Henry Cecil: 'I don't like to be defeated – beat depression, get on'

The ten-times champion trainer nearly lost it all to cancer and depression. He tells Chris McGrath how he resumed the reins
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The Independent Online

This is a story of the quick and the dead. Its central character, Sir Henry Cecil, belongs to some Wildean parable – one that shows how the fast set might learn from the example of their horses. For the quicker your horse, the sooner your race tends to be run. Yet Frankel, as fleet a thoroughbred as many remember, has so far just kept on galloping.

In 2000, when they were 57, Cecil lost his twin brother, David, to cancer. Six years later, the doctors found the same disease in his stomach. In the meantime, one of the great achievers in Turf history had been reduced to a pitiable, marginal figure; a beautifully dressed wraith. The previous year, the man who accumulated 10 trainers' championships between 1976 and 1993 had won a bare dozen races. He sat alone in his baronial lair on the hill above Newmarket, corroded by bitterness.

Yet the colt he runs in the Qipco Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on Wednesday could well prove his crowning glory. This unbeaten, unfettered talent most obviously evokes the man after whom he was named: Bobby Frankel, Prince Khaled Abdulla's principal trainer in America, himself claimed by lymphoma in 2009. But it is another grief that has contributed most to his fulfilment.

"It was like losing half of you, really," Cecil reflects. "When David died, for a long time, half of me seemed to have gone."

He sits in his study, surrounded by testaments to his craving for the exquisite: the model soldiers, knights, pipers; Georgian military drums; a fossil of a shark's tooth; nude statuettes. All these ephemera – like his dandy wardrobe, or his rose garden – always seemed like manically sharpened points in some palisade of frivolity, to preserve him from the slings and arrows.

As if that could ever work. When he lost David, Cecil was bereft. Everything was going wrong. His second marriage was in ruins; his stable would soon be going the same way. There was only one way back. He had to start living David's life for him; to complete his own with its missing half. "In a lot of ways, I think that was so," he says. "He'd have been very upset, looking down, if I hadn't picked myself up from disaster. Very upset. So yes. Probably a lot of it, I've done for him."

One of his first resolutions was to quit drinking, albeit he protests he had resisted a family addiction. He never drank during the day, certainly, but in the evening would open a bottle of red and rarely stop with a glass or two. "My brother had been an alcoholic, and my mother was," he admits. "But it just didn't agree with me. When I did drink too much, I either couldn't stop laughing, or I got slightly aggressive. So I went to see a doctor and he said you're not alcoholic, but to some people drink is poison. So I gave up that day and I haven't had a drink since – nor wanted one. I'd had divorces, financial problems, I'd lost my driving licence. I became like a hermit. I was quite depressed. It was a time when everything was getting on top of me, with my brother dying, the horses dwindling to nothing. And it wasn't helping. So I gave it up, just like that."

Large, loose hands rise from his long, folded legs in a vague gesture of self-deprecation. At 68, there remains something physically captivating about Cecil, with all his familiar tics – the rolling eyes, the wry droop of mouth and eyelids. There is a hint of the simian to the wide expanse between nose and lips; and yet the overall effect is of almost epicene elegance. His mother was a singular beauty; his father, a dashing army captain, was killed in action in North Africa shortly before the twins were born. It is curious to wonder what strain of Cecil's genius might be traced to this man.

Cecil has been told that his father was fairly wild. "But he was only 28 when he was killed," he says. "When I say he was wild, he enjoyed himself – he was only a young man. I mean, I was wild as well, when I was younger. Maybe I got that from him."

Some legacies were more overt. His mother soon provided a step-father, in Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who trained here at Warren Place until Cecil took over in 1969. By then, he had married the daughter of another outstanding trainer, Noel Murless. Between their lore, and his own flair, Cecil made this the most glamorous yard in Europe. In 1999, he remained so pre-eminent that he came within a neck of winning the first four Classics. But his seventh and eighth Oaks winners, in 2000 and 2007, were divided by an abrupt, bewildering fall from grace.

A stable of 200 blue bloods shrank to a humiliating rabble of barely 50, owing their last vestiges of quality almost exclusively to the fidelity of Prince Khaled. The spiral seemed irreversible, and was mercilessly distilled by the ghastly, cadaverous aspect Cecil acquired in chemotherapy. It was precisely this nadir, however, that provoked the bereaved twin to discover a latent, surprising, better self.

In this he was fortified by Jane McKeown, whose precious, understated solidarity gained formal status when they married in 2008. But Cecil accepts that he might never have made his epic professional recovery – crowned by Frankel, but by no means contingent on him – were it not for the final doom that threatened to flood the tide of his private troubles.

"You get to a stage where you look at things, set out realistically what is happening," he says. "You don't, you can't, go on like that... I've always been a winner. I had to become a winner again, hmm? I don't like being an also-ran. So that's probably one of the things that made me sort of claw back."

