Exclusive: Frankel's a major star… but he's no Brigadier
21:30 GMT, 21 August 2012
It’s some admission from a man whose opinion should be respected — if Frankel can win the Juddmonte International Stakes at York on his first race over 10 furlongs, he can justifiably be rated the equal of the great Brigadier Gerard.
Equal, mind. Not better.
In truth, nothing on four legs will ever rate higher with former jockey Joe Mercer than the 1970s icon he still calls the ‘Big Fella’, who galloped into racing folklore by carrying him to victory in 17 of his 18 races.
Stunning: The unbeaten Frankel is rated the best racehorse of all time
‘You earned your plaudits more in the old days,’ says Mercer, whose career brought him close to 3,000 winners and eight British Classics.
‘Maybe Frankel is the greatest at the present and the best for 20 years, but not the best ever. He has not proved it yet. He’s as good as The Brigadier but not the greatest ever as they classify him. That’s OTT.
‘Everybody asks how Brigadier Gerard and Frankel compare and last year, for a bit of fun, I said he would have made a good lead horse for The Brigadier, who achieved so much in his lifetime it was amazing.
‘He had ability and courage and a lot of both. He was a big, handsome horse and his racing weight never changed from two to three to four years old. He was a perfect physical specimen and his attitude was that he knew it.
‘It’s the horses who finish behind you that count. Frankel has had the same horse (Excelebration) behind him four times. He’s a fabulous horse, who would have probably been the best miler in the world if Frankel hadn’t been around.
One of the best: Brigadier Gerard won the 2000 Guineas in 1971
‘The ones that Brigadier Gerard beat
came out and won everything — they were horses like Mill Reef, who went
on to be a champion; Faraway Sun, who was a good French horse he beat
five lengths in the Sussex Stakes, wasn’t beaten again that season.’
A shoulder problem might be hindering his golf swing, but at 77, Mercer still cuts the same dapper figure as in 1979 when, as stable jockey to Frankel’s trainer Sir Henry Cecil, he was champion jockey. The pipe, which earned his nickname Smokin’ Joe, is by his side and Mercer’s admiration of Cecil’s colt is genuine, not grudging.
But looking at The Brigadier’s record, even the fully paid-up members of the Frankel fan club must respect his verdict.
Timeform rate Frankel — who is estimated to be worth 100million and who may run only once more after Wednesday’s race — the best horse they have ever assessed, three pounds better than Dick Hern-trained Brigadier Gerard, who is equal third-best on their all-time chart.
In the know: Joe Mercer
There are close parallels between the two. Frankel was a devastating six-length winner of last year’s 2,000 Guineas and The Brigadier emerged on top in one of the best runnings of the race in 1971, beating subsequent Arc and Derby hero Mill Reef, plus outstanding French colt My Swallow. Both were career-defining victories.
‘I had never been so confident before a race, particularly when Duration won the apprentice race beforehand,’ says Mercer.
‘He was one of the horses Brigadier Gerard had been working with and he’d been slaughtering him.
‘We knew we had a good horse the
first time he ever ran, at Newbury. He was last with two furlongs to go
and finished 10 lengths in front of them.’
horses also had scares in Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace Stakes,
Frankel hanging on by three-quarters of a length from Zoffany after an
injudicious mid-race move by his jockey Tom Queally; Mercer blamed
himself for Brigadier Gerard’s narrow success from Sparkler.
Mercer said: ‘At Ascot last year, my
heart was in my mouth. I could have killed the jockey — he went three
furlongs from home. Frankel lasted out but only just. That’s guts.
Brigadier only beat Sparkler a head in the St James’s Palace and I
blamed myself because I used to ride him in all his work and I don’t
think I did enough with him.’
Catch me if you can: Frankel ridden by Tom Queally wins the Lockinge Stakes
Frankel and The Brigadier have also been successful in the Lockinge, Sussex and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
But whereas Frankel victories range from seven furlongs to a mile, Brigadier Gerard won at five furlongs, took in two Champion Stakes and an Eclipse over 10 furlongs and his stamina was eked out to land the 1972 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes over Ascot’s mile and a half.
That is why the International Stakes
is, arguably, the most significant race in Frankel’s career since he
blasted his way up Newmarket’s Rowley Mile in the 2,000 Guineas.
been reminded in six races since of his brilliance and Usain Bolt-like
acceleration. But a victory at a longer distance would add significant
lustre to a glittering record.
In front: Brigadier Gerard (left) ridden by Joe Mercer wins the King George VI
That opportunity comes in the one race that eluded Brigadier Gerard 40 years ago.
In 1972 the three-length defeat by Vincent O’Brien’s Derby winner Roberto, brilliantly ridden from the front by South American jockey Braulio Baeza in the inaugural running of a race then known as the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup, silenced the Knavesmire crowd.
Mercer is adamant that the real Brigadier, who started 1-3 favourite, did not turn up that day, despite Roberto breaking the course record.
‘Everything to look at was perfect and his work was as good as ever but the stable was under a very big cloud,’ he recalled. ‘Two and a half out, he was hacking behind them, but he never picked up and I accepted it half a furlong out. I wasn’t going to knock the c**p out of him.
‘I wasn’t concerned about the crowd
reaction — it’s not in your mind, just in your heart, and that felt
horrible. Dick Hern’s face was just blank.
he came back after the race dear old Buster Haslam, who was our
travelling head man, said, “Don’t let him put his head down, keep it
‘They let him after he had left the winner’s enclosure and the mucus just ran out of him. You could have filled a bucket. But he came back and won both his races afterwards.’
Mercer sees little prospect of Frankel’s exalted status being dented at York.
‘I’ve been to see Frankel run and seen his development. He’s some racehorse, no doubt about it. I’d love to ride him. I’d give my right leg to do it. I bet Lester Piggott would say the same.
‘He’ll stay a mile and a quarter on a flat, galloping track like York, but he’ll never race over a mile and a half.’
The unspoken words to finish the sentence are, of course, like the Big Fella.
‘No-one can ever beat The Brigadier in my heart and we can’t have a re-match,’ Mercer smiles.
That’s one race Smokin’ Joe could never imagine losing. It would be some match-up, though.