Cecil seeks a place in the desert sun
Victory for the trainer at Meydan would symbolically heal a long-standing rift. Chris McGrath reports from Dubai
Friday 26 March 2010
The horse was out there somewhere, and so was this gigantic new grandstand, but neither was visible. Henry Cecil ambled up, peering into the fog. "Has he gone back yet?" he asked, in that light, familiar drawl. Assured that Twice Over had been glimpsed moments earlier, returning towards the quarantine barn, Cecil seemed quite at home.
It was as though he had personally imported the weather from Warren Hill, to preserve his horse against the desert heat. Of course, that precaution remains beyond even the most accomplished British trainer of his era. Equally, however, nobody would now propose his very presence here as the poignant anomaly it might have seemed, not so long ago.
The prize is the richest ever offered on the Turf; the stage, perhaps the most opulent in all sport. But its architects could hardly pretend that the glass and steel of Meydan represent a last, unanswerable commentary on men whose brick and timber dwellings, such as Warren Place, might seem to seal them in the past. Tomorrow Cecil saddles Twice Over as one of the favourites for the Dubai World Cup. And while his own future remains contingent on a courageous fight against sickness, his hosts could certainly borrow the resilience of "yesterday's man".
Cecil's arrival here itself represents a sort of contrition. In his pomp, he failed to grasp the adventurous possibilities proposed by the ruler of Dubai, then one of his principal patrons. Sheikh Mohammed wanted to bring horses to his homeland in the winter, and Cecil could not know that Godolphin was just one of the seeds that would bloom so rapidly in this unpromising soil. Now Cecil can finally acknowledge the sheikh's vision for their sport. "Pretty amazing place, isn't it?" Cecil said, gesturing towards the hidden galleries of Meydan. "One of the seven wonders of the world."
The inaugural World Cup was staged in 1996, only months after the fissures dividing the sheikh and Cecil ruptured in public and acrimonious fashion. By the end of that year, they had restored dignity to their rivalry after Bosra Sham won the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, a race sponsored by the sheikh. The trainer's prize was a ceremonial Arabian dagger, and the pair indulged in some memorable horseplay on the podium.
The following years, however, brought Cecil personal torment and professional mortification. Now, his perspectives and stable each renewed, he is scrupulously polite about his host. "He has always been very supportive," he said. "He has been a great help to me in my career. He gave me a lot of very good horses to train, but then I was very lucky in the days of the owner-breeders. Then we went through some quiet times, but things are going well again. I haven't seen him yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so – he's been a good friend to me."
Twice Over himself has matured dramatically over recent months, winning Cecil his first Champion Stakes since Bosra Sham, then running third to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. "It's rather like people, he's getting better with age," Cecil said, before turning mischievously to one of his inquisitors. "You've probably improved yourself, haven't you? Mind you, if you have, I shouldn't have liked to meet you before."
He paid tribute to the contribution of his farrier. "The horse has to wear these stick-on shoes, because there's not much nailing room in his foot," he explained. "Before, it was like you would feel if you wore shoes that were half a size too small. But he has got more confidence, generally, and I do think he's just improving."
The horse certainly seems well named, in regard to both his own career and that of his trainer, who won three Group One races last year and starts the new domestic season with 55 two-year-olds. In his youth Twice Over ran Raven's Pass, no less, to a photo in the Craven and was made favourite for the Derby. But he never ran at Epsom and only gradually retrieved the paths of glory.
"I had to give him a good rest after he came back from America," Cecil said. "He'd had a very long season. I would have liked to give him a bit longer, and to get a race into him, as well. But he's better fresh. He could have done with a slightly better draw [than 11] and it's new territory for us, a new challenge. But he has travelled very well, which he didn't going to America. Remember he got taken wide on the turn, in the Breeders' Cup, and lost a couple of lengths. And he's probably improved since. I wouldn't swap him for anything else in the race." He paused, assuming that wry look again. "I might do afterwards. But not at the moment."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Storm Surge (3.55 Carlisle) Has progressed nicely since joining this stable, just outstayed at this course last time, and the way he travelled through the race again suggested that he remains on a fair mark.
Claude Carter (4.30 Carlisle) Had some fair bumper form to his name and again hinted at ability in qualifying for a modest handicap rating over hurdles, including when off the pace and hampered last time.
One to watch
Offshore Account (C F Swan) faded only late on in the Grand National last year, following a hasty preparation, and ran his best race since when fourth behind Chief Dan George in a strong handicap at the Cheltenham Festival last week
Where the money's going
Coral cut Penitent to 7-2 from 5-1 for tomorrow's William Hill Lincoln at Doncaster after the favourite was drawn next to the rail in stall one.
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