As the love-fest for the incomparable Frankel continues, the accolades have reached epic proportions for the unbeaten European standout.
As he heads into retirement, some have even called him the greatest racehorse of all time.
Some, but not all.
In these eyes, Frankel should be remembered as one of the sport’s greatest stars – but not its greatest star.
In my lifetime, that role has belonged to Secretariat for nearly 40 years and nothing that transpired over the last few years in a collection of Europe’s better races has changed that.
Not even 14 wins in 14 starts, largely because of what’s missing from those baker’s dozen plus one wins.
To be the greatest, a horse has to face the greatest challenges, something Secretariat did and Frankel didn’t.
As awesome as Frankel was, he didn’t race in Europe’s biggest and most important race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1). He didn’t end his career in next month’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He passed up a chance to face Goldikova in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) in what would have been a race for the ages.
And in the end, it’s what’s missing from his resume that clouds it. Sure, he was perfect; seemingly invincible. But clearly his record was crafted by leaving nothing to chance, and that’s where perfection has its flaws.
When perfection seems construed, it loses its glow. Zenyatta, for example, moved to new heights of esteem when she ventured out of her comfort zone to beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
For Frankel, racing just twice beyond a mile does not constitute a herculean array of challenges. He had his limits, and to call him the greatest ever without the world’s best races on his resume does not make sense.
Secretariat wasn’t a perfect racehorse. He lost his first start and then was the subject of a controversial disqualification in the 1972 Champagne Stakes. In his second and final year of racing, he lost on three occasions.
Yet in between those stumbles, Secretariat turned in some of the greatest – if not the greatest – performances ever seen on a racetrack.
He also faced what could be viewed as the most formidable challenges any racehorse ever tackled in a 2-year career. He ran in every major 2-year-old test. At three, when he started 12 times, he was victorious in all three legs of the Triple Crown, setting a track record each time and capping the first sweep in 25 years with an unbelievable 31-length win in world-record time in the 1973 Belmont Stakes (G1).
SECRETARIAT WINNING BELMONT
After that, in a remarkable display of sportsmanship, his owner, Penny Chenery, twice ran him in special invitational races. The first, at Arlington Park three weeks after the Belmont Stakes, was a cakewalk against fellow 3-year-olds he had humbled in the Triple Crown. Then in September, he faced all of the best horses in training, and beat them – again in world record time – in the inaugural Marlboro Cup Handicap.
Later, he closed out his career with two turf races, beating the year’s best grass runner, Tentam, in the Man o’ War Stakes (G1)and bowing out by traveling north to Canada and winning the Canadian International Championship Stakes. The combined margin of victory over an unfamiliar surface was 11 ½ lengths.
Secretariat’s record on the racetrack was not spotless, but his record in facing the best competition and most demanding challenges was. With wins raging from six furlongs to 1 5/8 miles in races contested on dirt and turf, he most assuredly was without limits.
Frankel had the perfect record, but he had a spotty record in terms of showing up for the biggest and best races, and that brings him down a slight notch in the pantheon of the sport’s all-time greats. Perhaps if an injury kept him on the sidelines for the Arc or Breeders’ Cup, it would be a forgivable offense. Yet his connections elected to skip them, which says they feared he would lose. In light of that, it’s fair to believe that Frankel might have gone down to a defeat or two if he was campaigned as ambitiously as Secretariat.
For all that Frankel gave us in his racing career, he could have done more.
Secretariat, in contrast, gave us everything we could have asked for – and much, much more.
That’s why he wasn’t perfect but he was indeed the greatest. Then and now.
And what are your thoughts? Was Frankel the greatest ever? If not, who was?