Frankel is not an elephant but he’s always in the room. For even as we hurried off to help Aideen Marshall feed the fillies’ yard in the moonlit dark of Warren Place at 4-30 on Wednesday, the biggest thought was whether all would be well when Chris Russell pulled the door in Frankel’s box across the paddock.
It was. This year it always has been. Frankel’s appetite is one of his key ingredients but so too – even from those first muffled greetings under the clear harvest moon – is the whole rhythm of life that beats through the Cecil yard as it closes on the great Champions Day showdown at Ascot just four weeks over the horizon. There are over 120 horses at Warren Place and more than 50 people would be present (and 16 absent) for the team photo we were organizing later. Facts are that some team members, whether four legged or two, are definitely more equal than others yet everyone’s effectiveness is imperilled if there is not involvement from the very bottom. And on Wednesday that started with the cats.
Tabby and Tiny are a long way short of their colleague Felix when it come to mice let alone rat-catching but Aideen, wife of assistant trainer Mike Marshall, cannot start the early morning duties she shares with Chris Russell, Dee Deacon and Peter Emerson, until the moggies have been fed. “Today’s runners first,” says Aideen once, cats pacified, we lug the food trolley out into the moonlight. About 8 boxes along she stops and puts a head collar on the rather opinionated incumbent so it will walk to the manger rather than step out of the door.
This is Principal Role, a talented if slightly quirky performer who needs to win Yarmouth’s big race this afternoon to maintain her exalted stabling right next to the Breeders Cup heroine Midday and two away from the yard’s other Group One filly Timepiece. We move the trolley through the dark to what looks like an aircraft hangar but turns out to be the Oh So Sharp Barn named after Cecil’s Triple Crown winner of 1985. “I love feeding the fillies,” says Aideen sensing the atmosphere of skittish feminine welcome so different from the horny snorting you get as a bunch of colts demand their breakfast.
The two runners who are to be fed first, the light and leggy three year olds Asterism and Chabada, are the one pair who turn their noses up at the bowl of specially bruised oats with its handful of chaff and lovely juicy carrot which all the others so enjoy. Both fillies petulantly spurn Aideen’s offering and resume chattering to themselves through the partition for all the world like two anorexic, overbred girls at private school. Aideen can only compare not condemn as she moves to worthier recipients. “She’s pretty good,” she says of Midday as the £2million winner accepts her feed with aplomb if not gratitude, “but she likes her own space. You would not want to push her too far.”
Of these equine insights, including the observation “thorough madam” about one inmate whose name we will withhold, are the privileges of the early morning as is the sight at ten to five of the trainer himself wandering through the darkness. As always he is a figure of languid, slightly rumpled chic with a mixture of quizzical interest and aloof pensiveness as he restlessly looks at lists, talks to staff, studies horses and indulges in a monologue of rhetorical musings which it seems best not to interrupt.
“With 16 people away there’s hardly any point in the photo, is there?” he says. “We worked the horses yesterday so they will be doing just one canter this morning, it’s easy to overdo it, isn’t it?” He is 68 now and having taken over Warren Place from his father in law Noel Murless in 1977, has been padding round these boxes ever since, summer or winter, clear or damp, healthy or sick. Watching him so evidently enlivened by the environment makes it still scarcely credible that only 6 years ago the stable had shrunk to a mere 12 winner season and that this is the first year since the lean days that the whole of Warren Place has been filled with Cecil horses without the need for a supportive tenant.
But he doesn’t like to dwell in the past, he is fuelled by planning the future. “The paper makes So You Think 6/4 for the new Champion Stakes,” he says, “ours (Twice Over and Midday) are third and fourth favourite. We (Frankel) are 3-1 on for the Queen Elisabeth and the other mare (Vita Nova) is third favourite for the Fillies race. It’s difficult but they should run well shouldn’t they?” Back in March there was something slightly shocking in the way his self deprecating modesty switched to high vaunting ambition stating “we were 4th last year but we could have been third. We could do it this time. Don’t you think?” He’s 4th again at the moment but close enough for a glory day at Ascot to wrest him back a championship he has ten times made his own. As the target looms closer he will say it less but those around him know that it’s the desire that drives him.
“He involves everyone. That’s what is so special about him,” says Dee Deacon as she mixes the afternoon and evening feeds. “This is his life and he is still so driven that it keeps him going and all of us too.” Having been at Warren Place for 14 years and a head girl for the last three, Dee has seen the good times and the bad. “With all he was going through,” she says of the toxic mix of personal and health problems which so nearly brought Cecil down, “you couldn’t imagine how he would manage but he never missed a morning however bad he looked. Sometimes we have had to hide our feelings to keep him strong and while he watches over us we watch over him too. It’s deeper than a normal work relationship, it works both ways.”
