Cecil favourite for an American beauty

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two racehorse trainers stood in the murky, drizzly morning, within 30 muddy paces of each other, a world apart.

One, gazing on to the track from a raised gallery, was Henry Cecil. His presence here confirms the grit that underpins those exquisite, patrician flourishes. He has not come to the Breeders' Cup since 1998, but tomorrow Passage Of Time could seal an inspiring comeback from the vicissitudes that had menaced him with personal and professional ruin. With familiar self-mockery, the ravaged flaneur vowed to head straight to the mall after checking on his filly.

The other, standing outside a timbered stableblock, was an exotic of a very different flavour: a bow-legged farmer from the deep south of Kentucky, wearing his trademark cowboy hat. "The little town where I grew up, it didn't have 100 people in it," Larry Jones said. "They still had a hitching post by the old stores. I would ride into town, tie up the pony, and get my candy. I thought I was tough. I was six years old, but I was the man."

And here he was yesterday, 45 years on, contemplating the biggest payout in the American sport. In a vintage Breeders' Cup Classic, Jones saddles Hard Spun, one of several three-year-old heavyweights that have been slugging it out all season long. Hard Spun was second in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness, and finally won the big prize he deserved at Saratoga.

"My first thoroughbred cost me $800," Jones said. "She went in a $2,500 claimer. But I got her souped up, and she did win." There had always been horses on the farm: his grandfather used them instead of tractors, and Jones himself worked the cattle with them. "And like all kids, I always liked speed," he said. "It was just horses instead of bikes."

He stumbled into his vocation, in his twenties, and to this day retains the self-reliance of any farmer. He drives the van himself, washes down the horses himself, indeed he rides several of them every day – a habit, to many round here, that explains the terrific hardiness of Hard Spun. Jones grins. Estimates of 200lbs "include the buckle": he can get down to 180lbs. "But it's a bit easier for him to gallop on a loose rein, packing me, than having some guy that weights 120lbs wrestling with him," he said. "I've never taken a holda him. He gallops with his ears up. And yes, I do hope that's one of the reasons why he has stayed sound, why he has been able to make so many dances."

Cecil, still being treated for cancer, has not been able to hack across Newmarket Heath just lately. "Next year, hopefully," he said, as he watched Brian Meehan ride past on a pony. Meehan was escorting Red Rocks, who won the Turf last year but this time must beat Dylan Thomas. They cantered three circuits of the dirt track, by now reduced to black, poached slurry.

Cecil remembered riding a pony alongside Indian Skimmer before she finished third in the 1988 Turf. "I think she was rather old, and I asked her to do a bit too much," he recalled wryly. It was not so long ago, albeit more or less over-night, that many were reaching similar conclusions about Cecil himself, but his horses have rallied even as his health has failed.

It was Passage Of Time, of course, that was supposed to win him a 24th British Classic in the Oaks. Instead that honour fell to Light Shift, but Passage Of Time's encouraging comeback in the Prix Vermeille qualifies her as 3-1 favourite with Coral for the Filly and Mare Turf.

"The abscess in her epiglottis came to a head at Epsom, she could't really breathe," Cecil said. "She needed medication afterwards and fell away to skin and bone. She was rusty in France, and got a bit tired, but she was only beaten a length on ground that was too fast. She has definitely come on a lot, the winner has since won in Canada, and I think she deserves to be here."

No more so than Cecil himself – and likewise the plain-talking stockman, over the way, with whom he would seem to have so little in common. Such is the romance, the democracy, of the Turf. Their paths could not have been more different, but somehow they have converged. "I've been beaten in the cheapest races they have," Jones said. "And I've had the second in the Derby. Who in the world, knowing my beginnings in the game, could ever have figured I could end up in this race? It's been a wild ride."