Racing: Henry Cecil - Not the retiring kind

For more than two decades Henry Cecil dominated British racing, but the winners have dried up and his stable is less than half full. In a rare interview he talks about dealing with life's downside and determination, at 62, to prove himself a leading trainer again
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The Independent Online

The journey across a sizeable portion of Newmarket continues through the extensive vegetable garden, past the pomegranate trees, aubergines and pumpkins. Cecil picks and offers figs and tomatoes. It seems a shame there is no one else around to share this Eden with him. But then a poisonous snake has come into the life of Richard Henry Amherst Cecil.

"People think I'm a great authority on roses," he says in another part of the gardens, "but I'm not really. It's just a question of buying them and putting them in. If they die, you put another one in." If only it was as simple as this with training careers.

For these are desperate days in the life of Cecil. The career of the 10-times champion trainer, the winner of 23 British Classics and 364 Group races, lies quietly in extensive care. He is 94th in the trainers' championship, with just 11 winners this season. Once 200 horses inhabited Warren Place. Now there are around 50.

Henry Cecil has failed at matrimony, at drinking (which he does not bother with any more) and smoking (which he does again after a two and a half year sabbatical). Now, and this is almost unthinkable, he appears to be failing at the art of training racehorses. This is racing's equivalent of Rembrandt being reduced to painting by numbers or Michelangelo producing a three-footed sculpture. So how did we get here? Perhaps the search should start at the beginning.

Henry Cecil was born in Aberdeen on 11 January 1943, six weeks after his father, Henry Cecil Snr, had been killed in north Africa while serving with the parachute regiment. His twin brother, David, arrived 10 minutes later and this first race won by Cecil proved to be as important as any Classic. His mother, Rohays, remarried the celebrated Newmarket trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who determined that the older twin should become his assistant.

Thus Cecil was propelled, while David's life took a more sombre course. A chronic alcoholic, he once ran a sandwich bar in Swindon and died of cancer in 2001.

The older of the twins quickly became a master of his art. The magic has been conducted for almost 30 years from Warren Place, the Newmarket yard not actually in Newmarket but in the parish of Moulton. It stands alone on a hill with no higher place between it and Siberia. It stands alone in racing accomplishment. No establishment has been more successful in the history of the British turf.

For so many years Cecil drank from this rich cup and carried the yard further forward. The best riders were employed. "I've had some very good jockeys down the years: Greville Starkey originally, Steve Cauthen, Joe Mercer and Lester Piggott, who came back and was champion jockey," Cecil says. "Richard Quinn was very good too. Unfortunately, the horses weren't.

"Good horses make good jockeys and good trainers. They can make good owners too, but they also make awful ones."

On the many occasions of success in Group One races, the family crest would be run up the flagpole at Warren Place. These days it should permanently be at half-mast.

Yet only six years ago, Cecil was still rampant. He won three of the five Classics and was second in the other two. "Winning Classics is easy," Ahmed Salman, the owner of that year's Derby winner, Oath, said. "You just buy a horse and send it to Henry Cecil."

The trainer himself appeared to love it all, verbally jousting with the press pack after each victory. Even that, though, was a little bit of an act. "I'm probably more lighthearted on top than I am underneath," he says. "I'm actually quite sensitive."

The emotions must have taken some battering in that summer of 1999. Sheikh Mohammed, Warren Place's principal owner of the time, took away 40 horses and the intestines of the Cecil empire, reportedly because of the interference of the trainer's then wife, Natalie. The operation has never been the same again. Even so there is no residual bitterness between the men. "He was starting Godolphin [the Sheikh's Dubai-based operation]. Unfortunately, when he did leave there were about three Classic winners and a Gold Cup winner in there," Cecil says.

"We get on very well and we never had a row. He's been very kind to me and tried to get my brother cured when he was dying. He gave him a holiday in Dubai. We're still good friends.

"He always liked taking the mickey out of me, which was nice. I always think that if a person makes fun of you that means they usually like you. I wrote a book once and I pretty much pulled myself to pieces. I like doing that.

"Sheikh Mohammed went shopping with the princess [Haya of Jordan, his wife] in London the other day and a car rolled up here with two lovely Hermès ties and an enormous great wooden box with some rare honey inside."

Cecil notes this passage of history, but, in general, steadfastly refuses to look behind, which is rather sensible as there are a few personal crashes in the mirror. Many of his traditional owners have died off, while others may have been rather put off by his occasionally spicy personal life.

"Basically, I'm still a positive person, so I don't want a negative article," Cecil says. "You mustn't talk about the downs. I don't want to go into the Fallon thing or anything like that. I don't want anything about Natalie or anything like that. We leave that out. We've had enough of that haven't we? That's very important. It's no good to me. It's no good to Jake [his 11-year-old son]. That should be left alone. I've sued people over the years about things they've said about me. And I've won."

Thus Cecil commands a promise that no detail should be included on the split from his second wife, Natalie, neither the subsequent sacking of his stable jockey, Kieren Fallon. Yet perhaps the best way to have kept the recurring foibles from young Jake's attention would have been not to commit them in the first place.

