Frankel stars in a turbulent year for horse racing

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Tom Queally riding Frankel to an easy win at the Qipco 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket in April
Frankel's four wins in 2011 took his unbeaten streak to nine races

Being the BBC's horse racing correspondent in 2011 has meant covering a lot more than just racing.

The past 12 months have demanded spells as weatherman, royal reporter, and home and legal affairs correspondent, not to mention covering industrial relations, with a jockeys' strike threatened over new whip rules.

From the delights of unbeaten Frankel's exploits, to the horrors of seeing two horses electrocuted in the paddock at Newbury; from the enduring appeal of Kauto Star, to the intervention of the appeal court - it has been the most extraordinary of years.

Extraordinary enough, indeed, that the year will see - Boxing Day weather permitting this time round - two King George VI Chases, after snow claimed Kempton's holiday feature last December.

So it was three weeks late, in January, that a new big-race hero was hailed, as Long Run ended Kauto Star's reign at the prestige event, Kauto pushed into third this time.

In March, at Cheltenham, Long Run and his amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen repeated the feat, with Kauto again third and Denman splitting the pair, at the end of an epic Gold Cup.

But come November, and Kauto Star gained revenge - on Long Run and on the retirement-mongers - with a staggering performance in Haydock's Betfair Chase.

It was truly unforgettable stuff, but while sport is about tremendous highs, those highs - in racing as elsewhere - are so often punctuated by deep lows.

At Newbury's mid-February fixture, I was hoping to sniff out clues for the upcoming Cheltenham Festival, and witnessed several horses before the first race.

Then, in a scene more fitting to a horror movie, two of them died right in front of hundreds of us, as a result, it transpired, of electrocution from an underground cable.

That case continues, and so, for many years to come, will the controversies surrounding the Aintree Grand National.

The "right sort" of drama is exactly what draws millions to follow the race, won this year by Ballabriggs, trained by Donald McCain, son of "Mr Aintree" himself, Ginger.

However, TV images of two horses that died during the race, plus the sight of exhausted finishers, and a whip-ban for the winning jockey had the critics snarling.

Ultimately, changes were made, including alterations to three of the famous obstacles.

Sadly, it was a last Grand National for Ginger McCain, whose death in September, aged 80, brought to an end the legendary story of the ex-taxi driver who conquered the sporting world with Red Rum.

In contrast, Sir Henry Cecil, knighted to great acclaim in the Queen's birthday honours, was born into privilege, but in recent years he's not always found the going especially easy.

However, he guided Frankel through a flawless Flat season, the colt taking his unbeaten run to nine from nine starts.

In the 2000 Guineas, he devastated his opponents, leading all the way, and after victory at Glorious Goodwood, Cecil declared Frankel "the best I've seen".

The sequence, which the horse will attempt to extend in 2012, was rounded off in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on the inaugural British Champions Day at Ascot in October.

Organisers could not have hoped for anything better, but another great performance was overshadowed by the introduction of the sport's radical new whip rules that week.

The British Horseracing Authority's timing still puzzles.

And, on the big afternoon, a row that had already seen jockey Richard Hughes quit the saddle escalated when French-based rider Christophe Soumillon was found to have overused his whip when winning the £1.3m Champion Stakes.

After being banned and stripped of his riding fee and, most significantly, prize money that amounted to more than £50,000, he promised to see the BHA in court.

The "crime" was minor, and the punishment clearly did not fit it, so it was no surprise to see the new rules subsequently modified, twice, and Soumillon's prize money returned.

Those further modifications averted a potential jockeys' strike.

The topic is no longer hot, which might indicate that if a penalty-free "bedding-in" period had been employed, this whole mess could have been avoided.

Belgian by birth, Soumillon has long been an established figure in racing in France; at the start of the year, in contrast, Mickael Barzalona was still filed under "up and coming".

But in June, aged just 19, he arrived in style, celebrating success in the Epsom Derby before he had even reached the winning post on Pour Moi, a first victory in the Classic for French trainer Andre Fabre.

It had been widely anticipated that the Queen might land the race for the first time with Carlton House, a major fancy since he won the Dante Stakes at York, usually a significant indicator.

However, despite masses of hype, and with the horse enjoying support on the day from a large Royal contingent that included newlyweds the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, he was third.

And that might all have constituted quite enough excitement around the 232nd Derby, but as with so many of the preceding 231, there had been twists and turns along the way.

Prior to the race, the Turkish owner of fifth-placed Native Khan had believed that Kieren Fallon had committed to ride his horse, so when the former champion jockey decided to switch mounts, the owner went to court to stop him.

Initially an injunction barring Fallon from taking part was refused, but, at the 11th hour, Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Jackson dramatically agreed to impose it, and Fallon had to watch from the changing room.

So, quite a year - with another showdown between Kauto Star and Long Run, plus Kauto stablemate Master Minded, still to come - and yet still some people tell me racing is boring.

While it is true that racing has a long, long list of problems, 2011 just goes to show that, happily, being dull is not one of them.