And so it came just as those of us who adored him had feared. His final masterpiece had spent every last, vivid streak of colour on the palette. After Frankel, for Sir Henry Cecil, the rest would indeed be silence. The champion racehorse who consummated one of the great training careers in history had flared like a final, miraculous blossom among withering leaves. It was almost as though the consolations bestowed by Frankel, in Cecil’s most grievous need, also served to strip hollow those gaudy comforts that had preceded him. Frankel was retired last autumn, and Cecil had nothing left for the struggle. Today, at 70, he yielded at last to the sickness that had disclosed unsuspected fortitude through the previous seven years.
He had surprised everyone, with his animal courage – this fey, patrician flaneur, whose deteriorating health had been seemed to be giddily amplified by the indignity of professional and personal humiliation. Immersed in bereavement and drink, divorce and depression, he had been abandoned by the sport he once bestrode. In 2005, the man who accumulated 10 trainers’ championships between 1976 and 1993 won a bare dozen races. The following year he was diagnosed with cancer, the same disease that had claimed his twin brother, David, in 2000. But his response – by painful increments – was such that his final reward, in Frankel, seemed to be summoned into his darkened life upon some shaft of sunlight, a sample vouchsafed from eternity.
For there were several other late blooms, apart from Frankel: Light Shift, Midday, Twice Over. This resilience was never incongruous to Cecil himself. Sitting in the baronial drawing room at Warren Place, two summers ago, he expressed indignation when asked whether all this physical and mental excoriation had exhausted his love of ornament. He gestured with those large, loose hands, to include the statuettes, the heraldry and trinkets, his own cashmere and silk. “No,” he demurred, frowning. “I’ve always liked nice things, and nice things are ... a comfort.”
He led the way out to the gardens – past the famous roses, past the Wollemi pine. “Oldest tree in the world, that,” he drawled. Into a big mesh pen. “Try these. Wineberries.” And then the climax: the peas brought from Tutankhamun’s tomb by a relative of his stepfather. “He took them back to Ireland and after two and a half thousand years they germinated.” He did not have to explain. Exquisites like Cecil know perfectly well the evanescence of their pleasures. From generation to generation, however, they preserve and prolong mortal glories as perennially as his cherished roses.
Beauty, to Cecil, was defined by its fragility. A filly might go from liquid gallop to hideous, catastrophic breakdown in one step. But the more luminous life could be, the more precious, the harder he would fight. So all those tics, those flourishes of self-deprecation: the tilted head and rolling eyes, the wryly murmured questions to answer your own… They all masked a fierce determination.
Inwardly he was outraged by the sport’s communal infidelity. One morning, when a string of 200 bluebloods had dwindled to a rabble of barely 50, he heard one of Newmarket’s rising young trainers mutter to an owner on the gallops. “There’s Henry Cecil. Can’t understand why he doesn’t just give up.”
He thought of David, an alcoholic like their mother. He looked at himself, an embittered recluse. And he felt ashamed. He vowed to start living life on behalf of this constant spectre, the brother who alone seemed to accompany his own, wraithlike retreat into the emaciation of chemotherapy. “When David died, for a long time, half of me seemed to have gone,” Cecil confided. “It was like losing half of you, really. He’d have been very upset, looking down, if I hadn’t picked myself up from disaster. Very upset. So yes. Probably a lot of it, I’ve done for him.”
Nor was he wholly alone. He found new solidarity in Jane McKeown, who became his third wife in 2008. And the Prince had never left him. With ghastly symmetry, Khaled Abdulla lost his American trainer, Bobby Frankel, to lymphoma in 2009. It was in Bobby’s memory that a young Galileo colt, sent to Warren Place, was christened early the following year.
Frankel became an incarnation of the spirit that endured beneath the ravages of his trainer’s illness. A physical paragon, his career proved immune to the mischance that rebukes most who fly so close to the sun. Through three seasons, he sustained Cecil not just with his own virile grandeur but with the affection that pulsed anew among the racing public. For never had a knighthood seemed so merely formal a gilding as the one conferred upon Cecil in 2011. He always had the indifference to rank of a true gentleman, as courteous to those who beseeched a tip at the races as to royalty itself.
But if all recognised Frankel to be inscribing an indelible epitaph, then none should forget that Cecil would have been mourned as one of the all-time masters long before this final benediction. For here was one of few postwar trainers who could wear the label of “genius” as comfortably as any Hermes tie.
His father, a dashing army captain, was killed in action in North Africa shortly before the twins were born. His mother, a noted beauty, then captivated Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who ran a celebrated Newmarket stable until his stepson took over in 1969. Borrowing further from the lore of his first father-in-law, Noel Murless, Cecil became a non-pareil whether measured by quality or quantity. In 1987, he saddled 180 winners – obliterating John Day’s record of 146 in 1867. Even in the late 1990s, after a dramatic falling out with Sheikh Mohammed, he was saddling four Oaks winners in five years.
That was testimony to his particular dexterity with fillies, who seemed to open up to his sensibilities as his roses did the summer night. But the challenge that matched most closely the margins of his nature – the gorgeous, carefree exterior, and the competitive hunger within – was Royal Ascot. He saddled 75 winners there, more than any trainer in history, and the rawness of his loss will lend next week’s pageant a strangely mute quality.
Cecil was raised in privilege, spending his schooldays at his grandparents’ Scottish castle, and started out making Bertie Wooster resemble Stephen Hawking. At agricultural college, he and David reassembled a car in the principal’s bedroom and painted lilies. But these quirky experiments foreshadowed the testing of deeper limits: of his own frailties, often enough; of the innate capacities of thoroughbreds, every day; and, ultimately, of his own resilience.
How do you chart the span of so rich a life? With 70 midsummers? With one Frankel? Every collar in his dandy wardrobe would fray in the end. Winter denuded his roses. Even Frankel was taken from him, in the end. But he preserved each pinnacle within, each immaculate moment. As Cormac McCarthy asks: “The clock has run, the horse has run, and which has measured which?”