Henry Cecil could walk straight into the pages of Proust with no questions asked. How appropriate, then, that he should have gone to Paris on Sunday with a filly named Passage Of Time to remind everyone that his fey, exquisite genius has not yet been extinguished. By stoking the embers of one of the great training careers in Turf history, she has taken a whole generation à la recherche du temps perdu.
In the Criterium de Saint-Cloud, Passage Of Time became Cecil's first Group One winner since Beat Hollow - also in Paris - in 2000. It was only the previous year that Cecil came within a neck of winning the first four Classics of the British season. Since then, his famous stable has emptied at a bewildering rate. In his pomp, when he won the trainers' championship 10 times, he had over 200 horses in his care. He began 2006 with just 55. He has resorted to leasing sections of Warren Place to other trainers, and become accustomed to gossip of his retirement.
Well, suddenly he has the 10-1 favourite for the Vodafone Oaks and the flag - that faded, forgotten flag - was yesterday hoisted above Warren Place once again. Over the years, it has been raised to mark every Group One success, including 32 Classic winners and many of his 70 Royal Ascot winners. The flag has been a typical Cecil flourish, a ritual cherished by ordinary racing folk who had never seen it but treasured the idea as a sacred totem.
"There's not much breeze here this morning, and it looks rather like a damp dishcloth," he said. "But it's certainly up there. When times were really good I always thought that one should never get too pleased with oneself, because racing always brings you down to earth. And that's what has happened, I suppose. It's a challenge, but I have a great team here, very enthusiastic and loyal, and we're all very optimistic for next year."
While Cecil would be appalled by the analogy of rats deserting a sinking ship - at most he would note that many of his older patrons have died - he clearly cherishes the loyalty of Prince Khaled Abdulla, who sent him Passage Of Time. And the Prince's racing manager, Teddy Grimthorpe, is in turn overjoyed that the filly might assist a revival for Warren Place.
"It's marvellous," Grimthorpe said. "Prince Khaled has always had great regard for Henry. And you can't be a brilliant trainer one day and useless the next. Henry is one of the most brilliant of his generation, and it's wonderful that this filly should have emerged like this - and Henry has produced her perfectly."
Passage Of Time is yet another feather in the cap of Abdulla's sensational young stallion, Dansili, who has already produced an Arc winner in Rail Link and seems a most eligible heir to his late sire, Danehill. Certainly there is no more exciting stallion in Britain, bearing in mind that last season he was standing for just £12,500. Even his revised fee of £30,000, in relative terms, seems perfectly reasonable.
Beaten on her debut, Passage Of Time progressed to win a maiden and then a listed race at Newmarket last month - by five lengths. But it was the step up to 10 furlongs on Sunday that opened new horizons.
"She has taken her time to come, but she's rather exciting now for next year," Cecil said. "She's from the family of All At Sea, who just got beaten in the Oaks on heavy ground, but I think she'll stay." Cecil expects her to resume in a race like the Musidora Stakes at York in May. "Having run so late in the year, we'll give her a good long winter and let her come out by herself," he said.
Grimthorpe meanwhile noted that the filly has every prospect of maintaining her improvement. "She's out of a Sadler's Wells mare who stayed a mile and a half, and she is certainly built like a stayer," he said. "She has plenty of physical scope, and once she got through on Sunday she did it really nicely, going away at the end."
Proust reckoned that the only paradise worth having is paradise lost, and it is 20 years now since Cecil reached a peak of 180 winners. But his languid demeanour plainly disguises plenty of fighting spirit. Abdulla also has a promising young colt in Walking Talking, a son of Rainbow Quest who finished second on his debut at Newmarket in the final days of the season.
Cecil expects to be back up to 80 horses next year, around half of them fresh yearling recruits. "That will, hopefully, allow us to have an even better year following on to what has been a very encouraging 2006," he said.
Nap: Blakeshall Quest (Southwell 12.20)
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