Champion horse trainer Sir Henry Cecil dies after battle with cancer

 

Astonishing highs and lows are staples of the racing world. But the story of Sir Henry Cecil, the champion trainer, who died today aged 70, is remarkable for its swings of fortune both on and off the turf.

Nicknamed the Ben Hur of Newmarket, his tall, noble profile was a familiar sight at all the top flat race meets. Despite contracting stomach cancer six years ago, his later years were some of his finest. He trained Frankel to victory in 14 consecutive races from 2010-12. In a career that started in 1969, Sir Henry was responsible for 25 British Classic winners, and set the record for the most wins at Royal Ascot, with 75 victories.

Sir Henry and his twin brother David, also a trainer, were famously handsome and charming. But for all his easy-going charm, there were some setbacks even he struggled to overcome. Having married, in 1966, Julie Murless, the daughter of royal trainer Sir Noel, and had two children, he caused a racing scandal in 1990 when he left her for Natalie Payne, his lawyer's daughter, who was 24 years his junior. Unfortunately, Natalie proved unpopular with one of his clients, Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. After the Royal Lodge Stakes at Ascot in 1996, the Sheikh removed 40 of his high-class thoroughbreds from Sir Henry's stable, over a row over whether one of them had been fit to run. “When he (Cecil) allows interference to creep in from those with limited knowledge, that is not good,” the Sheikh pronounced. Other top owners, including Lord Howard de Walden and Wafic Said, remained loyal, but Sir Henry sought comfort in drink, and newspapers delighted in picking over his downfall from champion trainer to also-ran.

Unusually for a great trainer, Sir Henry did not hail from a racing family. Born in Scotland in January 1943, he was rumoured in racing circles to be the illegitimate son of the first Aga Khan But after his birth-certificate father died in the war, aged 28, his mother remarried the Queen's trainer, Captain Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who appointed the young Henry to be his assistant trainer. In 1973, when his father-in-law, Sir Noel, retired in 1973, Cecil bought his historic Newmarket stables, Warren Place, and went on to notch up victories at the Derby, 2,000 Guineas, the Oaks and St Leger, to name a few.

He favoured horses with big ears and preferred to rely on instinct rather than pore over table of data. He liked to dress well, favouring highly polished loafers and garish socks, and he admitted to having a weakness for upmarket Chelsea and Knightsbridge boutiques. “I'm very vain,” he once said. “I love shopping.” Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, he was also a tremendous hit with women.

For all his whimsy, Sir Henry demonstrated a steely core in 2007, when after suffering three blows in succession. In 2000, his twin died  of drink, aged just 57. Then in 2003, Sir Henry split from his second wife, by whom he had had a son, Jake. The circumstances of the divorce matched even Jilly Cooper's imagination, and featured an orgy of drink, drugs, her infidelity in Newmarket and his night with an £800 prostitute at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, as exposed by the News of the World.

But it was his diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him that proved his mettle. He resolved not to make a fuss of it, and despite receiving treatment, carried on working, with record-breaking results. Despite his aristocratic bearing, he was particularly popular with the punters, as they knew their money was as often as not safe on one of his horses. “He was loved by everyone,” said the former jockey Willie Carson. “He was just a genius of a horse race trainer”

The trainer, Jenny Pitman, said: “That horse would have charged Henry's batteries through the difficult time he was facing. When Frankel ran his last race in 2012, I felt it was inevitable  that life was going to be even more difficult for Henry. We all need to have that carrot dangling in front of us and Frankel was that carrot.” Frankel remains the highest-rated horse of all time.

 

Get Adobe Flash player

 



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project