Chris McGrath: Sense of perspective is what makes Cecil a formidable force

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

Sport discloses character, or lack of character. That's why we find it interesting.

But what happens when the process is reversed? What happens when human dignity exposes the bare essence of sport itself? You tend to be left with something fairly frivolous. A bunch of blokes chasing a pig's bladder, or brown animals running along a plastic rail. The moment you decide it's all pointless, however, is also the moment you condemn yourself to nul points. And it is amazing how fiercely we resist even so trivial a humiliation. Amazing, and really rather wonderful.

Last Sunday, Jacqueline Quest became the first horse to be thrown out in a stewards' inquiry in a British Classic since Nureyev, three decades previously. You will find few professionals prepared to cavil with the merits of the stewards' decision. She had palpably hindered Special Duty and only beaten her by the inflation of her nostrils. Even so, the sequel was one of the most piteous scenes many present could remember on a racecourse.

The story of her owner, Noel Martin, is almost too ghastly to reprise. He has been confined to a wheelchair since a racist attack in 1996 by neo-Nazi brutes in Germany. His miseries since have extended to conversations with Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. This filly was herself named after his wife, who died of cancer 10 years ago.

How on earth do you go about "consoling" a man like this for finishing second in a horserace?

Then there are the more familiar vicissitudes of Jacqueline Quest's trainer, Henry Cecil. While his privacy has largely been respected, cherished as he is, his own health battles have made transparent an impressive fortitude where we previously discerned only flamboyance.

His professional resurgence takes us as far as we can go, as bystanders. For while human crisis will teach men like these a perspective the rest of us cannot share – a privilege, of course, we will hardly envy – then the fact remains that the whole silly business still matters to them. One way or another, it seems quite evident that Cecil has renewed a vital sense of purpose in training winners. And, whatever else we can never comprehend about Martin, he plainly felt pained by what happened at Newmarket.

The comfort of sport, such as it is, comes in endeavour. And the endeavour, in turn, comes from motivation. Show me a good loser, as Vince Lombardi said, and I will show you a loser. Naturally, none of us could remotely presume to tell these people that it was only a horse race. They know that better than we do. But if you can keep fighting on one front, you know that you have what it takes to persevere on others, too.

Regretfully, the suspicion persists that it was a case of now or never for Jacqueline Quest, such was the peculiar advantage enjoyed by the small posse of fillies who raced along the stands' rail on Sunday.

But it is always dangerous to assume that a three-year-old filly in Cecil's care has ever reached her limit. His singular genius is likely to be reiterated at Lingfield today, when Timepiece tries to emulate the success of Midday last year in the Totesport Oaks Trial.

Like Midday, last spring, Timepiece began her campaign against colts over a shorter distance. She ran with more obvious promise, too, short of room when getting herself involved and not given a hard time to finish fourth, just behind the subsequent Pretty Polly Stakes winner, Marie De Medici. Her half-sister, Passage Of Time, admittedly did not stay but Timepiece has shaped as though more likely to take after Father Time, a Royal Ascot winner last year over a mile and a half.

As we have come to expect in the Lingfield trials, the opposition is more about quality than quantity, with Ceilidh House of particular interest. She represents the connections of Look Here, who won the Oaks after being beaten here two years ago, and made a big impression winning her maiden last autumn.

Cecil also saddles a fancied runner in the colts' race, in Bullet Train. He, too, laid solid foundations on his reappearance, the form of which looks fair, and really does seem guaranteed to relish the extra distance (son of Sadler's Wells from the family of Powerscourt). But he faces some unexposed rivals from powerful yards, and this looks like an opportunity to watch and learn.

The one investment that should perhaps be made today is Timepiece for the Investec Oaks, at 8-1. She will be an awful lot shorter tonight, if proving herself equal to the contours of the track – so similar to Epsom – and the extra distance.

Should she happen to get beaten, of course, we would not have to seek far to have our disappointment placed in due perspective. Worse things happen at sea. Just don't tell her trainer that.

Azmeel takes next step on the bumpy road to Epsom

The sun finally gilded the gorgeous pageant of Chester yesterday, albeit only the meeting's most determined evangelists will have left professing any conviction that they had seen a future Classic winner.

At the very least, however, any trial winner round these bends has demonstrated the agility required at Epsom. And John Gosden, who yesterday added the Addleshaw Goddard Dee Stakes to his success in Wednesday's fillies' trial, is disposed to proceed towards Epsom with Gertrude Bell and Azmeel.

This colt had been beaten by Chabal on their reappearance at Sandown but here showed the benefit of that run by outpacing Dancing David in the straight. With Rasmy close up, and Tamaathul looking uncooperative after travelling easily, Totesport left the half-length winner on 33-1 for the Investec Derby.

"He got a good bit of a bump out of the gate which set him alight," Gosden said. "Frankie [Dettori] was keen on settling him a long way back and he has done well to come through and win. In these big races there can be a lot of hurly-burly, and you've got to get used to it. We were beaten fair and square at Sandown, but he did get tired. He went there about 80 per cent and come here at 95 per cent today. I might have him spot-on by the first week of June."

Harbinger landed the odds in the other Group race, the Boodles Diamond Ormonde Stakes, and will now go for the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. But the runner-up, Age Of Aquarius, shaped extremely well under a sensibly conservative ride on his return form a long absence.

His trainer, Aidan O'Brien, saddles two of just four runners in the Derrinstown Trial at Leopardstown tomorrow, in Midas Touch and At First Sight. Mikhail Glinka misses out with a bruised foot.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Satwa Gold (4.35 Ascot)

Is really beginning to flourish for his new trainer, who bought him out of a seller in the winter and quickly stepped him up in trip. Always going powerfully at Newbury last time and a 5lb higher mark looks perfectly manageable.

Next best

Swiss Cross (4.55 Lingfield)

Warrants one more chance this weekend teamed up with a promising claimer by his in-form trainer, having proved too fresh on his reappearance, but looking well-treated on the form of his maiden success last year.

One to watch

The bird had flown by the time Hamish McGonagall (T D Easterby) managed to hit top gear at Chester on Wednesday, but his strong finish for second at The Roodee promised that he will make the most of a handy mark sooner rather than later.

Where the money's going

Workforce, who reappears in the Totesport Dante Stakes at York on Wednesday, is 8-1 from 10-1 for the Investec Derby. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained horse, who is by the 2,000 Guineas winner King' Best, is also 5-2 favourite with Ladbrokes for the Dante itself.