Sergeant Cecil: slow burner who caught fire with amazing run into history books
Peter Thomas on the unlikely rise of a popular staying star trained in Devon
Published in the Racing Post on May 18, 2015
In an age where the quality of a racehorse is often measured by the number of zeros after its name in the sales ring or its proximity to the heart of the biggest bloodstock empires, a far-flung field in a quiet corner of Dorset wouldn't be the first port of call for an owner with designs on greatness.
Sergeant Cecil, however, was never a creature to whom the usual parameters applied. From Dorset sward to Devon stable to the winner's enclosures of Europe's swankiest racecourses was the meandering path he took to glory; but the most circuitous route of all was the one that led him to the hearts of an adoring racing public from beginnings so unpromising as to test the patience of a saint – let alone a racehorse trainer.
Bred by a septuagenarian West Country institution Don Hazzard, by a high-class but out-of-favour former Sheikh Mohammed-owned sprinter in King's Signet, out of a game but slow-maturing Sheikh Hamdan reject called Jadidh – who went on to ply her trade at a lowly level over hurdles – the hardy chestnut foal who was born on May 2, 1999 had neither fashion nor likelihood on his side.
In truth, he looked like a moderate middle-distance horse in the making but by the time he was retired as a gnarly nine-year-old with every badge of honour worn proudly on his sleeve, he could lay claim to being the most popular racehorse of his generation and a Group 1 winner to boot.
For all his unpromising beginnings, the youngster had one thing in his favour: he was cheap. Hazzard sold him – not to an oil-rich Arab but to a purveyor of office furniture from nearby Blandford Forum – for the princely sum of £1,000, with the promise of a productivity bonus of another £400 should he win two races for his new owner.
For some while, however, that £400 looked safe in the pocket of Terry Cooper, whose previous experience in the world of racehorse ownership had prepared him for ignominious failure. Sent from Neville Poole's Paradise Farm Stud, 20 miles from his birthplace, the youngster, by now gelded, made his way to the yard of Seamus Mullins, a short drive up the A303, to begin his new career armed with the name that would come to give his story the poignancy it required to capture the affections of the crowd.
Name Sergeant Cecil
Best of times An unprecedented handicap treble and a French Group 1
Worst of times The lung infection that effectively ended his glorious career
Did you know? Rod Millman's achievement of winning the three major staying handicaps of the season in 2005 was voted the 37th greatest training feat of all time by readers of the Racing Post. The first 36 must have been very good indeed
Cooper's father had died when the lad was nine years old, leaving his family to struggle on without even the money to mark the grave with a headstone. In his middle age, however, the by-now successful businessman could afford a fitting memorial to Sergeant Cecil Edward Cooper, veteran of two World Wars, and it came in equine form.
For some time, though, the horse struggled to live up his name. Mullins found him to be straightforward, but also weak and unremarkable. "When he was two, he never looked like a two-year-old," recalls the trainer. "I always had the feeling he'd be better as a three-year-old. Of course, when he was three, I looked at him and saw a potential four-year-old – at that stage of his life he was never quite there."
Mullins' patience was right for the horse but wrong for himself. Six runs into his career, in the June of his second season, with no better placing than sixth of eight in a Sandown handicap, 'Cecil' found himself on the move again. His new trainer, however, gave thanks for the unhurried education he had received.
"Seamus had given him a lovely grounding but the owner got impatient and his loss was my gain," says Rod Millman, from his base in the Devon village of Kentisbeare. "He'd had a few runs over shorter trips than he'd eventually want, the same as I would have given him, and he was ready for me to take him on to the next stage.
"He was a bit of a playboy when he arrived and I had five seconds before I won with him, but he was a wonderful battler and I've never had a horse who I could give so much work to and then have him come back for more."
Fourteen runs into his career, on May 27, 2003, Cecil finally got the hang of things. Millman had discovered that the horse required restraint from his rider to overcome the horse's natural keenness and Richard Hughes was the ideal man to conserve his energies for a thrust in the final furlong of 14, up the Sandown hill, earning Cooper his first-ever trophy and more than £5,000 into the bargain.
When Hughes was reunited with Cecil on July 4 over the same course and distance the result was the same, except the prize-money was almost £10,000. Cecil was by now going up the handicap for winning rather than consistently losing and Cooper was on cloud nine.
Millman wasn't entirely convinced, however. "He came to me well handicapped," he shrugs, "and when he went above 85 for that second win I remember thinking we were going to really struggle with him, but he won again off 86 at Ascot and then we found the real key to him was Alan Munro."
Munro was a classy and successful rider and martial arts enthusiast who had won a Derby in the dim and distant past on Generous before spending ten years in Hong Kong. His return coincided with Millman being a little short of work-riders for the new season, and a productive alliance was formed.
The new pilot spent three runs getting to know the stable star before the Sergeant Cecil dream took to the wing at Newcastle in the June of his six-year-old campaign, in the valuable and prestigious Northumberland Plate. It was a step into a different league for the horse, but the perfect tonic for Cooper and his family.
"Before the meeting I found a quiet corner," he remembers, "went off on my own and said a quiet prayer for Sue [his wife, who had been suffering from bone cancer]. Later on, Sue Davey [Cecil's groom] said to me, 'Do you know, Terry, I've never seen you so calm as you are today'. It was as if a soothing influence had come over me, because I'm usually a bit uptight at times like that before a race. It was a wonderful day."
Wonderful doesn't begin to do it justice. Munro rescued what he described as "a cock-up" at the start, getting trapped at the back of the field but going to plan B and patiently threading his way through the entire 20-strong field to pull a length and a half clear of Tungsten Strike.