"I don't like reminiscing," Cecil adds. "It's no good to anybody. People can do it for me if they like, but life's about what you're going to do, not what you have done.

"I could retire and become a member of White's Club [the exclusive Mayfair establishment] and sit there with a glass of port and some Stilton and talk all day long about what I've done. But who's interested? Least of all me."

Cecil tells you all this in the "old boys" room at Warren Place. Like his father, he too likes to be in charge of fighting men and there is a collection of lead soldiers in a cabinet. For the moment, Cecil is not sartorially resplendent, for which he apologises. He has just finished work.

A Marlboro Light is on the go and master interacts affectionately with Lily, a small griffon dog and owner of the sort of twisted face you normally see set in stone, on the outside of a cathedral.

Another woman of the house, Betty, the daughter of old-time trainer Sam Darling, once held her 21st birthday party here soon after the building was built. Fred Astaire was one of the guests and danced for the audience, but slipped on the polished parquet flooring. It was perhaps an early sign that Warren Place could destabilise even the greatest of talents.

Now, at 62, Henry Cecil finds himself sliding as well. He is fit, he is well and as settled as he has been for many years. Jake, who lives in London with his mother, visits at weekends and half-term and plays football for the Burwell Tigers. "He's a fantastic mimic and actor," the boy's father says. "He doesn't get it from me because I can't sing, play a musical instrument or act."

Cecil, absurd as it may seem, now has to prove he can still train. All that is missing are the horses. Fast ones at least.

"You'd like to think that, over the years, if I haven't proved myself by now than I never will," he says. "But you've got to be given the chance. I love it. It's been my way of life and I'd like to get decent horses and pick it up again. People say to me, 'Henry, you'll be back', but I can't come back without the material, the horses. I can't give them wings.

"Being retired and retiring are two different things. It may be that people don't want me or support me any more. Then you would have to be stupid not to get the message. I will have been retired. But I would rather retire when I want to rather than hand the decision over to anybody else.

"It's a challenge. I love getting up in the morning and I'm very healthy and well. I'm not senile. It can be depressing and rather disheartening when you haven't got the orders or the intake you want. I'm not a great person for parties or prostituting myself. I'm not terribly good on my PR. I'm not in favour any more."

There are different imperatives now at Warren Place. "You used to be able to send a nice horse out for a maiden and he would win," the trainer says. "I've had loads of seconds this year. When they're moderate they usually find some horse to come and beat them. We had a little filly the other day that looked as though she was going to win, when this well-bred thing pulled itself together and came and beat her a short-head." This is known as the biter bit.

When Cecil did manage to win a race, at Folkestone, he worked out that his cut was £200, minus tax. "I bought myself a nice shirt and lived on bread and dripping," he says.

It used to be that Cecil would lead a string which appeared to be about half the Serengeti on to the Newmarket gallops. These days he is more like a mother duck. "Most of my owner-breeders have either died, cut down or given up. The owner-breeders are a dying race," he says. "I don't want to train 200 horses any more, but I wouldn't mind 100 horses which I really liked.

"I've had a fantastic innings and I've been very, very lucky down the years, so I'm not complaining, but I'd love to continue it. I would just love to come back a little bit. I would hate to retire on a down. But then I don't want to retire anyway. It's just a question of whether they want to put me out to grass or not. But I don't want to give up by being made to give up."

Landmarks in the long career of a master horseman

* FIRST TRAINING LICENCE 1969.

* FIRST WINNER Celestial Cloud (17 May , 1969).

* CHAMPION TRAINER 1976, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1993.

* WINS PER SEASON (1985-2004)

132; 115; 180; 112; 117; 111; 119; 109; 94; 76; 83; 113; 78; 100; 65; 62; 48; 30; 25; 21

* HORSES IN STABLE (1985-2005)

152; 162; 169; 181; 177; 172; 174; 163; 165; 164; 208; 176; 186; 188; 191; 169; 157; 122; 83; 73; 56

* BRITISH CLASSIC WINS

1,000 GUINEAS - 1979 One In A Million, 1981 Fairy Footsteps, 1985 Oh So Sharp, 1996 Bosra Sham, 1997 Sleepytime, 1999 Wince

2,000 GUINEAS - 1975 Bolkonski, 1976 Wollow

DERBY - 1985 Slip Anchor, 1987 Reference Point, 1993 Commander In Chief, 1999 Oath

OAKS - 1985 Oh So Sharp, 1988 Diminuendo, 1989 Snow Bride, 1996 Lady Carla, 1997 Reams Of Verse, 1999 Ramruma, 2000 Love Divine

ST LEGER - 1980 Light Cavalry, 1985 Oh So Sharp, 1987 Reference Point, 1989 Michelozzo (Total 23)

* ROYAL ASCOT WINS

70; First Royal Ascot winner - Parthenon Queen Alexandra Stakes 1970

* LAST GROUP RACE WIN

Burning Sun - Group Two Prix Eugène Adam at Maisons-Laffitte, 14 July, 2002

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