Racing review of 2012
We look back on another hugely memorable 12 months in horse racing.
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There can only be one starting point when writing a review of the year for horse racing and it's not January. It's Frankel, the mighty Frankel.
We can't start discussing 2012 and the sport of kings without acknowledging right away the greatest of them all. The son of Galileo simply lit up the Flat season, extending his unbeaten run to 14 with a series of magnificent displays.
His trainer Sir Henry Cecil, who cut a frail figure in winning enclosures up and down the land as he continued his brave fight against cancer, unleashed his pride and joy in May at Newbury.
Sent off at 2/7 for the Lockinge Stakes, it was a starting price that would end up being his longest of the year as bookmakers ran for cover whenever this goliath of the turf turned up.
Frankel won easily at Newbury, by five lengths from his old rival Excelebration, and he showed no signs of rustiness following the injury scare that was 'announced' on Grand National day.
Rumours of the imminent retirement of Frankel were blown out of all proportion by the BBC at Aintree, but thankfully for all connected with racing the scare was nothing more than that and Khalid Abdullah's horse was allowed to get on with his four-year-old career.
After Newbury the Frankel bandwagon rolled into Royal Ascot and his Queen Anne romp was simply breathtaking. Even our race comments, succinct at the best of times, were excited, saying: "Tracked leaders, led over 2f out, strode majestically clear, awesome."
You can't argue with that. Awesome he was, so much so that you couldn't help but be a tad disappointed when he won the Sussex Stakes by 'only' six lengths at odds of 1/20 at Glorious Goodwood.
However, despite his prohibitive prices there was never a sense of anti-climax when Frankel strutted his stuff and his presence reached new heights of euphoria at York.
A packed Knavesmire turned out to see Frankel in the Juddmonte International, his first attempt at 10 furlongs and his first trip north since his second career start at the 2010 Doncaster St Leger meeting.
I was lucky enough to be at York that gloriously sunny day and you couldn't help but appreciate the greatness of this stunning thoroughbred. You'll never see a parade ring as packed.
As Tom Queally loomed up on the bridle two furlongs out the shrieks and cheers began for Frankel and they were sustained until well after the winning post.
"That was great, wasn't it?" Cecil said. "It's great for Yorkshire, they are very supportive of racing and they deserve to see him. I feel 20 years better."
The way Frankel won at York prompted a clamour for him to run in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe but the prospect of him travelling to Paris was only a brief one as connections quickly announced his next, and likely final, port of call was to be the Champion Stakes at Ascot.
In what was to be his farewell appearance, Frankel was his least impressive in terms of winning distance. He finished one-and-three-quarter lengths in front of high-class mud-lover Cirrus Des Aigles in ground officially described as soft, heavy in places.
Yet the brilliance was there for all to see. Even when conditions were perhaps against him and in favour of his main rival, Frankel oozed class, doing it all very easily in ground that clearly blunted his thrilling turn of foot.
Both horse and trainer were greeted by an extraordinary reception afterwards and Cecil said: "He's the best I've ever had. He's the best I've ever seen. I'd be surprised if there's ever been any better."
It was a fitting end to an extraordinary career and Frankel's four-year-old season was THE racing story of 2012. But there were other highlights...
Flat horse of the year (without Frankel) - Camelot
Camelot's easy success in the Racing Post Trophy on his second and final start as a juvenile gave much hope that he could progress into a truly special three-year-old.
The winter favourite for both the 2000 Guineas and the Derby, Aidan O'Brien's latest star son of Montjeu ended up winning both Classics and threw in the Irish Derby for good measure too.
If his neck success at Newmarket was gritty, his five-length win at Epsom was flamboyant and as he wasn't stopping that day, and given his stamina was also tested at the Curragh, he was sent off the 2/5 favourite to complete the Triple Crown in the St Leger.
Alas, it wasn't to be. A three-quarter length defeat to Encke ensured Nijinsky is still the last horse to win the Triple Crown and you have to think it's a mantle he'll hold for some time to come.
Camelot ended his season down the field in the Arc before having exploratory colic surgery, but the good news is he'll be back as a four-year-old.
Likely to be campaigned in all the top races from 10f-12f, he's yet to race over a mile-and-a-quarter and it could just be his optimum trip.
Chaser of the year - Sprinter Sacre
Sprinter Sacre really rose to prominence in the chasing ranks four days before the start of 2012, when he beat Peddlers Cross by 16 lengths at Kempton.
Donald McCain's horse was the Arkle favourite prior to that but Nicky Henderson's new kid on the block usurped him following a frighteningly good performance on just his second start over fences.
So, to 2012, and Sprinter Sacre has taken all before him winning all five of his starts this year.
It all started in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury when he beat stablemate French Opera hard held, an excellent effort against seasoned campaigners that ensured he'd be going off odds-on for the Arkle.
He did just that, punters sending him off the 8/11 favourite and they weren't to be disappointed as he stormed clear for an easy seven-length success over Cue Card with Al Ferof over 25 lengths further back in fourth.
It looked an extraordinary effort at the time and subsequent events have proven it to be just that, so it was no surprise when he won the Maghull at Aintree on his final start as a novice at odds of 1/7.
The weather scuppered Sprinter Sacre's intended reappearance at Cheltenham but that only heightened anticipation for one of the highlights of the winter, the Tingle Creek at Sandown.
