The racing and horse industries in Europe, like their counterparts in the United States, have much to worry about these days.
On our shores we worry about wagering and attendance levels, an aging audience base and whether a modestly-paced sport with roots over two centuries remains valid an era of instant information and a seeming cultural need nearly instant gratification.
Many of those same issues are on the minds of lovers of the sport in Europe, and the search for ideas and answers is at the top of the agenda of every key person in European racing nations.
But wonderful things are happening in Britain over the next few weeks that focus on the single thing that unites racing devotees worldwide: the horse. Or, more to the point, two horses.
A pair of unbeaten stars will compete in races over the next seven weeks that, should both prevail in those tests, would instantly rank them among the greats in Europe’s grand history of racing.
Their names are Frankel and Camelot, and each name is incredibly romantic in its way. The former was named by Juddmonte Farm in honor of Bobby Frankel, an American training legend who trained Juddmonte’s U.S. stars before he lost a battle with cancer in 2009. And Camelot, owned by the famed Coolmore team of Derek Smith, Michael Tabor and John Magnier, has, so far, evoked in his performances all the magic and romance that his name implies.
Juddmonte Farm’s 4-year-old Frankel will bid to end his racing career on a note of perfection when he competes in the Champion Stakes on Oct. 20 at Britain’s famed Ascot Racecourse. Camelot, the 3-year-old winner of the Epsom Derby, takes his swing at greatness this Saturday with a run in Saturday’s St. Leger at Britain’s Doncaster.
A victory in the St. Leger, a race of just under two miles, would make Camelot the first horse to sweep the British Triple Crown in 42 years.
Frankel has a perfect record in 13 career races over three seasons, all in Great Britain, and most mentions of the colt in British and European media have been accompanied, in some fashion, by these words: “The best we have ever seen.”
Camelot has been victorious in all five of his races, but his accomplishments have been overshadowed at times this summer by the exploits of the flashy Frankel.
Both are trained by men regarded as being among the best in the world in their profession. British legend Sir Henry Cecil conditions Frankel, while champion Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien has saddled Camelot for all of his victories.
Camelot has prepared for Saturday’s race on the grounds of Ireland’s famed Ballydoyle, which was also the home of Nijinsky II, the last horse to sweep Britain’s 2,000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and the St. Leger in 1970.
“He’s different,” O’Brien said earlier this week in a meeting with the press at Ballydoyle. “He looks different, everything about him is different. Obviously he’s flesh and blood but there’s a different vibe about him.”
Susan Magnier, wife of co-owner John, had saved the name Camelot for a decade, waiting for the right horse. The son of the late European sire Montjeu quickly made it clear that he was the one.
“There was an aura from day one,” said O’Brien. “At the sales the lads would whisper when they spoke about him.”
Should he succeed in the St. Leger, France’s grand Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – the continent’s greatest race for older horses – could await on Oct. 7 at Longchamp in Paris. The bookmakers already fancy Camelot as the Arc favorite, but O’Brien will not consider that option until Saturday’s race is run.
“The three most important things in a racehorse are speed, stamina and courage and this will expose the last two,” O’Brien said of Camelot’s St. Leger run.“Never confident, always hopeful. It’s the way it has to be.”
Some fans were disappointed when it was announced the Frankel’s final career run would come in the Champion rather than in a bid for the Arc. His most recent victory in the Juddmonte International came at 10 furlongs – the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼-miles – and was his first race beyond and mile. He won with such ease that the Arc’s demanding mile and a half seemed well within his reach.
But Juddmonte and Cecil determined that the Ascot race would be the last of Frankel’s year and, almost certainly, his career.
Teddy Grimthorpe, the racing manager for Juddmonte owner Prince Khalid Abdullah, said earlier that Frankel’s brilliance has “spoiled” everyone connected to him.
“He keeps delivering time and time again, it’s remarkable,” Grimthorpe said. “Each time you say ‘that was amazing,’ then you see him again and it’s fantastic. That is Frankel, I’ve never seen anything like him.”
What a remarkable time to be a racing fan in Europe, or the world, for that matter. There is no guarantee these stars will deliver performances as brilliant as their previous runs as both Camelot and Frankel will face new demands in terms of distance in each of their upcoming races.
But the anticipation of what could occur is a wondrous thing. And should Camelot and Frankel deliver in the St. Leger and the Champion as they have in their combined 18 previous races, they will have achieved things that racing fans around the world will celebrate.
And, for a few moments, the focus on both continents will be diverted, at least for a while, beyond concerns about racing’s business levels and continued industry viability.
The spotlight will be purely on the horse, and racing is never better or more special than when that occurs.