He gives a brief, embarrassed laugh. The old flâneur retains a scrupulous dread of the earnest, the personal.

"I don't like to be defeated," he drawls. "I like to beat everything, you know? Beat depression, get on with life. Try and beat what I've got. It's important. Also to have some respect from other people."

And, presumably, some self-respect? "You don't want to let anybody else down," he shrugs. "So basically you've got to fight back. You only know [whether you can] when you're in that position. But you've just got to do it, haven't you? Just got to get on with it."

There were days when Cecil was weak, groggy. He had to surrender his cherished old hack. But he wobbled on to the heath at the same time, every morning, inwardly sustained by the condescension of inferior trainers, who asked each other why he did not just retire. He derived grim satisfaction from every place he retrieved, by heroic increments, back up the prize-money table.

"I might not be [competitive] on the outside," he says. "But I am on the inside, definitely – underneath, very competitive. Always have been. We like winning, you know. We do like winning. It's what motivates you. Nobody likes failure. Your horses are running badly, or they're no good, you get jealous of everybody else. It's not quite so much fun, is it?"

He never lost the regard of the racing public, with whom he has always enjoyed the relaxed, bantering intimacy of a true patrician. In their eyes, his recent knighthood was quite supererogatory. Many sent him letters, grateful for his example in their own struggles.

"My advice is always to take the good things from the day, and push everything nasty out of the way," he says. "It's not straightforward. But if I hadn't done it, there wouldn't have been any result. You have to be positive. If you concentrate on the good things, you will feel better – mentally, then physically. If you're depressed, mentally, everything's going to go."

Even when brutally forced to confront the things that really matter, Cecil never lost his love for the purely ornamental. "No," he demurs, frowning. "I've always liked nice things, and nice things are ... a comfort."

The coat of arms, for instance, on the study wall: three holly leaves and the ivory horn, given the family by Robert the Bruce and still in the tower of the Scottish castle inherited by his older brother. "We came from Brittany," Cecil says airily, as though it happened yesterday.

He disparages the ostensible conveniences of the 21st century, doesn't know how to use a computer or a mobile. He despairs of these kids, constantly ringing up their friends... "Just to say we'll see you tonight, or are you wearing pink lipstick or boots? Basically 99 per cent of the talk is piffle, isn't it? It's nothing important."

He is not really scandalised, though. How could he be, when he has himself always obsessed over minute judgements of shoe or sock or shirt? "My mother was a compulsive shopper, and I do love shopping," he says. "I'm not as extravagant as I used to be. I've enough shoes. But I would have liked to design clothes. Or gardens. Though I know nothing about gardens, really, whatever people say."

What he truly loves in horticulture, as in everything else, is its exoticism. Outside, he points out a Wollemi pine, a handful of which were discovered a few years ago in some Australian canyon, where they had been minding their own business since managing to survive the sauropods. "Oldest tree in the world, that," he says casually, as his long, lank limbs lead you towards a big, mesh pen.

With surprisingly brusque hands, he grabs samples: wineberries, impossibly sweet, and the famous peas. One of Boyd-Rochfort's relations accompanied Howard Carter into Tutankhamun's tomb. "Out of one of the mummies fell four or five dried peas," Cecil says. "He put them in his pocket, took them back to Ireland and, after two and a half thousand years, they germinated. They're much taller than normal peas, much bigger, lighter in colour. And amazingly good eaters."

So the Egyptians were not wrong. If not quite into the afterlife, something of the world could endure. And maybe all Cecil's whimsy, all the delectable and collectables, has more longevity that we imagined.

Down in the town, at the Jockey Club Rooms, hangs a portrait of Cecil in a characteristically decorative shirt. "It was very well done, but I didn't look my best," he says. "I'd had a lot of treatment, at the time, so it made me look as though I might fall out of the picture."

That is not how he will be remembered now. It is no mystery if Frankel, this conspicuously energetic horse, should seem preternaturally suffused with life. Sickness stripped Cecil bare, but also made him whole. Long before he fell ill, he had dwindled to a spectre. In since fighting for his life, however, he has secured immortality.

Henry Cecil: a classic career

Equine excellence

Trainer of over 3,000 winners since 1969 – including 36 European Classics and a record 73 victories at Royal Ascot. His four Derby winners are Slip Anchor (1985), Reference Point (1987), Commander In Chief (1993) and Oath (1999).

Maker of champions, and crises

Ten training titles. Joe Mercer, Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen, Pat Eddery and Kieren Fallon each became champion jockey when working for Cecil. Lost the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed in 1995, and saddled no Group One winners between July 2000 and October 2006.

Future is Frankel

Frankel became his 25th British Classic winner with a spectacular display in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, and last month made it seven from seven in the St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Duel on the Downs

Frankel takes on the Canford Cliffs in the Qipco Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on Wednesday, while Midday seeks a third consecutive success Nassau Stakes there on Saturday (see www.britishchampionsseries.com).

Good knight

Cecil was awarded a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours.