Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Three Cheers for Sir Henry

If I were a mystical, I would say that all the good ones are being gathered. But I’m not. I am an empiricist, a rationalist, mostly. I don’t have deities or afterlives. I believe in love and trees and the earth and these hills and the human heart. I will talk of the soul, but only in a strictly metaphorical way.

And yet, that is the sentence that comes into my head.

Sir Henry Cecil, one of the mightiest titans of the turf, has died at the age of 70.

Henry Cecil was not like other trainers. He wasn’t like anybody. He was a dandy, famous for his shoes. He loved his roses as much as he loved his horses. And how he loved his horses. People said that for all his technical ability and his lifetime of racing knowledge he had something extra, something beyond easy definition, something that could not be measured or quantified.

They say, of the great jockeys, that horses just run for them. It’s not a question of perfect position or being strong in a finish or even having good hands. It’s something in the spirit that communicates itself to the animal, so that it will give its last bit of strength and will and heart. Sir Henry Cecil had that.

You only had to watch him with his horses to see it. After a great race, with the crowds going wild, and commentators scrabbling for superlatives, Frankel would come back into the winner’s enclosure, every inch of his mighty thoroughbred blood coursing through his fine veins, his head up, his flight instinct on high, and Sir Henry would run his hand up and down the champion’s mane as if he were a dear old dog. There was something in those long, elegant fingers that communicated in equine: understanding, admiration, love, and something else, for which there is not a human word, something which only the horses knew.

I remember him very vaguely from my childhood; a tall, smiling, shy figure, other-worldly, faintly removed from the ordinary things of life. His brother was my father’s great friend, and David Cecil and my old man are buried next to each other in the quiet green of the old churchyard at East Garston. But I really remember him as everyone who loves racing does, everyone who has watched it over the years, as a quiet idiosyncratic gentleman who had some indefinable genius in him, who, despite being the ultimate professional, was never ashamed to show emotion as one of his beloved charges reached the highest heights.

What he did with Frankel was extraordinary. For all that horse’s outrageous talent, someone had to turn him into a complete racehorse. Perhaps only Cecil could have taken the tearaway, who used to trash his box in the early days, pulling mangers off the walls, and made him into the polished creature who could settle so well, even amidst the hurly burly of racecourses heaving with fandom and an almost hysterical excitement.

It was partly that settling, that learnt ability to be calm and biddable during a race, that meant Frankel had enough energy left in the final furlongs to make top-class horses look like selling platers. To educate any horse takes patience and work and dedication; to educate Frankel, and turn him into the greatest thoroughbred of a generation, is the mark of a legend.

What is so lovely about the story of that particular man and that particular horse is that it is filled with irony and triumph and redemption. Henry Cecil went through his dark years. There was a time when everything was in danger of falling apart. The horses went, the winners dried up, but one of the few owners who stuck with Sir Henry through the thick and the very, very thin, was Prince Khalid Abdullah. From that act of loyalty came the defining moment when a raw two-year-old called Frankel was sent to Warren Place. The rest is, literally and for ever, racing history.

Last summer, I drove the three hundred and fifty miles to York, to see Frankel take on his greatest test. He was up in distance for the first time, and, for all his stellar qualities, there was the quiet doubt whether he would shine quite so brightly over those two extra furlongs. ‘And here,’ said Simon Holt, a sort of thrilled trepidation in his voice, ‘Frankel is going into the unknown.’

The Knavesmire that day was mobbed. In the pre-parade ring, young children were staring at the great horse, their mouths open with awe. Frankel cantered down to the start on rising wings of applause, as collected as a dressage horse. He was so relaxed in the race that the commentator actually said: ‘Frankel has gone to sleep at the back’.

Rounding the corner into the long home straight, he was running, as always, straight as an arrow, his fine, intelligent head stretched parallel to the ground, his dancing, raking stride lengthening effortlessly over the emerald turf.

The world went still for a moment; Frankel seemed suspended in space and time. And then Tom Queally let him go, and he sauntered - mightily, easily, gloriously - past the best of his generation as if they were standing still.

‘They can’t get him off the bridle,’ shouted Simon Holt.

There was always something imperious about Frankel, and he was truly an emperor that day. He came back to shouts of acclamation and love such as I’ve never heard on a racecourse since the old glory days of Desert Orchid. It is rare that a flat racehorse generates such adoration. They are fleet thoroughbred flashes; here for a couple of seasons, then gone to the hallowed halls of the great breeding operations where they may pass their brilliance on. They do not stick around for years as do the National Hunt horses, who become like old friends, lodged in people’s hearts.

But Frankel was not only admired and lauded, he was really loved. And the love that shining afternoon on the Knavesmire was as much for the man who taught him and cared for him and made him as for the astonishing animal himself.

Cecil had a long connection with Yorkshire. He was welcomed there as a native son, and that day he was greeted like a returning hero. He had been undergoing severe treatment for his illness and had not been seen on a racecourse for weeks. But he was determined to travel north for that great race, and he was determined that the Yorkshire crowds of whom he was so fond should see that wonder horse.

And so there he was, thin and frail, his voice so hoarse it was almost inaudible, but with a smile that lit up the whole county. ‘It's great for Yorkshire,’ he said, as waves of joy still rippled round the paddock. ‘They are very supportive of racing and they deserve to see him.’ Asked how he felt, he looked up at the sky, thought for a moment, smiled, almost to himself, and said, with a quiet wryness in his lost voice: ‘Twenty years better.’

And then someone shouted ‘Three cheers for Sir Henry,’ and hats went in the air, and the sound nearly blew the roof off the County Stand, and Frankel lifted his head to listen.

Three cheers for Sir Henry, indeed. We were lucky to have him, and we shall not see his like again.

Sir Henry by Edward Whitaker


(I generally do not put up pictures which are not my own. Copyright is a serious business and must be respected, and this photograph belongs to the exceptionally talented Edward Whitaker. But I had to give you the man and his greatest horse, and I hope that on today of all days, Mr Whitaker will forgive me.)


  1. I saw Frankel at the Dewhurst. I was not on the Knavesmire for the Juddmonte.

    So, in honour of Sir Henry I would like to say,

    Hip hip hooray, hip, hip hooray, hip hip hooray

    *wipes tear away*

    1. Oh, wish I had seen the Dewhurst. Saw the Juddmonte and the Queen Anne, live. The roar from the crowd each time was like something I'd never heard in my life. They started three out. It was not Go on, my son; it was All hail the Emperor. Wiping tears too.

  2. We didn't quite know what we had that day on the Rowley Mile. I am sure Sir Henry Cecil, in his quiet and understated way, did. He will be much missed and your tribute is a fine one to a fine and gentle man. Thank you.

  3. Beautiful words, Tania. Am in bits..

  4. What a wonderful obituary for a remarkable man. I remember going to Newmarket as a teenager and goggling at Henry Cecil in the parade ring. He had the aura of a film star - I had a huge crush on him. He always seemed to have been touched by the Gods, Rachel


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