Racing: Cecil the trainer for all reasons

Royal Ascot: Natural born winner returns to his favourite stage at the peak of his formidable powers
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The Independent Online
ANYONE WITH any doubts at all about the genius of Henry Cecil as a conditioner of equine athletes can turn from his exploits at the Derby meeting at Epsom to his record at the next top-level extravaganza on the racing circuit, Royal Ascot.

His first winner at the most sustained competitive fixture in the calendar was Parthenon in the 1970 Queen Alexandra Stakes, his 65th Royal Anthem in last year's King Edward VII Stakes. His total is one short of twice as many as his nearest pursuer among those currently active, Michael Stoute. Cecil himself would not say it - for he knows as well as anyone the twin frailties of horses and luck - but his rivals might be currently feeling they have run into Ozymandias. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.

Cecil, 56, has a rare golden touch. Horses can be forgiving and resilient creatures and getting one to the track is generally a matter of not getting it wholly wrong. A bad trainer will actively cock things up but mostly if a horse has talent it will out in any more or less competent hands. The exceptional trainers are the ones who will add an extra factor to the equation and Cecil has that ability to the nth degree.

His talent has been apparent since he took over the reins at Warren Place from his father-in-law Sir Noel Murless in 1969. In that first season he sent out Wolver Hollow to win the Eclipse Sakes and Approval to win the two-year-old race that is now the Racing Post Trophy, and the rest has been history in the making. Oath's Derby, the day after his stablemate Ramruma netted the Oaks, was Cecil's 22nd Classic victory since Bolkonski in 1975. The figure took the trainer to a 20th Century record (well clear of notables like Murless and Vincent O'Brien) and into fifth place in the all-time list behind John Scott (40), Robert Robson (34), Mat Dawson (28) and John Porter (23), men who plied their craft in less competitive eras.

Cecil has all the attributes of successful brilliance: implacable ambition, desire, determination, the willingness to soak up knowledge and give attention to detail. He is not an exceptional rider; there have been occasions on Newmarket Heath when the antics of various of his hacks have led to a certain amount of lost dignity. But he is an exceptional observer and understander of racehorses. He does not merely know the time of day (as they say) when it come to the capabilities of the animals under his care, he has set the clocks with the meticulousness of a Swiss watchmaker.

His handling of Oath, not just physically but mentally, was immaculate. As was demonstrated when he broke ranks during the Derby parade, this is a colt of individual character. Willie Carson, one of the advisors to his owners, said: "He was not sound in mind last year, he was a playboy and could have gone the wrong way. But Henry got him to turn that corner and grow up, and got him back concentrating on his job."

Bill O'Gorman, who rode Cecil's first winner, Celestial Cloud, in an amateur contest at Ripon, has no doubt about what gives the great man the edge. "He has an instinctive feel for recognising a good horse," he said. "Nowadays it's because of his own experience, but it was first because of his exposure to them during his formative years, when he was with Cecil Boyd Rochfort [his stepfather] and Murless.

"And he gets more horses properly fit to do their job than anyone else. That may seem rather an obvious thing, but probably as many as 80 per cent of trainers don't know how to do that in any meaningful sense. But Henry is one of the few who you wouldn't want to buy a horse off, because you'd be pretty certain you couldn't improve it."

Cecil's own image, laid-back and rather dandified, expressing pleasurable surprise at a victory, is deceptive. "He doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve with a horse until he's sure," said O'Gorman. "It's a rather Edwardian, 17th Lancers thing, isn't it, that you shouldn't appear to be making any effort, that everything should look easy. You're supposed to be able to glide effortlessly like a swan. But there's a lot of effort going on that you can't see."

It was the split between Cecil and Sheikh Mohammed, the like poles that in the end repelled, that led to the creation of Godolphin and its new standards of excellence. The resultant power game between the sport's three dominant Formula One teams - broadly, Cecil and the Saudi Arabians, Godolphin and the Dubaians, and the Anglo-Irish Coolmore/Ballydoyle axis - has been one of the fascinations of recent years.

The call is three British Grade One races apiece this season to the rival Arab factions, with the prestige advantage to Cecil and the Saudis. Khaled Abdullah owns the 1,000 Guineas winner Wince; his nephews, the brothers Fahd and Ahmed Salman, Ramruma and Oath respectively. Godolphin, the Maktoum family's Dubai-based operation, have annexed the 2,000 Guineas, the Lockinge Stakes and the Coronation Cup.

It will be no comfort to his rivals to learn that Cecil plans a team of some 25 bright-eyed, bushy-tailed runners after the curtain goes up on Tuesday with the Queen's last drive down the course of the century.

But equally the Newmarket maestro and his increasingly devoted public will be aware that, since Godolphin entered the game four years ago, the bearers of the all-blue colours have notched 10 victories to his six. The Warren Place squad includes Wince, Royal Anthem, Shiva, Chester House and Enrique. Godolphin field the likes of Aljabr, Cape Cross, Fairy Queen, Central Park, Xaar, Kayf Tara and Nedawi. O'Brien's strength is likely to be in the juvenile department.

The sport this week will not be a three-horse race. But a good score at Royal Ascot, an international showcase and by far Europe's richest meeting with nearly pounds 2.5m in prize money on offer, will be crucial to the pride and business plans of all three superpowers.


TUESDAY: 2.30 Fa-Eq 3.05 Shiva (nap) 3.45 Sendawar 4.20 Fasiliyev 4.55 Mukasol 5.30 High And Mighty

WEDNESDAY: 2.30 Enrique 3.05 Rowaasi 3.45 Wannabe Grand 4.20 Pantar 4.55 Samasakhan 5.30 Blueprint (nap)

THURSDAY: 2.30 Valentine Girl (nap) 3.05 Warm Heart 3.45 Kayf Tara 4.20 Bold Fact 4.55 Muntej 5.30 Biennale

FRIDAY: 2.30 Mutafaweq 3.05 Royal Anthem 3.45 Primo Lara 4.20 Sainte Marine (nap) 4.55 Sir Nicholas 5.30 Generosity