Sunday 26 March 2017

Positive thinking keeps Cecil top of training's honours list

Henry Cecil has never lost his will to win, as he tells Paul Hayward

Standing in the pristine rose gardens -- or watching the brilliant Frankel take a pick of grass on a tranquil afternoon -- a visitor to Warren Place in Newmarket might not notice the rampantly competitive streak in Sir Henry Cecil, as he is now, a folk hero on the Turf for his victories over adversity, and a skilled raconteur behind his shy exterior.

"I've always thought that if I was at the top of my profession people couldn't say I was useless. It's a complex I've got. It's pathetic, isn't it?" he says. The raging need to win that unites all the great figures in sport has been expressed in countless ways but seldom is it described as a means to avoid ridicule. With Frankel, the easy English 2,000 Guineas winner, a white-hot favourite for Tuesday's St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, Cecil is in the mood to serve up rare insights into a career that has yielded 10 British champion trainer titles and 36 Classic winners.

"I like trying to beat people. I remember going on the Heath and hearing someone say -- 'That's Henry Cecil. He should have retired a long time ago'," he recalls. "What are you going to do then? How are you going to react to that? You prove them wrong, don't you?"

The synopsis is that Cecil fell from supremacy to near obscurity as the size of his string dropped from 200 to 30, two divorces sapped his energy, his twin brother David died and he began his own fight against stomach cancer.

From that miasma of trouble and upset, he re-emerged with the 2007 Oaks winner, Light Shift, built his yard back up to 120 inmates and last month trained the potential wonderhorse, Frankel, to turn the 2,000 Guineas into a procession.

Cecil's public image is of one of vulnerability, but also understated strength. Under questioning he tilts his head in a familiarly aristocratic manner and appears congenitally diffident. For a reporter, observing this, it comes as a delight to locate the real warrior within the great survivor who, at 68, may have found the most spectacular thoroughbred of his 42 years as master of Warren Place, which he shares with his third wife, Jane McKeown.

"I gave myself a goal every year," he says. "At the start of the season I gave myself a day book. It was like a big diary, and on the last page I'd draw squares like a crossword puzzle. I'd think -- 'I'll have a hundred squares, or 120. With each win I have I'll black-in the squares until I fill it all up. When I have Group race wins I'll fill them in with a different colour'.

"I'm maturing slightly now. Only slightly. If I had one or two winners in those days I couldn't wait to get the Racing Post to see whether I had moved up, in front of Michael Stoute [his Newmarket rival] or any nearer to John Gosden. Small-mindedness, really. But I'm quite small-minded. Petty."

Frankel has carried him full circle to a point where the mania of his golden years is the stuff of amusing anecdotes rather than a source of torture.

Henry Cecil is back, against all odds, and is cheered at every step for his fortitude.

"I often wonder why. Do they feel sorry for me or what?" he says. "They know I'm fighting an illness, so perhaps they think it's amazing I'm even walking around, never mind training a winner. The racing public, I've been very open with them. I'm fond of them. Especially in the north. In northern racing they love seeing good horses and they've always been very friendly towards me. Originally it's because they followed the stable in the good years. I think 65% or 68% of the runners I've had have been in the first three, so they know I'm always doing my best.

"The press have been good to me. A lot of them are friends of mine. They have a job to do and it's pretty hard dragging yourself around the country covering racing. If you're fair with the press, they're fair with you. If you won't speak to them or hold too much back it doesn't help anyone, does it?"

Cecil is holding nothing back about Frankel's 2,000 Guineas win: a freakish six-length victory in a mile race that is meant to be about heads and necks. Under Tom Queally, Frankel was 10 lengths clear at halfway and coasted home to earn a Timeform rating higher even than Sea The Stars, the supreme Guineas, Derby and Arc winner of 2009.

Surely Cecil was as shocked as the rest of us by the facile manner of Frankel's win? "No, I wasn't really." Then he tells the story: "I had a pacemaker in the race. He was drawn one and I was drawn 13, so I didn't have a pacemaker really, did I? So what could I do? I had the second and third favourites drawn next to me. I knew my horse had a long stride and could run a little bit keen -- especially at that stage of the year.

"So the only thing I could do was ignore the field completely, let him jump off, get him in his stride, relax and gallop, and forget there was a race on at all, just do my own thing, without even worrying about the field -- and that's what I did."

Yes, but to be 10 lengths clear at halfway. Surely that was a surprise -- and a worry? "No, because he has a tremendous stride. He's got a fantastically long stride in front but if you look at him closely his stride behind isn't quite as fast as it is in front. He didn't actually get tired but at Newmarket it's a very tough, straight course. By the time he got to the six [furlong point], going into the dip, he started to wonder where everything was and get a bit lazy. He'd done enough really. He was very fresh afterwards and had plenty more energy left. He'd won the race and was waiting for the rest of the field."

Waiting for the rest of the field was a habit Cecil was accustomed to in his most prolific years, when he laid down a training template that still serves him today.

"I always go with the horse, I never make a horse go with me, you know? I always watch it and go with it. I never say: 'I want to make Royal Ascot with you'. I watch the horse and feel my way and he'll tell me what I'm meant to be doing. You've got to know the horse, have that feeling. I do everything through instinct."

Those fine senses were applied to the decision not to stretch Frankel's speed over the mile and a half of the Derby. "I have to protect him," Cecil says. "He can come unstuck, can't he. Everyone said the Derby, the Derby. No way should he have gone to the Derby. It would have been too much for him. Whether he'd have won it, I just don't know."

When cancer and other disasters struck, there was no thought of packing in. "Not really, it's my way of life. I went through a stage when I got pretty depressed. I had a motor accident where I touched an elderly woman and broke her arm. They took me off the road for three and a half years. And I had a divorce. I was like a hermit. My twin brother was dying -- which was half of me, really. I went through a very bad stage. But I don't like being an also-ran. I've got children and a family. I hated everyone feeling sorry for me.

"I have chemotherapy every three months: maintenance. But I've got masses of energy. I'm enjoying very much again what I'm doing. I went through a stage when I struggled to be enthusiastic. Even when I had the strong chemotherapy I still got up and went on the Heath, even when I could barely walk.

"My advice is look at all the positive things in the day, ignore the bad things; the good will take over the bad and if you're feeling better in your mind you'll feel better in your body. I'm not cured or anything. But I eat well, sleep well. My advice to people with it is, if you're depressed your whole body will suffer. But if you feel good it's going to knock some of the nastiness out of the way. Maybe I'm kidding myself but that's what I do."

Aside from roses Cecil collects knights and miniature soldiers, the latter in honour of his grandfather, who was commander in chief of the Gordon Highlanders. Cecil himself picked up a knighthood this weekend in the Queen's birthday honours' list. This brings him level at last with Sir Michael Stoute.

"We've always been very competitive together. Then he moved in front, things deteriorated for me, I didn't have the horses, he was top of the list. I went down to 149th, I think. He hated me winning when we were fighting to see who was going to be champion trainer. We're great friends now. I don't know whether he likes me more because I'm not such a nuisance."

In town one day to visit the National Stud, the Queen came round for tea and inspected Cecil's miniatures. "Oh, look at those knights. You've got a lot of those," she said. Cecil told her: "The only one I haven't got is Michael Stoute."

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