.)

Second, that we should be more negative about Frankel's chances of winning the Derby. 

Frankel was allowed to run at a tempo suitable to the tactical demands of the Guineas - as conceptualised by his trainer and executed by his jockey.  In the event, jockey Tom Queally was somewhat generous in the freedom he allowed his mount.

Like many trainers, Henry Cecil believes in conditioning his horses to run hard, but he has the intuition to judge their psychological needs far better than the vast majority.

Queally made little attempt to restrain Frankel because Cecil believed that was the right course of action for the colt. And Frankel's single-furlong ability is miles better than the horses who took him on. It is easy to see that the corollary of these two statements would land the horse in a clear early lead - without it being the result of a headstrong tendency which cannot be curbed.

The race might have looked startling to the eye accustomed to watching only races on grass, but it would have been considered a perfectly natural performance on dirt. It would be understood that Frankel's style of running was an attempt to reduce the uncertainty of victory for the best horse in the race.

To my mind, the free-going tendencies which Frankel displayed during his two-year-old season were a response to his being restrained behind horses in tight quarters. And that view is evinced by his extreme reaction to catching a bump in the Dewhurst.

It appeals strongly that Frankel is a horse who wants or needs to ration his own effort and to have his own space - in other words, to stride on. But that does not mean he wants to run off.

Riding tactics are not binary; they are not just push or pull. If Frankel is buried at the back of the pack at Epsom, he would resent it; he would pull hard and may ruin his chance. 

But, if he is allowed to race close to the pace and his speed just a little more rationed, he may settle sufficiently well.

Derby candidates regarded as doubtful stayers are often compromised by the way they are ridden at Epsom. They allow more stamina-laden horses to be kicked on running down Tattenham Hill, while they idle this section of the race away. In other words, they give lengths away cheaply then try to buy them back more expensively in the closing stages.  

Frankel's two-year-old exploits told us that he tends to pull hard when restrained and in behind horses; the Greenham seemed to confirm this impression. But, if the Guineas threw any more light on his chance of winning the Derby, I don't think it was negative - and that's the point I am trying to make.

Frankel is a horse of monstrous talent who was asked - or at least allowed - to express his superiority over the Guineas field in the first part of the race, rather than the last.

When Hawk Wing's jockey Jamie Spencer employed the opposite tactical approach to achieve the same result in 2002, his mount ran on strongly at the end of the race. And, perversely, he was regarded as having run a much better Derby trial - even though he was beaten and Frankel won easily. 

But, the contrasting impressions created at the end of the Guineas by Hawk Wing and Frankel were only a function of riding tactics.

Hawk Wing went on to run a huge race when second at Epsom; he would have won the Derby in most years. He was beaten only by a great middle-distance stayer in High Chaparral.

I would bet a lot of money that Frankel could run at least as fast as Hawk Wing over the Derby course. Perhaps, if he did, he would also be defeated. But he is nothing like the forlorn hope some are portraying.

You, of course, may disagree. And, more to the point, so may Henry Cecil. There is always a doubt sending any horse over  a trip 50 per cent further than before.

But the confidence in him to achieve the task could change as the race approaches. Do you really want to bet against easily the best horse at Epsom?