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.