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'The public have always been fantastic to me and I really don't know why'

Remembering trainer Sir Henry Cecil on the eighth anniversary of his death

Newmarket legend Sir Henry Cecil: by popular acclaim the racing public's favourite trainer
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This interview was first published in the Racing Post on June 17, 2012

Newmarket doesn't do hills, just the one really – Warren by name. And at the top of it stands a single training establishment, Warren Place, home and place of work for Sir Henry Cecil, by popular acclaim the racing public's favourite trainer.

And when things are going well and the Group-race winners are rattling home along railway lines, being on top of the hill is the right and proper place to be and time was when Cecil was lord of all he surveyed. Warren Place was indeed a bed of roses, in more ways than one.

And then out of a seemingly cloudless sky, aided and abetted by illness and personal tragedy, it all went horribly askew. Cecil's wasn't a fall from grace but it was a vertiginous plummet from pre-eminence. Suddenly a racing superpower shrank to a tinpot third-world state and between July 2000 and October 2006 a yard that used to hammer home big-race wins like rivets could not muster a single Group 1. 

Cecil says: "Life is about highs and lows and my lows lasted six or seven years. I went from 200 horses to little over 30 and none of them was ever going to take me to Ascot.

"Out on the Heath there were trainers saying 'that's Henry Cecil over there – should have retired years ago'."

And there were plenty who thought Henry had somehow boarded a train bound, if not for oblivion, then for the outer peripheries of insignificance. But beneath Cecil's dandified exterior is a foreign legionary's toughness and a fighting cock's instinct for survival. When, in that trademark physical gesture, he hangs his head to one side you have to remember that his neck sits atop a spine of steel.

Sir Henry Cecil: "Life is about highs and lows and my lows lasted six or seven years"

He appears to have reached an armed truce with cancer, some sort of hard-fought equilibrium. But the death in 2000 of his twin brother David is a hurt that can never be truly healed. The old adage "there is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse" would be true only if the world held no twins. When the heart of one beats, the other's thuds on the off-beat and when one dies the surviving half can never be completely whole again. 

Cecil recalls: "It was at about my lowest point that Jane came into my life and I could never overstate what she has done. And of course I have children and they all needed me not to be a pathetic wreck.

"It got so bad that I was dragging myself out of bed in the morning. I was never not working, but the horses I was training were hardly inspirational. My PR skills were useless and, frankly, I didn't really want to be seen.

"When things are going well year after year you take things for granted. You get complacent and expect another good season by right, then suddenly you take a look and find you are 178th on the trainers' list.

"I am not clever and anyone will tell you I have no common sense, but I have always had a certain amount of pride."

And did he realise during those stagnant days adrift in the doldrums that beyond the walls of Warren Place there was a racing public aching for him to be back in the big time?

He pauses for thought and says: "The public's reaction when I started to be successful again was very moving and it still is. They have always been so fantastic to me and I really don't know why."

As a rule, the public can get a look round Warren Place and its famous garden when Cecil stages his annual opening day in aid of charity but this year, with all the buzz surrounding Frankel, an invasion of around 3,000 people would have raised complex security issues.

Cecil's garden is very special, although he pooh-poohs the popular notion that he is some guru of the rose-growing world.

"I buy roses and appreciate them but that doesn't make me an expert," he says – just as someone who enjoys a plate of the finest roast beef is not an authority on cattle.

But he is rightly proud of Warren Place's immaculate surroundings which contain some genuine rarities, including the famous Mummy's Peas which are descended from peas discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen and a Wollemi Pine, one of the world's oldest and rarest varieties of tree discovered only in 1994.

How Cecil managed to get his horticultural hands on a Wollemi pine is slightly mysterious but, somewhere along the line, it appears to involve a certain "Alan Titmarsh" – as when Cecil mentions the gardener and broadcaster the "ch" is notable for being silent.

Training great Sir Henry Cecil in the gardens at Warren Place in Newmarket in June 2010

You can contrast that silence with the roar that will greet Frankel at Ascot on Tuesday if he can send the royal meeting stratospheric by winning the opening Queen Anne Stakes.

Ever since Frankel stormed home on his seasonal return in the Lockinge, Cecil has not been short of advice on his horse's future programme which, according to some, should range from the July Cup to the Breeders' Cup taking in every trip along the way plus igniting the flame at the Olympic opening ceremony.

Cecil is too sage to sigh but he chooses his words with care and says: "Frankel is quite a complicated person and I have got to know him very well. With this horse it has always been about doing what is best for him and I have peace of mind about the way he has been trained.

"He used to pull very hard – always trying to do too much – and it has taken a long time to get him to relax. Early on in his career we had never had a young horse who took so much out of himself but was still able to finish his races.

"In his pedigree, while you have Sadler's Wells up top, there is a lot of fast blood down below. The fast blood is the weaker blood, but it is still fast.

"I am looking forward to running him over a mile and a quarter, but I don't want to do it at Eclipse time and that is one of the reasons we will go to York. I know it is an extra half-furlong, but Sandown is a much stiffer track."

Cecil on Frankel: "He is quite a complicated person and I have got to know him very well"

And then Henry, slightly exasperated and as if to scratch a slightly annoying itch, adds: "People keep banging on and asking why we run him in races against against inferior opposition?

"There are several answers including the fact that any race you run a horse in you want to win. And you would be mad to say you were not going to run in a particular Group 1 race because it is too easy. And it is not my fault – or Frankel's – that other horses are inferior.