It was billed as a match between Sanctuaire and Sprinter Sacre, but Nicky Henderson's charge soon turned it into a one-horse race as he scooted clear on the bridle up the run-in.
It was a magnificent effort that prompted bookies to run for cover as far as the Champion Chase goes - it may be three months away but you won't find a better price than 4/7.
Sprinter Sacre has blown away all of his rivals in 2012, and the signs are he'll repeat his feats next year too. He could be something very special.
Hurdler of the year - Big Buck's
From one unbeaten National Hunt horse in 2012 to another, as Big Buck's still doesn't look like losing in staying hurdles.
Unfortunately he's been ruled out for the season, which blows the staying hurdle division wide open. His absence is bound to swell the World Hurdle field as those that dare not take on the mighty Big Buck's come out of the woodwork.
Yet despite the late injury news, 2012 was another big year for Big Buck's. He's four years unbeaten now, 18 races in a row and this year it's been a familiar haul as he's taken in a Cleeve Hurdle, a World Hurdle, a Liverpool Hurdle and a Long Distance Hurdle.
His rating has remained 174 for the last four years as he doesn't normally win by far and he's yet to really meet an outstanding rival in the sphere.
Still, he can only beat what's in front of him and while the two-mile hurdlers keep on beating each other the winning machine that is Big Buck's will continue to stand above all others in the hurdling game.
Hopefully he'll be back on the course at the back end of 2013.
Race of the year - the Grand National
Grand Nationals shouldn't be won by a nose. You'd think after four-and-a-half miles with 30 of the most formidable fences in the sport in the way a clear-cut winner would be crowned.
Not so this year.
After years of trying to win the Aintree spectacular it looked like Jonjo O'Neill and JP McManus might win it for the second time in three years as Sunnyhillboy went two lengths clear passing the elbow.
But an 11-year-old grey by the name of Neptune Collonges wasn't having that and he stayed on with relish all the way to the line to get up by the narrowest of margins in a photo.
While it was ecstasy for winning trainer Paul Nicholls, who sealed the trainers' championship with the win, it was tragedy for McManus who soon learned his Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised had suffered a fatal injury.
Suddenly being nailed on the line paled into insignificance.
Highlight of the year - Hunt Ball's rise
At the end of November in 2011 Hunt Ball won off a handicap mark of 68 at Folkestone. Almost four months later he was winning off a 74lb higher mark at the Cheltenham Festival.
His ascent through the chasing ranks has been one of the stories of the year, not least because of his ebullient owner Anthony Knott who kept winning fortunes backing the horse.
Hunt Ball was a victim of his own PR when he was pulled up on his return in November, but the fairytale is not yet over and you get the feeling there's still some chapters to be written in his colourful story.
Lowlight of the year - Kauto Star's retirement
Kauto Star, one of the true greats of the game, only ran once in 2012.
That was in the Cheltenham Gold Cup where he was sent off the 3/1 second-favourite after his magnificent fifth win in the King George on his previous start.
Yet he was pulled up in the Blue Riband, evoking memories of Istabraq's final start when the crowd showed their appreciation for the white-faced legend as he trotted back under Ruby Walsh.
It wasn't set in stone at the time, but when his retirement was announced in October of this year it came of no surprise.
The recent saga involving trainer Paul Nicholls and owner Clive Smith, and his acrimonious departure from Ditcheat, is another unnecessary footnote to the story of a legend.
His new career in dressage will hopefully evoke memories of his halcyon past. Whatever the outcome, the dynamo from Ditcheat will never be forgotten.
Year to remember - Richard Hughes
Hughes' battle with the scales will always be fraught, which makes his achievements this year even more meritorious.
The sangfroid rider won the jockeys' championship at a virtual canter, with three Group One victories adding a touch of Hollywood to proceedings.
Hughes' unquestionable highlight, though, came at Windsor in October when he rode seven winners from eight rides.
Year to forget - Frankie Dettori
When Mickael Barzalona and Silvestre De Sousa were recruited by Godolphin it was more than a hint they were preparing for life without Frankie Dettori.
And the 18-year association between Sheikh Mohammed's organisation and the Italian jockey finally came to an end in October.
Perhaps his decision to ride Camelot for Ballydoyle in the Arc was the straw that broke the camel's back, but Dettori made the right noises following the split, insisting he's raring to go and ready for a fresh challenge.
But then came his six-month ban for testing positive for a banned substance in France.
Dettori has served proudly and admirably as the singular ambassador of the Flat, but is unlikely to ever be treated with quite the same reverence now.
The competitive appetite of a fabulously wealthy man will only be ascertained when he returns.
Gone but not forgotten
The young Scottish rider died in a swimming pool accident just four hours after arriving in Greece for a holiday to celebrate his 22nd birthday in June. Gillies had looked destined for big things this season, having been victorious aboard Brindisi Breeze at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The pain is now less acute, but jumps racing north of the border continues to grieve.
John Oaksey did so much for the sport, and in so many capacities, that his death in September was afforded an outpouring of celebratory mourning which rarely occurs in the stiff-upper-lip world of thoroughbreds. Oaksey excelled as a jockey and journalist, while his relentless charity work for injured riders will happily echo throughout the ages. One of racing's quiet icons.