From here . . . to there


EILEEN BATTERSBYponders the lives of space dog Laika and racehorse Frankel

She was a little stray found on a Moscow street. Her age was estimated to be about three when she was formerly introduced as one of three mongrel dogs selected by the Soviet space programme.

It was not a publicity stunt. Laika was not to become a mascot. There would be no television appearances, no Hollywood contract. Pressure had been placed on Soviet scientists to advance the space programme. No one knew if a living creature could withstand the physical demands of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. The dogs were subjected to various tests and were placed in increasingly smaller kennels. Laika’s calm temperament impressed the scientists. Her survival was never a factor. On November 3rd 1957, Sputnik 2 was launched. Laika was strapped into a harness. She became the first animal to orbit the Earth, and the first to die while doing so. Scientific advancement attempted to counter the outrage.

Initially, it was claimed that she had lived for six days. But the reality was even more grotesque. When the truth finally emerged it confirmed that Laika had not died peacefully in oxygen debt but had overheated within hours and experienced appalling stress. The dangers of leaving a dog in a car on a hot day should have alerted scientists to the fact that canine body temperature does not equate with that of a human. Decades later one of the scientists involved admitted to being very ashamed. Sputnik 2 remained in space for five months, orbiting the Earth 2,570 times before disintegrating on re-entry on April 14th, 1958.

Laika has been honoured on postage stamps in many countries and will always be remembered. Footage shows a brave, willing little victim whose trust and innocence were horribly betrayed.

Fate ably assisted by phenomenal talent decided otherwise for Frankel who raced into history and a glorious retirement a fortnight ago. While his future as a stallion is being carefully brokered, his achievements continue to inspire Biblical hyperbole. Frankel is a son of Galileo, who is a son of Sadler’s Wells, who was a son of the mighty Northern Dancer, also the sire of Nijinsky. Galileo’s mother, Urban Sea, won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe as did another of her sons, Sea The Stars who retired a legend aged three in 2009. But Frankel, unbeaten as a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, won 14 races and now joins the all time immortals such as Sea Bird, Ribot, Brigadier Gerard and Dancing Brave, never mind Sea the Stars and Nijinsky, as well as Secretariat, the 1973 American Triple Crown winner.

Frankel is 16.1hh and well developed, that bit more muscular than most thoroughbreds. Even his feet are larger, size 7.5 on the fronts, 7 on the backs – most racehorses wear size 5 shoes. His stride length is 22 feet or 2 feet longer than most of his peers. Yet these are mere details. The difference is genius. The greatest? Perhaps? Still, he is a truly great horse, high praise indeed.

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