A legend, champion, genius and gentleman
Passing of much-loved all-time great Cecil leaves racing world united in grief
I shed a tear this week for a man I never knew. That was Henry Cecil and such was his effect. When news of his passing broke on Tuesday morning my mind was cast to the parade ring at Cheltenham in March 2010. The great man was a guest of honour on the occasion of the Festival's first charity race. His post-race words of encouragement to me and the other participants is a memory I cherish dearly.
Cecil's time was precious, demands upon him great but his company so easy. I lived my dream riding in a race at the Cheltenham Festival and I knew I was privileged. And while time can have a terrible effect on treasured memories, my moment and the words spoken with the day's guest of honour are as clear as yesterday.
He was the subject of my first column in the Irish Independent last October and in eight months how everything has changed. Cecil was a hero. He was a legend, a champion, a genius and a gentleman. He was a man that oozed class. For him it was effortless.
His passing leaves a void no one will ever fill. How fitting he should live at the top of Warren Hill looking out across Newmarket, for colleagues and punters alike spent endless time looking up to the one that reigned supreme.
As long as the thoroughbred is raced they will speak of his brilliance and marvel at his achievements. Seventy years he walked this earth to leave a legacy that will know no boundaries.
When the end came we all hoped it wasn't so. His battle with stomach cancer had been well publicised and the scars of the battle all too evident in some of Cecil's more recent public appearances. But still we all hoped, for you dare not believe someone so loved could be no more. And Cecil was loved. Those who knew him all have their own unique reasons. For many of my generation it will be about Frankel.
The horse of our lifetime, the horse of Cecil's lifetime. The trainer believed Frankel was the best he'd ever seen. Fourteen times Frankel went to post and he retired unbeaten. Cecil's handling of the colt was a masterclass from beginning to end. He ensured Frankel's potential was fulfilled and gave the racing public a rare opportunity to feel such extreme emotion for a racehorse. For that I will be eternally grateful. When Frankel left Warren Place for stud duties it was probably the beginning of the end.
Cecil's passing leaves many people hurting. His admirers were spread far and wide as the racing public cherished Cecil like no trainer before. People rejoiced in recent years when he emerged from the doldrums to overcome personal and professional crises. Aside from his ability to harness a horse's talent, Cecil always carried himself with great class, happy to extend sincere courtesy to every man, woman and child regardless of their background.
In an industry where individuals can be aloof and full of self-importance, people recognised Cecil's decency. They were traits to distinguish the man. Cecil never got lost in his own achievements; he never forgot he was training horses to run around a field.
For all his celebrated greatness and accolades, neither his humility nor his humbleness ever diminished his aura and his sense of fun brightened many a person's day. He was a good man before he was ever a great trainer. This time the good guy got a happy ending as his career finished on the highest possible note with Frankel.
In the mid-noughties few could have predicted such a glorious final chapter. His career reach its lowest point in 2005, when Cecil trained just a dozen winners and his yard contained a mere 50 horses. The support of owner-breeders, which had long been a crucial ingredient for phenomenal success at Warren Place, had diminished as some passed away while others took their horses elsewhere. When you consider he had been champion trainer nine times previously, with top-class winners on the biggest stages a regular occurrence, this was a remarkable dip in fortunes.
In 2006, his problems got considerably worse as he was diagnosed with cancer, a disease to which he had lost his twin brother David six years previous. He struggled with his brother's passing and, having endured two very public marriage breakdowns, these were terribly dark days for Cecil.
Admirably, through all the strife, Cecil kept his counsel. There was never a word ushered against owners who removed horses, jockeys who were accused of wrong-doings or people who shared his personal heartache. Even at such a low ebb the man never betrayed his principles.
With the support of his great ally Prince Khalid Abdulla, Cecil rose from the depths to show the world his instinctive natural ability with a racehorse was equalled by a fierce determination to succeed. It terrified the man that others would regard him as a failure.
In 2009, Abdulla's loyalty was handsomely repaid, as the lost glory years were rediscovered with Group One race success for Midday and Twice Over before Frankel followed. Cecil's career by numbers has been well documented this week, figures that remain splendid regardless of how often they are viewed. He saddled 75 winners at Royal Ascot alone, more than any trainer in the history of the sport. Next week's meeting will be greatly diminished by his absence.
It is regretful a great man should be taken after overcoming such a trying time and appearing to have found contentment in his life. With his third wife Jane, he resembled a man having found a true perspective, a sense of peace. It seemed to me he had discovered what was important in life. In his dignified, courageous fight against cancer we all saw the man that was Henry Cecil.
Racing and its people were blessed with good fortune when Cecil stumbled into his chosen career. He enriched lives. He was special and if he knew it he never showed it.
His patient nurturing of an illustrious list of equine superstars helped many to discover their passion for racing. He was a punter's friend, insistent on always running his horses on their merits.
In the racing game it is a rarity for punters to be so unanimous in their praise for a trainer or jockey. Then again, there has never been anyone like Henry Cecil. He was different.
Those that grew up in the era when Lester Piggott and Steve Cauthen rode for Cecil have seen a light from their past extinguished last Tuesday. Good days don't seem so memorable when the man that helped make them is no more.
As someone who fell for Cecil's charms in more recent times, I'm just glad he found a way to go out on top. It was fate Frankel came his way, two superstars taking care of one another as they took steps into history.
Remarkable days and an ending Cecil's talent deserved. One of the great things about the racing game is the fact there is always tomorrow, always another race. Without Cecil in the game, tomorrow will never be the same. Trainers will always be but never will we see another Henry Cecil.
As his jockey Tom Queally said this week: "They don't make people like him anymore. He was a brilliant, brilliant trainer and a great man".
The very best.