It was his third trip to a racecourse, for the Royal Lodge Stakes, and his first to Ascot, where he will return to conclude his brilliant career on Saturday afternoon. Frankel gave some good horses a head start, then chased them down in half a dozen strides on the turn for home and increased his lead all the way to the line to win by 10 lengths. He did not just look good, or even merely exceptional. For the first time, Frankel looked unbeatable.
Two years later, he still does. One more victory, in the Qipco Champion Stakes, will complete a perfect 14-race winning streak, and set Frankel alongside the greatest undefeated champions in 300 years of thoroughbred racing. Yet it is a measure of how much he has achieved since that first trip to Ascot that the Royal Lodge, the race that announced his brilliance, is now a relative footnote to the story of his racing life. In a list of Frankel's 13 races arranged according to their power to astonish, it might just sneak into the top six.
It is what sets Frankel apart, not only from his contemporaries, but from any horse in living memory, and perhaps in racing history. He is extraordinary on a regular basis. After Bob Beamon jumped 8.90m at the 1968 Olympics, he did not get beyond 8.22m in the remainder of his career. Frankel has done the business over and again.
He blew away the best of his generation in the 2,000 Guineas last spring, hammered Canford Cliffs, the best of the older horses, at Goodwood that summer, and finished four lengths clear in the QEII Stakes, the all-aged milers' championship race, in the autumn. This season has been better yet, with victories by five, 11, six and seven lengths, all recorded in Group One events, the highest grade the sport has to offer.
Win or lose on Saturday afternoon – and the betting, as ever, leans strongly towards a win – Frankel's status as one of racing's greatest champions is already secure. Timeform, a distinguished and independent publisher of racehorse ratings since the late 1940s, made up its mind in June, when Frankel won the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot by 11 lengths. Only the finest horses record a Timeform rating above 140. Frankel has done so six times.
"We can all remember one brilliant individual performance, or even two or three in the case of Brigadier Gerard [in 1970-72] and maybe Abernant [between 1948 and 1950]," Jamie Lynch, Timeform's chief correspondent, says, "but not six, like Frankel. That is what sets him apart from any other horse in history.
"There are seven other individual horses that have run a rating in excess of 140 in our history. Four of those did it once, three did it more than once, but none have done it as many times as Frankel has.
"It's simple physics, really. His closest rivals are Sea Bird and Dancing Brave [winners of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1965 and 1986 respectively], who were best at a mile and a half. Frankel is beating his contemporaries by longer distances at a shorter trip, which takes more doing than it does for horses that weren't winning by so far, at the longer trip. "
There are other ways to measure Frankel in numbers, from the size of his winning streak to the 74.5 lengths that is the sum of his margins of victory, an average of nearly six lengths per race. He has won £2.25m in prize money for his owner, Khalid Abdulla, who also owned Dancing Brave, with another £737,000 likely to be added to the total on Saturday . And there is the 22 feet that he covers with every stride at top speed, thanks to an elastic action that no opponent can match.
Consider, too, that the first prize for the Champion Stakes is around 15 times as much as one major bookmaker took on the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood in July in its nationwide estate of 1,600 betting shops. When Frankel raced Canford Cliffs in the same race in 2011, Coral's UK turnover was £500,000. This season, when Frankel was a 1-20 chance, it was just £50,000, or a little over £30 per shop. Racing is founded on speculation and chance, but Frankel has removed the uncertainty.
"He's just gone beyond betting, which is a reflection of his dominance on the track," David Stevens, a Coral spokesman, says. "In three of his races this summer [at Royal Ascot in June, Goodwood in July and York in August], punters were just not backing against this horse. They knew he was unbeatable, which is unheard of. Normally, there's always someone who thinks the favourite will get beaten.
"He's been a one-off, but for a successful horse, he's not one that has cost the bookies fortunes. It might sound trite when a bookmaker says it, but we really don't want him to be beaten on Saturday, for the sake of the sport, because it would be such an anticlimax. The coverage that he's been getting makes a real difference to racing's profile, and that helps to get people into betting shops too."
The numbers, though, are scarcely half the story. The punters and racegoers may see little point in putting their money on Frankel at such short odds, but their emotional investment in his success remains immense. Abdulla has horses with eight different trainers in Great Britain, as well as other yards in France, Ireland and America, where Bobby Frankel, after whom the colt is named, trained the Prince's horses for decades. Abdulla chose to send him to Sir Henry Cecil, the most popular and successful British trainer of the past 40 years, and a man who is admired as much for his courage and resilience as for his undisputed brilliance with thoroughbreds.
In terms of his background, the blue-blooded Cecil had little in common with Bobby Frankel, a boy from the streets of Brooklyn who started his climb to the top of the sport as a punter at Aqueduct in New York. He died from cancer in November 2009, when the horse named for him was a yearling, and Cecil has been fighting the same disease for six years. It was diagnosed just as his training career was starting to emerge from what had seemed to be a hopeless decline, rooted in personal and professional setbacks including the loss of his twin brother to cancer and the breakup of his second marriage, which kept gossip columnists in copy for weeks.
Frankel has restored Cecil to pre-eminence in British racing, though Cecil has been typically modest when discussing his own significance in the story. This week, he paid credit to Shane Fetherstonhaugh, the work rider who has taught Frankel to channel his early exuberance into a ruthless running style, as he observed that "it could be said that Shane and I train Frankel together".
The real fascination, though, is that even Cecil does not seem to understand the extent of his genius, and what it is that he does so well. "Everything I do is by instinct," Cecil said recently. "I don't bother about form books and whether a horse beat me one length last time out if I'm running against it again. Well, I feel my horse has improved, and yours may have gone over the top, or was lucky, or at its best. I just do it by feeling, I don't do it by the book. If you actually study horses, their expressions and their mannerisms, then they tell you when they're not right or whether they're well or not.
"I used to ride three lots a day, walk with my horses everywhere, actually gallop with them, and when I had a lot of chemo I couldn't even open a bottle, let alone ride a horse. When I used to ride with horses, it was an advantage, because you could watch them and I'd be able to say 'that filly's coming into season', or 'that colt's not trotting quite as well as it should', so by the time I got to work the horses, I'd be able to change things around. Now, unfortunately I have to go out in the car, so I'm at a disadvantage. But horses do talk to you. Like people, you can see when they're well."
There is a sense of frailty and uncertainty in Cecil's words with which any of us can identify. His is the human story that allows Frankel to connect with the wider public, and it is as irresistible as Frankel's ground-devouring stride.
It will be difficult to let it go too, when the moment arrives on Saturday afternoon and Frankel walks into retirement, hopefully with his perfect winning record still intact. No one in the sell-out crowd of nearly 33,000 at Ascot will expect to see another one like him, even when his sons and daughters start to appear on the track in four years' time. A freak like Frankel is once in a lifetime, and the concentration of genes for speed, strength, athleticism and more that makes him what he is will be slowly diluted over the generations. His name, though, will endure since the final race of Frankel's career does not mark the end of the story, but the start of a new chapter. He will be inked into the pedigrees of thoroughbreds for as long as there is racing. And if it will dispel any sadness as Frankel retires consider this.
One day far in the future, after all those who will watch his final race at Ascot are gone, a horse may win a Classic at Epsom or maybe Newmarket, and someone in the grandstand will trace through its pedigree, come upon the name of Frankel and think to themselves: "Ah, the mighty Frankel. Now there's a horse I'd have loved to see racing."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010