Ardross, Bosra Sham, Commander In Chief, Diminuendo, Light Shift, Love Divine, Oath, Oh So Sharp, Reference Point, Slip Anchor, Wince and of course the mighty Frankel – horses that will forever be spoken of in the same breath as top trainer Sir Henry Cecil.
With the millions involved in Flat racing, and the characters and celebrities who are drawn to it, no wonder some trainers come across as distant and aloof. Not so Henry Cecil. Always ready to stop for a word or two, he’d take the time to sign an autograph book or chat to an excited punter. It was this, and his obvious love for the horses he trained that made him so popular with both the public and the racing elite alike.
“He’s a lovely man, a people’s man. He has an important job and could be as up in the clouds as he wants to be, but he’s very approachable, very understanding,” said Frankel’s jockey Tom Queally on hearing of his knighthood two years ago. At first glance, Eton educated Cecil might have appeared a little aristocratic. He had an obvious thing for good clothes, loved shopping and was by his own admission ‘vain’. Even so, despite his ‘1960s’ British film star good looks he always managed to remain a man of the people and was immensely likeable.
His father died young, aged 28, a parachuter in the Second World War and Cecil was raised by his mother. She lived on a farm just eight miles from Newmarket where she became involved in the racing scene. It was her marriage to trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort that introduced Henry to the sport. Initially he helped his stepfather, a trainer for the Queen, before taking out a licence of his own in 1969 and becoming one of the leading trainers of his or any other generation.
Seventy-five Royal Ascot wins, ten champion trainer titles and four victories in the Epsom Derby are an indication of just how great a trainer he was. Describing his approach to training racehorses, Cecil told The Daily Telegraph: “I do everything by instinct really, not by the book. I like to think I’ve got a feeling for and understand my horses; that they tell me what to do really.”
His instinct wasn’t always right though and in a run of bad luck he went through a terrible few years including a very public divorce from his second wife, Natalie, the death of his twin brother, David, from alcoholism, a drink-driving ban of his own and a sharp and bumpy fall from the top of the training tree. Between 2001 and 2005 he failed to land a top level Group One race at all and plummeted to 94 in the trainers’ list.
Never one to give in, Cecil began the long road back. Perhaps it was this, and his announcement in February 2007 that he had stomach cancer, that made him such a favourite on the racecourse. Cecil made little of his cancer and quietly spent the next six years simply getting on with it, managing to revive his flagging career by training great horses like Twice Over and Midday. “With the death of my brother, financial things, divorces, I never thought that was the end of me. I just thought I can’t be an also-ran,” he told the BBC in an interview in 2011. That season was Cecil’s best for 10 years. He had 55 winners and won prize money totalling more than £2.7 million.
Perhaps the pinnacle of his success was training and winning with his beloved Frankel. It seemed to everyone that saw them together that they drew strength from each other, and maybe Cecil knew in his heart that this was to be his last great chance. Bringing the young horse along slowly, Cecil resisted the temptation of going for the Derby after winning the 2,000 Guineas. Fourteen consecutive wins followed for Frankel’s owner Prince Khalid Abdulla, and Irish jockey Tom Queally before Frankel – officially rated the world’s greatest horse – was retired to stud in October 2012.
Cecil was the Master Trainer at Royal Ascot, where he successfully trained 75 winners. He had nine horses entered for this year’s Royal Ascot meeting, which takes place from 18-22 June. Among them are Hot Snap, who was the beaten favourite in last month’s 1,000 Guineas and is entered in the Coronation Stakes; Joyeuse, a two-year-old who won her debut race recently and is entered in the Albany Stakes; and Frankel’s brother Noble Mission.
They’ll be an empty seat at Royal Ascot this year. Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, a man who is said to have liked horses with big ears, died of cancer on 11 June 2013 in hospital in Cambridge, aged 70. His licence temporarily passes to his third wife and widow Jane. Let’s hope that he can have one final winner at this year’s Royal Ascot – even though he won’t be there to cheer it past the winning post.
Photo Credit: CharlesFred