Racing: Aces in Tenby and Armiger: With the Flat racing season starting this week, Paul Hayward hears what Henry Cecil's stable has to offer

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The Independent Online
A NEW Flat season starts at Doncaster on Thursday and already people disguised as shrubbery are claiming to have seen the Derby winner cantering across Newmarket Heath at dawn. It is an expensive and comic ritual of springtime, but if they name the trainer as Henry Cecil then they could just be on to something.

Cecil is easily the pre-eminent Flat trainer of the last two decades and this season is entitled to expect further additions to his total of 13 Classics. In his care at Warren Place are officially the two best British juvenile colts of last year - Armiger and Tenby - along with 75 other three-year- olds bred for high office.

Every year in March and April, Cecil awakes to see the names of his callow residents splashed across the racing pages as certain future champions. Last year it was Aljadeer, who came to nothing, and the season before that, the disappointing trio of Desert Sun, Hip To Time and Wakashan, now a moderate performer in hurdle races. This time, though, racecourse form - not Heath tales - suggests Cecil will regain the title of champion trainer from Richard Hannon and record his first Classic win since Michelozzo in the 1989 St Leger.

Even Cecil is prepared to countenance such talk, though his habit of answering questions with a question has survived his 50th birthday (in January) and shows no signs of changing. 'We've got possibilities, haven't we?' he said last week. 'A lot can happen to a horse between two and three years, but at the moment it looks quite encouraging, doesn't it?'

The tactic is superb. The tilted head, the faintly mocking gaze, the Gucci shuffle that takes Cecil away from awkward post-race inquisitions. One day he may fall foul of the Jockey Club for excessive use of the question mark.

But last week, with his 164 horses just beginning to hum in preparation for yet another season, Cecil was practising none of his favoured evasions.

'I'm sure I will, though I don't know whether it'll be this year or next,' he said when asked whether he thought he could shove aside Hannon and secure a 10th trainers' championship.

In Armiger and Tenby, Cecil has runners with the potential to join the stable's greats: Reference Point, Oh So Sharp, Indian Skimmer, Kris, Old Vic, Belmez . . .

'You've got to have a couple of ace cards to throw,' he says of the trainer's title again. 'If you've won a Derby and a King George then you take a bit of catching. If you had taken Generous (the 1991 Derby winner) away from Paul Cole (the champion that season), he wouldn't have been sighted.'

The absence of a recent Classic winner at Warren Place defies a long tradition of success for the yard in the country's five most famous Flat races. In 1985, the stable collected four of those five, but the explanation for the three-year pause, according to Cecil, is simple bad luck.

'All At Sea didn't get the trip in the Oaks last year but we would have won it if she had,' he says. 'If Belmez had got to the (1990) Derby he'd have won it according to the form book.'

As Tenby and Armiger are both owned by Khalid Abdullah, they are highly unlikely both to contest the Derby. Cecil says he has 'a completely open mind' on running plans for the two, but discounts suggestions that Armiger has a suspect back and so is proving difficult to train.

'He was a bit sore across his back for a while, but once they start cantering they can lose their footing and rick themselves slightly,' he says. 'He never tore or pulled a muscle, though I did need to give him a little treatment and mark time with him for five or six days. But he's got no soreness now and is back cantering.'

Such bulletins assume abnormal importance when you have backed a horse at 33-1 for a Classic and it finishes its first season at the head of its generation. The only superior colt in Europe last season - according to the mathematicians, anyway - was another Abdullah horse, Zafonic, who is trained in France. But the speed that one showed in his four victories suggests he may be best at around a mile. The Derby is run over a mile and a half.

Cecil refutes the theory that Tenby and Armiger have physical limitations that may hinder their development as three-year-olds. 'Tenby is small but the whole family is like that,' he says. 'He's much stronger this year, and he's done well physically. Armiger's medium-sized, quite forward in himself. In fact, they're both quite adaptable in size, and they should both get a mile and a half.'

Though Pat Eddery will ride these two while Michael Roberts, the new champion, accompanies the Sheikh Mohammed-owned horses in the stable, Cecil is mournful about Steve Cauthen's departure from these shores.

'I shall miss Steve,' Cecil says. 'He was a good stable jockey and a good friend. He's a very talented person and a good ambassador, and there's a gap there that I don't think you'll fill that easily.'

The mission to fill the slight gap on Cecil's sideboard, though, will be further assisted by the presence of three-year-olds like Placerville, Ardkinglass, Wharf and Yeltsin.

'Placerville won at Newmarket, is very laid back, and could be quite nice,' Cecil says. 'Wharf had shin trouble last year but is doing well now. Ardkinglass lost a chip out of his knee but did nothing wrong, and Yeltsin is quite a nice horse by Soviet Star. There are one or two unknown quantities, too, but I don't want to start shouting about them.'

Why build your own gallows, he might say. With a question mark on the end, naturally.

(Photograph omitted)