"I would say Camelot is a good horse although it is possible that the opposition among three-year-old colts is not particularly strong. Wouldn't it be lovely to see Frankel and Camelot race against each other, although it looks as if Camelot's programme has already been worked out, doesn't it?"

And looking back, was there a particular moment when, to Cecil's long-practised eye, Frankel suddenly soared? He replies: "I suppose the first time he confirmed in public that he could be anything was in the Royal Lodge at Ascot – it was the way he went round the outside and took them on the bend. The others were completely dead by the time they came around the corner and he won by ten lengths. It was significant for no other reason than we have all seen a lot of morning glories."

Frankel and his trainer Sir Henry Cecil, pictured here in June 2012, shared a special bond

It was after that performance that Channel 4's Jim McGrath, one of the outstanding judges of his generation, walked off the stands with the simple comment: "That is the best two-year-old I have ever seen."

And now Henry has his favourite stamping ground in his sights – the royal meeting. He says: "I am looking forward to next week, but Ascot is not an easy course.

"It could be that Frankel will prove better over a mile and a quarter. He does most of his work over about seven and a half furlongs but I might work him over further – say nine furlongs – just to convince myself, although I have watched him so bloody much I really ought to know by now!

"He does his work with Bullet Train, but he isn't competition – he is just a lead horse so occasionally I drop another one in as well.

"Looking further ahead, we now have British Champions Day and we have to build on that – we need to support it. There is talk of the Breeders' Cup, but do I really want to race him on dirt? I have two priorities, the horse and Prince Khalid and their best interests are the same."

The late Prince Khalid Abdullah and Sir Henry Cecil with Frankel after the 2,000 Guineas

Depending how Frankel fares in his owner's Juddmonte International at York, Cecil will have the choice of another Queen Elizabeth II Stakes or the Champion Stakes itself at Ascot in October. Watching Frankel you are convinced he would have the speed to win a July Cup, but Cecil has spent endless hours teaching the horse to burn his fuse slowly, so why suddenly give him a hair trigger again simply for the sake of showing off for a little over a minute?

Frankel is all about power and with power comes responsibility. How, after Frankel's unforgettable blitz in the 2,000 Guineas, he was ever made amenable to restraint again is both a mystery and a testament to Cecil's ability to get inside a horse's head.

And it is abundantly clear that a strong bond has developed between Cecil and Khalid Abdullah, whose loyalty to his trainer never waivered through those years when the wolves howled at the gate of Warren Place. Henry says: "The Prince has been a very good friend to me and helped me on so many occasions – it was he who sent me off to the Mayo Clinic in America when I was ill.

"He is quiet and generous-spirited, but he doesn't suffer fools, so goodness only knows why he suffers me. I think everyone knows that I adore Twice Over, who is now in his sixth season here. He has made me appreciate how dreadful it must be for jumps people when something happens to a horse they have had for years – it must be heartbreaking.

Khalid Abdullah, legendary owner-breeder of Frankel, dies aged 83

"I get the feeling that the Prince may have received a good offer for Twice Over during the winter, but he knew there would be a tear in my eye if I saw him leave and one day he rang Teddy Grimthorpe and told him that Twice Over would stay in training. That says a great deal about the man.

"And of course I get attached to horses. Old Ajaan has been here forever and although he is only a handicapper he has become special – he is a Niarchos horse and Maria Niarchos is someone who has been incredibly loyal to me.

"But Juddmonte has been a lovely organisation to work for and that comes from the top. As long as the Prince has horses I will go on training and continue to do my best for him. But if for some unforeseeable reason he ever stopped owning horses, I don't think I would want to be training any more."

Cecil and I end our meeting with a tour of the garden, partly because he wants to show it off in the best sense of the word but also because, outdoors, he can sneak a cigarette.

The day Sir Henry Cecil moved out of the darkness and into the light

At 69 and having passed through a fire or two, the ludicrous glamour of his youth now has a bit of mileage on it, but like some vintage Bentley Continental he remains a thing of impeccable style. Henry loves quality above everything – be it in horses, clothes, gardens or people.

Many years ago, when he set new records, seemed invincible and carried the world of the Flat before him, his success seemed almost effortless, although nothing of that order of magnitude is ever built without a deal of graft underpinning the genius.

And of course Warren Place is his fiefdom from where his flag flew after those innumerable Group 1s. Then for a grim count of seasons it all went to ashes and the house on the hill must have become his prison.

Nothing is more remarkable about this complex, flawed and fabulously talented horseman than that he nailed the lie inherent in that horrible old cynic's adage "They never come back."

And if you can't warm to his triumph second time round there is something wrong with you.

Two days after this interview was published, Frankel won the Queen Anne Stakes by 11 lengths and fulfilled Sir Henry Cecil's plans for him with an imperious success in the Juddmonte International before signing off his 14-race unbeaten career in the Qipco Champion Stakes.

Read more RP Classics:

Sir Henry Cecil: on the anniversary of his death we recall the legendary trainer

Frankel: Alastair Down on the emergence of a genuine superstar in the Guineas

Lester Piggott Q&A: the 11-time champion jockey stars in a brilliant interview

Barry Hills: never bet odds-on, never go each-way and don't be scared of a price

Kieren Fallon: I never got a buzz out of riding; I saw it as part of my job

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The others were completely dead by the time they came round the corner and he won by ten lengths

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Sir Henry Cecil
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