Seldom can a knighthood have seemed so superfluous. That may not be the case, admittedly, among those at Royal Ascot today who still wonder why these wretched horses should be permitted to interrupt the pageantry and fashion.
To the racing public, however, no formal honour could bestow greater dignity upon Henry Cecil than he has already accrued in a career without precedent in the 300-year history of this racecourse.
In fact, all his defining characteristics — his ease with all tiers of society, his dread of airs, and his natural elegance — are precisely those most calculated to make his new title seem no real improvement on that of gentleman. To the extent that he may enjoy the distinction, however, the whole sport will be united in the hope that his gratification is completed on the monarch's own turf this afternoon.
Frankel, the breathtaking colt who could well prove the best of Cecil's 25 Classic winners, attempts to become his 73rd winner at the royal meeting in the St James's Palace Stakes. Horse and trainer are together, so arresting, that they deprive another peerless achiever in Turf history, Goldikova, of top billing on a card that seems to consume with reckless haste the richest themes of the week.
Within the first 80 minutes of the meeting, the four days to follow may feel menaced by anticlimax.
At first, it had to be assumed that Frankel's performance in the 2,000 Guineas owed almost all its historic resonance to style, rather than substance. Nobody could remember knowing that a Classic had been sewn up after just two furlongs.
It turns out, however, that the field he annihilated may not have been quite so pedestrian. The runner-up, Dubawi Gold, has since looked unfortunate not to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas; while the colt who did, Roderic O'Connor, had been beaten out of sight at Newmarket — returning home, in the vivid phrase of his trainer, with his “eyes rolling”. The third, Native Khan, has run a good fifth in the Derby.
But then Frankel has been making a habit of this. If you go back to his previous visit to Ascot, for a 10-length procession in the Royal Lodge Stakes last September, you will find no less a colt than Treasure Beach — caught in the final strides at Epsom 10 days ago — toiling back in third. Even in his comeback run, at Newbury in the spring, he beat a colt that went on to thrash his rivals for the German Guineas.
To the great credit of his young trainer, Marco Botti, Excelebration is back for another crack at Frankel today — and likewise Dubawi Gold. All in all, the opposition has stood up remarkably well, for all that Frankel will scarcely be a betting proposition as a result. The Japanese have sent over a very talented colt in Grand Prix Boss, while Richard Fahey hopes that Wootton Bassett will have improved after meeting his first defeat, on his delayed reappearance in France.
The easing conditions have even tempted Dream Ahead, confined to his stable by the drought after being rated alongside Frankel at the top of last year's juvenile rankings, to venture back into the fray.
Excelebration and Grand Prix Boss both look sensible each-way options, and it would not be fair to have exorbitant expectations of what Frankel must do to preserve the sense of wonder now vested in his every move. Whatever happens now, they can't take his Guineas performance away from him.
Ed Dunlop, the trainer of Native Khan, puts it well.
“Whether the form is good, bad or indifferent, we will talk about it forever because everyone was so bemused by it,” he said. “I watched it on the tarmac in front of the stands, and there was only one horse on the screen for most of the race. 'Bloody hell,' you thought. 'This is going fast.' Of course he tied up a bit. But he's a freak, probably the most beautifully balanced horse at the canter I've ever seen on Warren Hill. It was a phenomenal training performance — and a phenomenal ride, too, to have the confidence to do that, when people were wondering whether he might pull too hard and not stay; when people were expecting him to be dropped out, to get home.”
Cecil has intimated that Tom Queally will not be quite so aggressive this time.
“We've tried to get him to relax,” he said. “He can't keep on doing what he did at Newmarket. He's complicated — he wants to get on with things. [But] he walks around the paddock sensibly. Everyone's trying to make him into some highly strung monster, but he isn't at all.”
What is fairly monstrous, of course, is to neglect a miler with so many more achievements to her name. The only horse to have won three Breeders' Cup races, Goldikova was not at her most flamboyant in extending her unrivalled record to 13 Group One wins on her reappearance at Longchamp. True, her priority will again be Louisville in November, and the ninth furlong again looked to stretch her; but she will need to be at her best against Canford Cliffs in the Queen Anne Stakes.
That colt made a seamless resumption at Newbury, and Richard Hughes will again try to run down the mare — something he just couldn't manage on Paco Boy in this race last year. Some were deceived that he mistimed his run that day, but the reality is that Olivier Peslier probably committed too soon on the mare, who idled in front. The outcome today may well be reduced to a similar question of timing, but the bottom line for punters is that Canford Cliffs needs to improve again to beat Goldikova at her best.