IF THERE can be said to be a perk to this job, it is that sometimes you get to meet your heroes, and indeed I have met and enjoyed the company of Lester Piggott, Frankie Dettori, the Benign Bishop Ken Oliver, and many more, not to mention having had the privilege of seeing and writing about equine greats such as Istabraq, New Approach, Sea The Stars, the nonpareil Frankel and my favourite horse of all time, Rock of Gibraltar.
I have written obituaries and appreciations of many great figures of the Turf, but no death has affected me quite so much as the passing of Henry Cecil.
For some unfathomable reason, having had precisely two one-to-one interviews and maybe half a dozen private conversations in the past 17 years since I first became a racing correspondent, I felt I had lost a friend, as well as a personal hero.
So did many people – even those who had never met him and whose sole connection was that his horses carried their betting money, grieved for Henry
Henry Cecil was the punter’s champion. You knew, you always knew, that his horses were trying to win and, for all his public school airs, smart clothes – he listed shopping as one of his hobbies – and undoubted aristocratic lineage, he was the toff with the common touch, able to speak to commoners and monarchs whatever their status in the Sport of Kings.
His is one of the greatest of all sporting stories, because far from being a constant success, Cecil knew the depths of despair, especially in the first years of the 21st century when the owners left and the winners dried up – he saddled just 12 in 2005.
It was while he was deep in the doldrums in 2002 that I was able to secure a very rare exclusive interview with Cecil at his Warren Place base.
At the time, he was virtually a recluse, as a long drink-related driving ban, the death of his beloved twin brother David and his messy personal life combined to drive him into his home and stunning garden, his other pride and joy.
I was frankly amazed at how proud of his Scottish lineage he was, and he showed me the flag of his mother’s family displaying the Horn of Leys, the badge of office given to the Burnett family by King Robert the Bruce in 1324.
To end the resulting piece, I wrote: “A truism in racing is that form is temporary, but class is permanent, and if Henry Cecil is anything, he is a class act. The Horn of Leys flag will fly over Warren Place again for, like any good Scot, Cecil will never give in. Never.”
I am so glad I wrote those words. He did not give in, he came back, and trained Frankel – the best racehorse of all time. What a parting shot for a life and career that will never be matched.
So he is gone, but life, and racing, must go on and, even although its lustre will be dimmed in this coming week, Royal Ascot will still be the greatest race meeting in the world.
The surprise decision by trainer Jim Bolger to let 2,000 Guineas champion Dawn Approach take his place in the St James’s Palace stakes makes the one-mile event on Tuesday the highlight of the meeting.
With Aidan O’Brien’s Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Magician a doubt with a bruised foot – his participation or lack of it will be announced today – Bolger’s decision looks very well timed. Dawn Approach hated Epsom and flopped in the Derby, but he will get back to winning ways at Ascot.
Tuesday also sees Scottish trainer Jim Goldie’s audacious attempt to win the Group One King’s Stand Stakes. It’s a huge step up in class for Doncaster’s Listed Cammidge Trophy winner, but Goldie is adamant he has a chance.
Goldie said: “He is improving all the time and has won at Ascot, admittedly over seven furlongs, and he won the Cammidge easily. A bit of cut in the ground and I think he would have a huge chance.”
Goldie will become the first Scottish-based trainer ever to contest two Group 1 races at the same meeting when Hawkeyethenoo goes in Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
“He was particularly unlucky in the Duke of York stakes,” said Goldie, “so if he gets luck in running he should run a big race.”
Lady Jane Cecil has taken over the licence at Warren Place, and will no doubt carry out her late husband’s plans for their entrants in several races and, with the Queen’s Vase named in his memory, it would be wonderful if she could win that.
The master trainer will not be there but, if the Cecil name is emblazoned on the cloth of any winner, expect highly emotional scenes and Lady Jane to fly the Horn of Leys over Warren Place once again.