The question as to the horse who should be accorded the honour of flat racing’s greatest is more complex than the simpler ‘who is your favourite’?
Ask Nicholas Clee, for example, and he will answer with conviction ‘Eclipse’. He wrote a book on the horse and stated nearly 500 times (I may exaggerate) that in his opinion no better horse has yet to be born. Others, whose opinions may carry greater credence, might suggest St.Simon, Man o’ War, Ribot, Sea Bird, Dancing Brave, Brigadier Gerard or Frankel.
Younger people will undoubtedly champion Frankel. Indeed to oppose Frankel as the ‘greatest’ is the most damning racing heresy of modern times. Will I oppose him? As I write I honestly don’t know.
Until Frankel came along I was confident that the honour belonged to Brigadier Gerard and my faith in the Brigadier’s superiority remained untouched until Frankel’s victory in the Juddmonte International at York. On that glorious day, I believe, British racing tilted on its axis.
Of course Brigadier Gerard suffered his only defeat in the race at York (it was the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup the year Roberto sprouted wings). On the other hand the Brigadier did win over the classic distance of 1-mile and 4-furlongs. Indeed except for those two aspects of their careers, that the Brigadier suffered defeat and Frankel never ran beyond 1-mile, 2 and half furlongs, their careers were pretty similar. Let us compare.
Brigadier Gerard began his career in the Berkshire Stakes at Newbury, winning by 5 lengths. Frankel started out in a 1-mile maiden at Newmarket, winning from one of the best horses he ever encountered, Nathaniel. The winning margin was only half-a-length, with 5-lengths back to the third.
Honours even, I think.
The Brigadier next appeared in the Champagne Stakes at Salisbury. Carrying 9st 7Ibs he won by an easy 4-lengths, beating nothing of note. Frankel’s second race was a 7-furlongs conditions race at the St.Leger meeting. Again he had a horse that went on to win Group 1’s against him, though Farhh was withdrawn at the start, leaving Frankel to saunter home by 13-lengths.
The Brigadier’s third race was the Washington Singer back at Newbury and like his first two races it was over 6-furlongs, winning from nothing in particular by 2-lengths. Frankel’s third race was the Royal Lodge, winning by 10-lengths, with the following season’s Irish Derby winner Treasure Beach back in third.
The Brigadier finished his two-year-old career by winning the Middle Park by 3-lengths from two very fast horses in Mummy’s Pet and Swing Easy. Frankel finished his two-year-old career by winning the Dewhurst by 2 and a half lengths from Roderic O’Connor, the following season’s Irish 2,000 Guineas winner.
As Two-year-olds they won similar races, though it must be conceded that Frankel beat better horses and looked a champion in the making.
As three-year-olds we must start with Frankel as he had a preparatory race in the Greenham, Henry Cecil ‘not trusting himself to have Frankel fit for the Guineas without racing him beforehand’. Here he met Excelebration for the first time, winning by an easy 4-lengths.
It has to said, as mindblowing as Frankel was in the 2,000 Guineas, the opposition turned out to be pretty moderate. He won by 6-lengths but you would be hard pressed in retrospect to say that Dubawi Gold, Native Khan and the fourth horse Slim Shadey were anything but ordinary.
Only 6 ran in the 1971 2,000 Guineas and was regarded as a match between Mill Reef and My Swallow. Seemingly Brigadier Gerard was disregarded and it was considered rather a turn-up when he romped home by 3-lengths.
I don’t believe anyone could argue that Mill Reef was by far the best horse beaten by either Brigadier Gerard or Frankel.
From this point their paths take a similar route. Both horses won the St.James’s Palace Stakes, neither horse winning prettily. In the Sussex Stakes Frankel beat Canford Cliffs, though the second suffered a career-ending injury so the 5-lengths he was beaten may have flattered Frankel. Coincidentally the Brigadier also won by 5-lengths, beating good horses but nothing of the class of Canford Cliffs.
The Brigadier next won the Goodwood Mile by 10-lengths.
In the Queen Elizabeth Stakes Frankel again gave a caning to Excelebration, winning by 4-lengths. The Brigadier won by 8-lengths, though by this time opposition was thin on the ground.
The Brigadier was the busier of the two as three-year-olds as they stepped him up in trip in the Champion Stakes where he beat a competitive field by a short-head on ground that blunted his speed. Like Frankel his class got him home on soft ground but again like Frankel he excelled on good or firm ground.
As four-year-olds both horses started their seasons in the Lockinge, Frankel once again beating Excelebration, with Brigadier Gerard beating Grey Mirage.
Whereas Frankel waited for Royal Ascot, the Brigadier ran next in the Westbury Stakes over 1-mile 2-furlongs, winning narrowly from Ballyhot.
In the Queen Anne Frankel extended his superiority over Excelebration to 11-lengths. The Brigadier won the Prince of Wales by 5-lengths.
By this stage in each horse’s careers there is little opposition to either horse and the Group 1’s were becoming easy-pickings
The Brigadier won the Eclipse by a length beating more or less the same horses he beat at Royal Ascot. Frankel beat Farhh in the Sussex by a very easy 6-lengths.
Both horses now ventured into new territory, Frankel stunning the racing world by beating Farhh and St.Nicholas Abbey by 7-magical lengths in the Juddmonte International whereas in a courageous initiative to find out The Brigadier’s limitations (how refreshing would it be for such a policy to be commonplace) he was sent out to try his hand at 1-mile 4-furlongs in the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, winning by 1 and a half lengths from Parnell, whose forcing tactics broke all the other runners bar The Brigadier.
The race took its toll, though, as he suffered his only defeat in the race now known as the International when Roberto returned to his Derby form by winning by 3-lengths and 10 in a course record time.
Back to a mile Brigadier Gerard sauntered home in the Queen Elizabeth, winning by 6-lengths in a course record time.
Both horses finished their careers in the Champion Stakes, Frankel beating two top horses in Cirrus des Aigles and Nathaniel by 1 and three-quarters lengths and 2. The Brigadier won his Champion by 1 and a half lengths and 4.
So what have we learned from this stroll through the form books? The Brigadier won 17 races. Frankel was unbeaten in 14 races. The Brigadier won 7 races as a four-year-old. Both horses won races a lesser horse would have lost, due to soft or heavy ground. Frankel won from 7-furlongs to 1-mile 2 and a half furlongs. The Brigadier won from 6-furlongs to 1-mile 4-furlongs. It should be said that Ribot won from 5-furlongs to nearly 2-miles. The Brigadier beat Mill Reef. Frankel did not beat a horse as good as Mill Reef. The Brigadier was tested to discover his limitations. Frankel was less ambitiously campaigned.
It should be noted that St.Simon won over all distances, on consecutive days and even won the Ascot Gold Cup as a three-year-old. Ribot was unbeaten in 16 races and a close examination of the form book might suggest he has better credentials for being accorded the honour of ‘greatest’ than either Frankel or Brigadier Gerard.
But to answer the question I set out to answer: Brigadier Gerard by a nose.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.