Let no one doubt that the competitive flame still burns within Henry Cecil, even after more than four decades in his job. On a dull, muggy exercise morning on the Newmarket training grounds, a couple of things brought a glint to his eyes. Firstly, the sight of a handsome colt called Frankel, one of the most exciting young talents of the season, striding with ease up the demanding incline of Warren Hill. And secondly, a mention of the prospect of his colleague and neighbour Sir Michael Stoute edging ahead in the trainers' titles tally.
The two men each have 10, second only to the 12 amassed by Alec Taylor Jnr early in the 20th century. Stoute is currently chasing down Richard Hannon for his 11th. For Cecil, though he will be as gracious as ever should it happen, to cede his share of supremacy in the modern era would rankle. He won his last championship in 1993, since when Stoute has picked up seven, and though he remained in the mix during the Nineties, the Noughties, a time of well-documented personaland health problems, brought a dip in his fortunes hard to bear.
After Beat Hollow's Grand Prix de Paris in 2000, the family-crested flag was not hoisted over Cecil's Warren Place stables to celebrate another Group One winner until Passage Of Time's Grand Criterium de Saint-Cloud six years later. "When things are going badly," he said, "and you simply don't have the ammunition, rigor mortis can start to set in. But I just hate being an also-ran and was determined to get back.
"It will be difficult for me to be champion again. I train 100 horses and now others have 200 and more. With 100, I can be competitive,if they have quality. But to be champion, they have to be the best."
Cecil, 67, has held a licence since 1969, when he took over his step-father Cecil Boyd-Rochfort's business. "Maybe I was spoilt for most of my career," he said, "by being routinely sent lovely horses. Over that long dull period I didn't have them and now I have some better ones again I really appreciate them."
Step forward Midday, winner of five Group One contests and set to defend her Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf title in Kentucky next month. And this year's Coral-Eclipse winner Twice Over, going for a second Champion Stakes at his local track on Saturday and with the world's richest prize, the Dubai World Cup, on his radar next March. And Frankel, who may just be the best but will face the sternest test of his young life in the Dewhurst Stakes also next Saturday. All three carry the pink, white and green silks of Khaled Abdullah, Cecil's most loyal patron.
The quest for a wonder horse is what keeps the sport, never mind an individual trainer, going and Frankel's potential shone loud and clear as he took his unbeaten run to three at Ascot last month with a burst of speed and a 10-length solo tour de force.
Of course, the juvenile is no more than a schoolboy prodigy at this stage of his career but his trainer has made no secret of the regard in which he holds the shapely son of Galileo, and heightened heartbeat he provokes. He has paid the bay colt the considerable compliment of favourable comparison with his first real star, Wollow,top-notch at both two and threeduring the mid-Seventies. "He was brilliant," Cecil said, "with a fantastic electric turn of foot. I know I have had some wonderful horses over the years but most of them have been late-maturing types. But you have to go back to Wollow for one with such promise at two, and I don't know if we've ever had one so progressive."
Cecil is perfectly aware that over-trumpeting an equine second coming is usually the road to disappointment. But, still, he is prepared to invest hope in this callow bay athlete, whose bright white star between his eyes stood out through the autumn morning gloom.
"He is exciting for all of us," he admitted. "He's improving the whole time and he's growing up mentally. He's a healthy, active sort of horse and the type who should be better at three. If he happens to win the Dewhurst then you'd have to fancy him very much for the Guineas.
"But we must take it step by step and hype is the last thing we need; we all want it to work out, but they're not machines. If he's a monster, if he's the best for years, let him tell us. But make no assumptions until he does, because bubbles can burst so easily."
Cecil is just pleased to have his first runner in the Dewhurst Stakes, the country's top two-year-old contest, since Vacamonte finished sixth in the 2000 running. "In the past 10 years," he said ruefully, "I wouldn't have been at Newmarket that day, I'd have been somewhere like Wolverhampton. It's good to be back competing at this level with a horse entitled to be there. And to be looking forward."