Racing Post, Sunday October 9th
The strain is beginning to show, not on the horse but on the trainer and Henry Cecil would not have it any other way. “He’s in good form,” he says as Frankel coasts up Warren Hill, “but this week with the Sales and everybody around is completely nonstop. It’s impossible really, isn’t it?”
His lived in-face is showing all of its 68 years but then it has had a lot of living to do and anyway he is not the only one. A glimpse of Michael Stoute in the ever-latening dawn was to see the burden of juggling current training activity with imminent purchasing prospects and even the comparatively youthful William Haggas looks a rather drawn, sleep-deprived figure as he instructs his horses at the top of the Al Bahathri. The swan system is needed, calm on the surface, paddling hard underneath, Henry makes a bit of a black swan but the signs on Wednesday were that he is swirling as purposefully as ever even after an amazing 42 years on the training pond.
Of course this is a very different Cecil than the teasing, energised player who strode across Warren Hill to watch Frankel follow his half brother Bullet Train up the polytrack back in March. “Tomorrow will be the first time we move him away from his leader,” Henry had said then, “it’s a long season and we have to be careful but this horse could be exceptional don’t you think?” He has been careful, Frankel has run just 4 races in the subsequent 7 months but if anyone doubted the “exceptional” tag, they don’t now.
Back then the issue was still unresolved as to what would happen when the time bomb at the end of those stretching reins was finally detonated. The answer was that astonishing explosion that blew the 2,000 Guineas field apart at Newmarket and which soon put ideas of the Derby out of the question. Since then tactical worries after the scrambling, muddle paced win at Royal Ascot have been swept away by the superbly controlled front running triumph at Goodwood and a very real sense this week that the trainer believes that what he has already once, perhaps inadvertently, described as the best horse he has ever seen, is in better shape than ever.
“Oh yes, he’s a much better horse now,” says Henry in one of those rare moments when he takes a crushing authority out of the slightly uneven and often reticent rhythm of his conversation. “He’s relaxed, he’s getting stronger, he’s in really good order. Now that he is settled he can be with his leader (in this case his long serving lead horse Bullet Train) and then let him go two and a half furlongs from home. The main thing about Frankel is that he does quicken for a long way. From two furlongs down he will go right to the line and when he lengthens like that, other horses are not going to stay with him are they?”
The impact of such words are acknowledged with a dipped head smile by the young Italian Marco Botti whose Excelebration hustled up Frankel up for a moment at Newbury back in April and who on form should go closest next week at Ascot. “But we can talk as much as we like,” says the ever affable Teddy Grimthorpe who of course, as Khalid Abdullah’s racing manager, has quite a bit to be affable about, “in the end it is the racecourse which counts and you can never be sure.” No doubt the sight, only three days earlier, of Workforce way down amongst the stragglers in the Arc only three days was in his mind but back at Warren Place the vibrations came from a stronger drum.
Those closest to Frankel have already become too wise to either shout silly boasts to the sky or to pretend that keeping a sense of calm around what remains a highly volatile athlete does not have a sense of strain about it. “The great thing about him is that you can’t keep him away from his food,” says his groom, Sandeep Guavaram, with the smile which first found fame when he was champion apprentice in Hyderabad. “He’s relaxed and I think he is enjoying himself.”
Shane Fetherstonehaugh, whose duties as Frankel’s work rider are coupled with looking after the two star fillies Midday and Timepiece, is also very positive as what is officially the world’s best racehorse stalks back into the yard. “He seems very settled,” says Shane, “and he’s still developing. Just have a look at him.” Frankel is not the sort of horse you slap across the rib cage to emphasize his well being but following Shane’s eye down to the slab of muscle across the loins is to see an awesome sight. For any racing fan these private moments when you feast your eyes on greatness sear themselves into the memory. To have had the unbelievable luck down the years to gaze at champions as far apart as Mill Reef and Sea The Stars, that little cameo on Wednesday was very special.
We were still two days away from Frankel’s gallop on Friday when Tom Queally would angle himself slightly forward and Bullet Train would once again watch his brother rocket away when wanted, but the trainer was ticking over the routine like a clockmaker examining the swings of the pendulum. “We will work on Friday,” says Henry, “and then again on Tuesday and then fiddle him through to have him ready for Saturday. I think that should be right, don’t you?”
The pointlessness of posing the question doesn’t cloak the enormity of the responsibility as the countdown continues to the richest race day which Britain has ever staged and one in which, statistically at least, Cecil could make up the £1.3 million by which he trails Richard Hannon in the trainer’s table. To do that not only would Frankel have to do his stuff but Midday and Twice Over would have to be first and second in the Champion Stakes as well as Vita Nova collecting in the Fillies Champion and Mr Hannon failing to trouble the scorer. It would not, you would think, be a time for a trainer to entertain distractions. Welcome to sales week.
On the kitchen table is the catalogue, on the phone is an agent. Cecil takes the phone outside and returns five minutes later with the sort of message that would numb the minds of the unfamiliar. “I said I like the colt,” he says to his wife Jane about one of the lots on his typewritten, note-scrawled, short list, “but that I would not want to give silly money for him, not more than 200,000.” Heavy questions hang in the air as he returns to the catalogue and the foaming, freshly pressed fruit cocktail. Drop concentration now and the superstars of tomorrow slip through your fingers this very afternoon. “I have a few orders,” says Henry almost as if it was a surprise to get any, “not a lot but a few and we just have to hope for the best.”
