Obituary: Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, racehorse trainer

Sir Henry Cecil. Picture: PA
Sir Henry Cecil. Picture: PA
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Born: 11 January, 1943, in Aberdeen. Died: 11 June, 2013, in Cambridge, aged 70

The death of Henry Cecil, Britain’s greatest racehorse trainer of the past five decades, was expected due to his long battle against stomach cancer, but nevertheless came as a shock to many, not least because Cecil had made a habit of overcoming the odds. Indeed, his career contains one of the greatest of all sporting comebacks, rising from the depths of despair to be crowned with an extraordinary late flourish in the shape of the unforgettable champion Frankel.

It is not the least of the ironies in Henry Cecil’s life that he was often thought of as the quintessential Englishman when in fact he was born a Scot and was very proud of his Scottish ancestry.

So much so, that every time one of his horses won a group one race – the highest level in racing – he would fly a flag bearing the Horn of Leys symbol above the famous Warren Place stables at Newmarket where Scots were always plentiful among the employees.

It was Cecil’s way of acknowledging and honouring the Scottish side of his family, the Burnetts of Leys, who had originally been presented with the Horn as a symbol of office by no less a personage than King Robert the Bruce.

In the 1320s, the warrior king also gave his supporter, the original Alexander Burnard, a vast tract of land centred on Crathes Castle, and it was there that Cecil spent many happy days in his childhood.

His mother, the society beauty Elizabeth Rohays Mary Burnett, the daughter of the Major-General Sir James Burnett, 13th Baronet Burnett of Leys, CB, CMG, DSO, gave birth to Henry and his twin brother David on 11 January, 1943, a little more than a month after their father, Lieutenant Henry Kerr Auchmuty Cecil, was killed in action with the Parachute Regiment in North Africa.

The twins’ grandfather, Lt Cecil’s father William, of the family of the Marquess of Exeter and the son of Baroness Amherst, was also killed in action in the first battle of Aisne in 1914.

After his mother married King George VI’s racehorse trainer Captain Sir Charles Boyd-Rochfort in 1944, she took Henry and David, his younger brother by ten minutes, plus their older siblings John and James – known as Jamie, who changed his name to Burnett and is now clan chief – to live at the Boyd-Rochfort stables, Freemason Lodge, in Newmarket.

Cecil’s step-brother Arthur arrived to complete what was by all accounts a happy family.

They very much kept in touch with their Scottish connections, Henry recalling how on the long trip north to Crathes they would eagerly await the train’s crossing of the Forth Bridge, from which “lucky” coins were despatched into the Firth.

Henry and David attended Sunningdale Prep School where sporting success eluded him at first – he was the goalkeeper in the school’s first XI in 1956 which lost their first match 10-0 and eventually conceded 63 goals in 13 losses.

As he occasionally recalled, he and his brother both flunked the entrance exam for Eton – deliberately so, he once hinted – and instead they attended Canford School in Dorset.

The fact that he gained nine O levels suggest that Cecil’s account of the Eton “failure” is probably true, and he and David later studied at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.

Neither twin loved horses from the outset, but in their teens they saw the career possibilities and indeed David had a short-lived training stint before becoming a landlord and noted cook.

Henry’s natural horsemanship saw him appointed assistant to his stepfather in his early twenties, after spending years riding out from Freemason Lodge onto Newmarket’s famed gallops. When “the Captain”, as the austere but fatherly trainer was known to everyone in racing, eventually retired in 1968, Cecil assumed a licence on his own account at the Lodge, and the following year he sent out his first winner, Celestial Cloud, at Ripon on 17 May. Wolver Hollow promptly won the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown less than two months later and owners suddenly began to take note of the ever-charming but hugely competitive trainer with the deceptively languid air and fashionable dress – he was a noted connoisseur of Gucci shoes.

He had earlier married Julie, the daughter of nine-times champion trainer Sir Noel Murless, in 1966. The couple began at the rented Marriott Stables in Newmarket from where Cecil sent out his first Classic winner, Bolkonski, in the 2,000 Guineas of 1975.

Success began to flow for Cecil, especially after he took over the mighty Warren Place stables on the retirement of Noel Murless in 1976, the year in which Cecil won the first of his ten championships and also saw him train his first “great” in the shape of the fabulous miler Wollow, winner of the 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse and Sussex Stakes.

A far greater contribution to his success came with the link-up with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai and his family, for whom he trained the brilliant filly Oh So Sharp, who in 1985 was the last horse to win the side’s Triple Crown of 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger.

The “greats” were numerous – Ardross, Kris, Reference Point, Slip Anchor, Indian Skimmer, Twice Over, King’s Theatre, Le Moss, Old Vic, Bosra Sham and Oath – and helped him to 25 British Classics, ten trainers’ championships, a record 75 successes at Royal Ascot, and enduring popularity with punters.

He even won the only Classic ever staged in his home country with Michelozzo at Ayr, transferred from Doncaster in 1989. This writer was once informed by Cecil about the secret of successful training in the unlikely surroundings of the gents toilet at Epsom racecourse. “It’s the horses, you see, it’s all about the horses,” said Cecil, disingenuous as ever because no matter how fine the equine specimen, it takes a trainer of genius to keep winning year after year with different horses.

He also had many fine jockeys regularly ride for him, including Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen, Kieren Fallon and fellow Scotsman Richard Quinn.

Cecil’s career spiralled downwards quite quickly in the early years of this century and from nearly 200 horses he was reduced to fewer than 50. Apart from the loss of several long-standing owners and supporters such as Sheikh Mohammed, who set up his own Godolphin operation, his personal problems included a drink driving conviction and the long illness of his twin brother.

David Cecil’s addiction to alcohol pained Henry considerably, and his death from cancer in 2000 devastated him. After a very public and fractious split from Julie, he married Natalie Payne, and her affair with an unnamed jockey was followed by the immediate loss of the mercurial Fallon from the post of stable jockey.

It was these very public and very messy matters which probably delayed the award of a knighthood to Cecil, who certainly deserved that accolade long before it was finally bestowed on him in the Queen’s Birthday honours of 2011.

By then, the racing world already knew that Cecil was training an absolute superstar in Frankel, arguably the greatest racehorse of all time. Cecil’s amazing comeback had begun with the victory of Light Shift in the 2007 Oaks, but Frankel, owned by loyal Cecil supporter Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, was simply “the best horse I’ve ever seen, never mind trained”, as Cecil put it.

Already laid low by his cancer, Cecil was able to see Frankel run up his unforgettable sequence of 14 wins out of 14 races, including an astonishing performance in the 2,000 Guineas of 2010.

Indeed, if he had only ever trained Frankel, Cecil would be a racing legend, and at least he lived long enough to train one last champion.

He is survived by his wife Jane; a son, Noel, and daughter, Katie, from his first marriage; and a son, Jake, from his second.

The Horn of Leys will not fly above Newmarket any more, as the master of Warren Place has departed this life.

His personality and astonishing achievements, however, will soar in the memory for as long as horses race.