The death of Sir Henry Cecil on June 11th 2013 takes from us arguably the best and without question the most charismatic trainer British racing has seen. Irreplaceable is a strong word to use in any context but in the case of Henry Richard Amherst Cecil nothing could be more appropriate.
For the majority of trainers, the handling and training of the thoroughbred racehorse remains very much a case of scientific discipline and evolution. Not for Sir Henry. His conversation, when discussing his profession, was sprinkled with words like ‘instinct’ and ‘feel’. Not for him sectional timing or interval training. Just an eye for the horses he always called “friends.” Remember his reaction to the memorable second Champion Stakes success of Twice Over? No major eulogies about his or his horse’s ability – just a heartfelt “He’s one of my best friends.” And he meant it. Just like he meant it when saying “He’ll tell me when he’s ready to run,” when questioned about future plans for any stable inmate by the media who so loved interviewing him as they never knew what was coming next.
His death in the week preceding the Royal meeting placed a practically intolerable burden on his widow, Lady Jane, and all the staff at Warren Place, superbly led by assistant trainer Mike Marshall, as they attempted to put in place the immaculately-laid plans with a team Henry regarded as one of his best for many years at the showpiece of British Flat racing. The response was magnificent with prize money won by six of seven Cecil runners and in the most dignified manner imaginable.
Tiger Cliff would probably have won the Ascot Stakes but for being shuffled back early and arguably being ridden too conservatively with a view to getting the trip. His fast-closing second nevertheless signposted the possibility of further progression into Listed and Group company. Joyeuse, drawn on the ‘wrong’ side in the Albany, still came home late and fast to fill third spot and seems sure to improve considerably when upped in trip.
Disclaimer pulled away his chance in the Queens Vase, named in memory of Sir Henry, whilst Chigun was probably the main disappointment of the week after only finishing sixth in the Duke Of Cambridge. She remains a good filly though and there will be other days for her – and Disclaimer too. Noble Mission looked like winning the Hardwicke at one stage but flattened out in the closing stages as is his wont nowadays before finishing a respectable fourth.
However, it seemed entirely appropriate that it was in the 3-y-o fillies’ middle distance championship race, the Ribblesdale Stakes, that the desperately-desired Warren Place success arrived. Riposte had not set foot on a racecourse until this season but here she was, on the back of only a Newmarket maiden win, scything through her field and powering away to land another Royal success for Warren Place.
If there was one person whose dignity and bravery shone out over the five days it was Lady Jane Cecil. Her cracked voice told us of Riposte’s victory: “That was for Henry, for the Prince and for all the staff at Warren Place.” It was a wonderfully proud but heart-breaking moment. But nobody could have foretold the last horrible twist of fate to assail Team Cecil.
Thomas Chippendale, trained to the minute to land a second successive triumph at the Royal meeting when taking the Hardwicke Stakes, collapsed and died within seconds of passing the post. Life is never fair but the gods had chosen to inflict further pain upon Warren Place. Yet once again the response from Lady Jane and the grief-stricken groom who looked after Thomas for Sir Robert Ogden, struck the perfect chord. Triumph and resilience in spades in the face of adversity.
The future of Warren Place appears unclear. Much may depend upon the continued patronage of Prince Khalid Abdullah, the man and friend who continued to support Henry through the deep gloom of his fall from the heights of the training profession and personal unhappiness before the Light Shift (owned by the other steadfast stable supporter, the Niarchos Family) and Frankel -inspired resurrection. The Prince has stated his racing interests are to be significantly reduced. The impact of that decision seems sure to play a major role in determining the future of Warren Place, allied, of course, to whether Lady Jane, without whom Henry openly admits he would not have survived the difficult years, wishes to bear the training mantle in years to come.
Whatever decisions are taken, everyone knows that things can never be the same again. In our current culture, the words ‘legend’ and ‘genius’ are used with annoying flippancy.
In the case of Sir Henry Cecil they are the perfect description of a special and uniquely-talented man and trainer of the thoroughbred racehorse.