Cecil in shape to storm back; RACING: The Guineas, the first Classics of the season, bring opportunities for revenge as an old ally becomes an adversary

Richard Edmondson on the renewed zest of a 10-times champion trainer
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The Independent Online
At Warren Place, the lofty stables of Henry Cecil, they run up the family ensign whenever a Group winner returns home. At Newmarket racecourse this afternoon, the trainer, metaphorically at least, will raise two fingers if Storm Trooper manages to capture the 2,000 Guineas.

Victory per se will not cheer Cecil. His joy will come from seeing one bearded face among the ranks of the vanquished, the features that belong to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

It is now seven months since the most successful trainer-owner partnership in modern racing was severed. Cecil and the Sheikh are both too opinionated to melt into a harmonious relationship, but both could stand the other as the results spewed out incessantly. But then, last year, came reports that the owner was displeased by the input of Cecil's wife, Natalie, and, terminally, there was disagreement over the condition of a horse that was being prepared for Ascot's Royal Lodge Stakes.

Sheikh Mohammed sent over a convoy of boxes to collect his 35 magnificently bred horses and as Cecil watched the vehicles leave it must have been like seeing bullion trucks disappearing over the horizon.

The circle is completed this afternoon when the colt that caused the final fissure in the partnership, Mark Of Esteem, lines up as one of the more potent challengers to Storm Trooper.

Mark Of Esteem has wintered in Dubai as a member of the Sheikh's Godolphin team and when he stepped off the aeroplane ramp in Britain this week his well-being was palpable. But then Cecil does not look too bad himself.

The loss of a principal owner could have sent the trainer into a ruinous spiral, but, at 53, he looks as presentable as he has for many years. The words alcohol and cigarettes are no longer scribbled on the shopping list.

Cecil did not mind a drop in his younger days, and his present abstinence may have been brought on by the drinking career of his twin brother, David, who fought a battle with the bottle in which, for some time, he looked like finishing runner-up. The dreadful weed has also gone, which must have been quite a sacrifice for a man who for many years looked as though he had been born with six digits.

"I haven't drunk for about two and a half years and I gave up smoking over a year ago," he said this week. "I went from cigars to Players to Silk Cut, about 40 or 50 a day, to nothing.

"I was in my study doing some work, smoking a cigarette and Jake [his two-year-old son] came crawling in. I'm old enough to be his grandfather anyway and I thought it might be a bit selfish to carry on. It would be rather embarrassing having your father coming to school in a wheelchair, don't you think?"

But Cecil, who has also lost a stone in weight, was not just thinking of others. He wanted to be in the best physical shape to combat the second large crisis of his career.

Henry Richard Amherst Cecil certainly does not like making it easy for himself. Several years ago he split from his first wife Julie, a formidable but hugely popular figure in Newmarket, and remarried a much younger woman. There were almost boos on the gallops. He survived that fracture at Warren Place and now he must prove he can succeed without another long-term partner.

"People are wondering if I can live without Sheikh Mohammed," he said. "I don't want to comment too much on that but every year you have something to prove. I'm quite ambitious and I want to stay somewhere near the top. I'd like to prove that to my remaining owners too."

As his other patrons include Lord Howard de Walden, who owns chunks of the West End, Wafic Said and the Saudi prince, Khalid Abdullah, it seems unlikely Cecil will imminently be spotted rattling a tin outside our racecourses.

But Sheikh Mohammed is the owner everyone remembers and he is a personality that Cecil himself can hardly ignore either. When he rises every morning the trainer cannot fail to notice the edifice next door, a huge, well- scrubbed trading estate number of a building, which is the Maktoums' home in Newmarket. The grilles on the impressive front gate have been filled in to frustrate pryers.

Dubai's royal family are infrequent visitors, but rumours about the place are plentiful. The walls are said to extend 10ft underground and local chat has it that several keys are needed to get in, the last bolt being activated from Dubai itself.

Cecil, it seems, has been concentrating less on these quarters than the remainder of his string this spring. Warren Place has got off to an unusually quick start, and its master has been in unusually good spirits.

Work mornings have had a pleasant symmetry about them. A posse of dark horses comes over the brim of Warren Hill followed, in great pulp cowboy movie tradition, by one flashing figure on a white steed. This is Cecil on the milky Impresario, a former Grade A showjumper who has been downgraded to the station of "the grey hack". Vehicle apart, the trainer is not hard to find, sporting his suede boots with blue tassles flicking in the wind, and a mushroom cap in the style once worn by the Rubettes.

Where Cecil goes a crowd invariably collects and he is as busy supervising the visitors as his own echelon on work mornings. This equine shepherding performance reminds of the bobby on the white horse at the first Wembley Cup Final.

As the line thunders past, Cecil shouts out individual names followed, usually, by an ambitious target for each. If this is the beginning of the decline for a 10-times champion trainer, a man who has won 14 Classics within these shores alone, it is a fall well camouflaged. "Every year is a challenge and I'm enjoying it very much," he said. "In fact, I'm enjoying myself more now than I have for years."