Cecil shows old passion in survival battle

Former champion trainer remains as enthusiastic as ever despite serious illness
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The Independent Online

He has one of those ransacked faces, the sort that might disclose a surfeit of either pleasure or pain. In his time, of course, Henry Cecil has sampled plenty of both – and he brought the same, abiding ambivalence to the gallops here yesterday, as a brightening sheen of dew anticipated the sunrise.

In some respects, he is under the cosh as never before. In the third year of his fight with cancer, he is again undergoing chemotherapy. In many other ways, however, he remains undiminished – in his passion, his wit and his genius for thoroughbreds. The touch is as light as ever, and seems ever more precious.

He had agreed to meet a party of journalists to promote the Emirates Airline Champion Stakes, run on his home racecourse on Saturday week.

"It's not very interesting at this time of year," he said at once, gesturing to the Al-Bahathri gallop. "You know that, don't you?"

That was a bit harsh on Phoenix Tower and Twice Over, who both exhibited their readiness for the big race, but their trainer is a man for all seasons regardless. He remains elegant as ever, in black polo neck and ochre leather jacket, and no less mischievous. "I'll be as quick as I can," he drawled, disappearing to supervise a changeover of riders. "I know the Waggon and Horses is opening in 10 minutes."

Three horses came panting past together. "I won't tell you what they are," Cecil said. "But you could multiply all their feet together and they still wouldn't win a race." Another pair included My Chestnut Girl: "Her half-brother is Big Brown, or whatever his name is. The Kentucky Derby winner."

As it happens, she is quite an effective measure of where Cecil finds himself. Yes, she is a half-sister to a champion. But she only found her way to Warren Place before her sibling's fame, having cost just $57,000 as a yearling. Nowadays – despite those 24 British Classics, those 10 training championships – that is the level at which Cecil must ply his trade. The previous day he had tried his luck at the yearling sales, down the road at Tattersalls.

"I tried to buy six or seven but I was blown out completely," he said. "Money doesn't buy you everything, of course. Every now and then something comes through. Look at Rae Guest the other day. A very good trainer, doesn't get much ammunition, and he comes up with a seven-grand Mtoto to win the Cheveley Park [Stakes]. But numbers give you more of a chance. I've run 50-odd horses this year. Someone like Mark Johnston must have hundreds. And battalions don't usually beat armies."

Cecil, of course, has managed a professional offensive even as his own health has failed, coming up with the Oaks winner last year and now these two respectable candidates for the Champion Stakes. Even so, he reckons to have fewer than 10 juvenile colts, and is instead relying on one of his more backward fillies making an impact in their Classic campaign. In direct contrast with the received wisdom of the day, he actually believes that the breed as a whole is maturing more slowly.

"I think a lot of the faster horses going to stud are not actually bred to go as fast as they did on the track," he reasoned. "They have been fairly freakish, on pedigree. A lot of the old sprinting blood has been diluted.

"Nowadays, a strong four-year-old has a great advantage over a three-year-old even in August. Take Twice Over. He has been a big, backward horse, and I haven't let him take on the older horses. That's why I had to take him to France twice. It's only now I feel he's ready."

By the same token, he hopes that Twice Over will stay in training and bloom next year – much as Phoenix Tower has done, in finishing second in four Group One races this summer. He was ridden on each occasion by Ted Durcan, but Frankie Dettori will take over this time, if not required by Godolphin.

"I mean no disrespect to the jockeys riding work for me," Cecil emphasised. "I've been supporting Ted, and Tom Queally, and they've been doing very well. But I don't retain a jockey, and I just thought a change would suit this horse."

All in all, his life has become as equivocal as the autumn dawn, at once cold and golden. For the same torments that erode him physically have renewed the sense of privilege in his calling.

"I haven't won the battle yet," he said of his illness. "But I'm working very well. It's just a bloody nuisance, really. You have to stay positive, and hopefully you'll get there one day.

"And I've enjoyed training more in the last two years than I have for a long time. When some of my main owner-breeders died, or cut down, I didn't have the horses. But I suppose there were lots of other reasons as well. I was on a downward spiral.

"You just have to pick yourself up and get yourself back. It's not easy. I don't want 200 horses any more, but it would be nice just to have enough quality to be competitive. I think I'm training better now than I have for quite a few years, and I'm definitely enjoying it more. It's a challenge, but I enjoy that. We're always better with our backs to the wall."