"He was well handicapped going into the Pitmen's Derby and still improving," says the trainer, "but once a horse starts overtaking tired horses, their confidence builds and builds and a confident horse and a confident jockey are hard to beat."
It was no great surprise the nominated target should be the next holy grail for the top-class staying handicapper – the Ebor. One prep run at Goodwood and Cecil was ready for the kind of challenge he relished, in the hurly-burly of a big-field battle.
Cooper was brimful with nerves and excitement, of course, but he had other things on his mind as well. "Sue was in hospital having chemo," he says, "and I called her after the York race to say, 'The old bugger's only gone and done it again'. She was thrilled to bits and I think Cecil helped a lot all through that year."
Munro had by now found his way into the mind of Sergeant Cecil and the pair enjoyed a smooth, symbiotic passage through the Ebor. The horse, exuberant as ever, consented to be settled off the pace and ate up the challenge of passing fading rivals in the straight, weaving through the melee, taking charge in the final furlong and prevailing by a length from Carte Diamond.
The volume of Cooper's vocal urgings and the poignancy of the moment were matched only by the thrill of hatching the next plan for the horse who had already become the people's favourite. There were Group-race options, of course, but the team opted to be crowd pleasers and take in the last major staying handicap of the year, the Cesarewitch.
The double they had already completed was a rare one, the treble had never been achieved, but even off a mark of 104 and a weight of 9st 8lb, Cecil had to be a major player, especially after a career-best effort in narrow defeat behind St Leger winner Millenary in the Doncaster Cup.
Munro was at his finest at Newmarket and his mount at his most professional. The pair took up their customary position towards the rear, biding their time over the 2m2f trip before picking their way through the bar-room brawl of 33 rivals in serene fashion close to the inside rail, edging through one last gap to hunt down leader King Revo and charge clear.
"I went out on to the course and had a chat with Alan," recalls Cooper, "and all he could say to me was, 'We've made history, we've made history'. There'd be something wrong with you if you didn't feel proud with a horse like that. It may be different if you're a sheikh and you've got loads of good horses, but Terry Cooper doesn't have a load of good horses and for me it was out of this world."
Not so much out of this world, but at least in another country, was Cecil's next step into the public consciousness. After Newmarket, he plied his trade in Group company, creditably but without success. Munro had nursed him to the point where he was on the brink of a breakthrough at the highest level but events decreed he would have to make the leap with a new partner.
Munro suffered a convulsion on a flight to Deauville and was sidelined for a year by the racing authorities. Into the breach, to spectacular effect, stepped Frankie Dettori, but Millman remains in no doubt where the roots of Cecil's success lay.
"What he really liked was a fast pace but Group races are sometimes more tactical and it took him a while to get used to," explains the trainer. "The last time Alan rode him was in the Goodwood Cup and that's when it all clicked, because he was finishing best of all into fourth behind Yeats. I remember Paul Doe saying afterwards that he'd never had a horse go past him so fast in the last furlong and at that moment I could see light at the end of the tunnel."
That autumn, with Dettori settled in the plate and a pair of Group 2s already in the bag, Cecil headed for France, hotly pursued by Cooper, his wife and the rest of the crew in a light aircraft that was not the last word in airborne luxury. They were headed for Longchamp's Arc meeting and the Group 1 Prix du Cadran, and their bumpy journey would prove well worth the hardship.
"What a day that was, I can tell you," bubbles Cooper. "We flew from Bournemouth in an eight-seater twin-engine propeller plane, and when we landed we were alongside Aidan O'Brien in his Lear jet and all the other rich owners and trainers.
"Everybody looked after us really well, Frankie was brilliant, and the way he won, coming through so quickly in the final furlong, was a real thrill. It was difficult to believe – I'd only been to France once before, for a week's holiday in the Dordogne, and here we were drinking champagne after the best day of our lives."
"There were so many Brits there that it was like having the winner of the Grand National," says Millman.
"They all got behind him and luckily I'd had enough champagne after the race that I didn't notice the plane ride home."
Cecil won a Group 2 Yorkshire Cup the following spring under Jimmy Fortune but a disastrous run in the Ascot Gold Cup and a misguided foray into the King George, followed by a nasty lung infection, effectively put an end to his glorious career.
"He was never quite the same after that," says Millman. "The decision was made. I don't suppose I'll ever have another one like him but we'll keep looking."
Cecil ran his last race, eighth of eight in the Goodwood Cup on July 31, 2008, as a gallant but faded nine-year-old, and the racing world said farewell to a hardy warrior who had fought and won so many glorious battles.
He went to the National Stud and then the apprentice school but didn't settle. He enjoyed a spell leading two-year-olds for trainer William Knight and now enjoys a sprightly retirement with his owner back in Dorset.
"I look after him all the time and he's not much different at 16 to the way he was when he was three," says Cooper. "He's on his toes, full of himself, bucking and kicking but with no malice in him at all. He's a happy horse now and did more than I ever dreamed a horse would do for me."
'Never nasty but cheeky and cocksure'
Sergeant Cecil may have acquired the status of national treasure by the time he retired, but as a young horse he was more of a pain in the backside and tried the patience of those entrusted with his education at Seamus Mullins' yard.
Lou Griffin, his groom and exercise rider, explains: "He was very cheeky, never nasty, but very cocksure, very much the big I am.
"When he was out with the rest of the string he'd be nibbling away at the bushes at the roadside, so you'd pull his head away and he'd start chewing at the knee of whoever was riding alongside. Then he'd whip round at the bottom of the gallops and cause more fuss. He was always doing something you'd want to stop him doing.
"He liked to work but he liked to mess about as well. I used to ride him two weeks on and two weeks off with a chap called Danny Allen, because neither of us could face riding him all the time."
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