For the observer the adjustment of focus between the immediate and the future and back again often leads you stranded in space. “How did she feel,” he asks suddenly switching his attention to George Bell who had been on Vita Nova. “I liked the way she kept her head down. After that hold up, (the mare had a set back a week ago) I will now work her on Saturday and again on Tuesday and that should put her right don’t you think? She is not a heavy thing is she?” The exchange has suddenly brought us back to the images of the morning and of the athletic tinkering needed to make race day in optimum condition. Then the phone goes again and it is Sales time. That’s if Henry can use the new mobile when he gets up to Tattersalls.
The gleaming little machine is passed around the table. It is on “lock” and after it has taken several attempts to solve that problem, secretary Claire Markham tries to coax her employer through the basics of receiving messages whilst Jane will be at the dentist and bloodstock expert Crispin de Moubray is beavering around other parts of the Sales ring on their behalf. Unique amongst trainers Cecil plies his trade across the Heath unencumbered by either binoculars or cellphones. It may even be part of its secret. But at that moment over breakfast it did not hold out enormous hopes for communication over the afternoon.
But first there are the two year olds out on second lot. In the first sortie Tom Queally has come over to ride the handsome Sir Robert Ogden owned Sir Thomas Chipperfield who is engaged this week. These are less immediate prospects although they include Frankel’s hooded full brother Noble Mission who has progressed enough to get a run before the season’s close and to try and so ease the burden of being so royally related. From the covered barn the string files its way down across the hill to reach the Al Bahathri where the trainer has taken up his usual position at the 6 furlong marker. Most trainers, including Michael Stoute, at this moment on Wednesday, position themselves further up to see the finish. As so often when queried, Cecil just shrugs at the question. “I like to see them join up,” he says.
Five batches of twos and threes come spinning past. Each time Cecil switches from apparently languid contemplation to rapt attention. There are no notes, no tape recorders, but it is very obvious that some sort of filing process is underway before we turn and walk back with feet scrunching on fallen beech nuts. As the horses regather there is another debriefing which to the outside ear seems little more than a version of the age old rejoinders of “All ok?” and “yes, guvnor.” But back in the car with Saint Saens’ “Danse Macabre” playing on Classic FM, there is a sudden shaft of training clarity.
“That third horse,” he says of one of the unraced hopefuls who had seemed to go at least as well as the others, “I like him but the way he sounds, he just might have a problem. It could clear as he gets fitter, but we will have to be careful and might have to do something.” As so often the statements are more a piece of mental note taking than in answer to any question and indeed it is inside that Cecil skull that the workings of Frankel and all the others are stored. “By now I know the ones I like,” he says of the two year olds without volunteering any names, “I don’t write them down but I have them in my head. We are not usually that far out.”
The big bullets are back in their boxes and as the trainer changes jeans and shoes and takes the new mobile off for its debut run at the sales, the senior members of the Warren Place team look ahead to Ascot. Then with that mix of confidence and concentration which both gives them belief in their job and determination to avoid the traps which await highly tuned athletes in any category. “Something can happen so easily,” says Mike Marshall, “it looks like Vita Nova is going to make it but somehow she banged herself in the box. It could have happened to anything.”
Mike was around Dubai Millennium when he was at Godolphin and Nashwan when he was with Dick Hern and while he does not put Twice Over and Midday into that category, he believes both have live chances in next week’s Champion. “Twice Over is about confidence,” he says, “when he didn’t want to be saddled or be loaded up at Ascot, I thought that the signs were bad. But after his two wins at York he has got all his confidence back and he could go really well on Saturday.”
But for all his tributes to Twice Over who, at £2.4m, remains the biggest purse winner in Cecil’s extraordinary training career, Marshall, like many others in the yard, can’t forget his admiration for Midday. “I just think she is better than Twice Over,” says Mike, “he can be very effective when he gets that long stride going but she has this tremendous acceleration. For all her success I don’t think people realize how good she is. I think she could win on Saturday.”
It should go without saying that he thinks Frankel will also but another day with his team only reminds you just how fine a line top stables run as they prime their superstars for the pinnacle. Whilst Sea The Stars was always a model of decorum on the racecourse except for his hollering at the world on his opening arrival, no one at John Oxx’s was ever in any doubt of the need to tread carefully around their hero with his massive “king of the herd” personality. With Frankel the explosions are nearer the surface and one day in the winter hit Jonathan “Stretch” Ormshaw full in the face.
“I was leading Dan De Haan out on him one icy morning,” remembers ‘Stretch’, “and he swung his head round and clocked me. Everybody said how well Dan did to sit on him but I was in hospital with five stitches and a cracked cheekbone.” Others smile at the memory and relate the ever present dangers when one kick in the stable can stymie a race if not a career. “But he has grown up a lot,” says head girl Dee Deacon with almost maternal pride, “I think boxing over to the watered gallop has been very good for him. We take care to keep him settled and work around him and I am sure he will be even better next year.”
Ah yes next year. Over at the Tattersalls the extraordinary human comedy of the first day of the Premier Yearling Sale is being played out. People meet and greet with eyes that restlessly scan for other activity. The players for the big teams huddle in little groups deep in concentration. By the collecting ring Cecil talks earnestly to a would be client. A couple of hours earlier the Niarchos team went to £700,000 for a Galileo half sister to Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Nightime who will be in training at Warren Place next season.
The clocks ticks on as it always will. But if a stable has to hang on to greatness it has to do more than chime every hour. It has also to sound across the biggest stage as Frankel must on Saturday.