Dee is mixing what seems to be a standard food bowl. She stirs a handful of molasses sweetened chaff into the plastic tub of golden Canadian corn whose husks have been slightly bruised by the crushing machine to aid equine digestion. There is boiled bran and electrolytes to add along with the usual vitamin, calcium and joint supplements that equine athletes take. It doesn’t seem any different to the rows of others until you notice the quantity and then check the name on the wooden tag. This is Frankel’s evening feed and, surprise, surprise, he eats more than all the others.
“Yes he just loves his food,” says Dee. “Like the others he will have a bowl first thing and a couple of bowls at dinner time, but for the evening feed he will take three good bowls of this Canadian corn. No other horse eats as much as that but nothing fazes him. I remember when he came back after winning the Guineas he was already hollering for his food. It’s obviously part of his secret.”
Quite what makes a champion is the oldest but most renewable topic in any sport. Asking how Frankel compares with the Warren Place champions of the past is like querying senior Old Trafford hands how Wayne Rooney rates against George Best and Bobby Charlton. Billy Aldridge is drawing down more oats from the crushing pipe in the ceiling. He teamed up with Cecil way back in the 70s and has ridden alongside all the stars. He ponders the sheer impossibility of the question and puts up Oh So Sharp’s achievement of winning from a mile to a mile and three quarters before adding the intriguing personal comment “she was bossy in her own way.” He then adds Kris – the superb, albeit classically defeated miler of 1979 – “he was a hell of a good horse,” says Billy. “Should have won the Guineas. Joe Mercer gave him too much to do.” But that’s the past. Frankel is the present. There are lists to check, boxes to clear, horses to tack up, races to win. That’s the actual point of it.
It’s half past six by the time the string begins to gather at the big circular covered ride. Cecil and Mike Marshall stand side by side, one tall and willowy the other short and firm. Much is noticed, little said. Frankel comes across with exercise rider Shane Fetherstonehaugh deep in thought, probably as much Frankel’s as his own. A filly with a hood over her ears suddenly plants her forelegs and refuses to go forward. It is the very able Sun Chariot entry Chachamadee. Martyn Peake is one of those quiet, cool riders the stable cherishes. He leans forward and pats his filly’s neck while the trainer walks over, puts a big firm hand on the bridle and Chachamadee walks smoothly on, the knot in her mind unravelled. It was a classic Cecil mix of almost feminine sensitivity and unmistakeable masculine authority. No words were spoken but the exchange was eloquent.
It was a 40 strong first lot last Wednesday and as Frankel and his half brother and lead horse Bullet Train came down Warren Hill at their accepted place at the head of affairs you could see both the pleasure and the pain he gives his trainer. “I can be quite nasty you know,” Cecil says with an only half-joking laugh at the suggestion that snapper Edward Whitaker might go too close and the restless pacing to and fro (not to mention the quick drag on the cigarette) becomes even more contrastingly marked to the leisurely stalking walk which is Frankel’s own hallmark.
The mood lifts as we trek across the heath to watch the string swing up the Warren Hill polytrack. “He’s doing very well,” Cecil says of Frankel, “now he’s learnt to settle he would get a mile and a quarter. He would get it now. Even better next year.” Frankel is only cantering up behind Bullet Train but the memory goes back a week to the vision of him streaking clear on his return to the grass gallop of the Limekilns. Beside Henry, the young Italian Marco Botti shakes his head as he accepts congratulations for Group One victory in France with Excelebration (spelling?) twice a vain pursuer of Frankel this season. “That’s my clever strategy,” laughs Botti to Cecil’s teasing, “avoid Frankel.”
Breakfasts have plenty of teasing too, along with the quick crossword, the ever present entry book, the large bound horse folder, and the home grown fruit and vegetable health concoction which Jane Cecil strains each morning and to which Cecil himself grudgingly concedes the benefit whilst wiping the beetroot stains from his mouth. “It must be good for me,” he says, “because I am still alive, or at least I think I am.”
Goat’s milk is also on his diet and the talk suddenly turns to a filly called Juve who had a goat as a companion way back in the seventies but contracted grass sickness so badly that the owner ruled she should be put out of her misery. “I went round to the box,” remembered Henry in that vivid almost childish way of his, “she was lying down and looked dreadful, her eyes cloudy, her mouth creamy. But she looked up at me in such a way that I said I just can’t do it now, I will wait until the afternoon. You will never believe it but when I came back she was on the mend and she went on to win five races.”
It’s a shaft from the past which holds in the mind as we go to see the two year olds on second lot. Amongst them is Noble Mission who has to carry the somewhat unfair burden of being Frankel’s full brother. “He’s had some sore shins and a few little problems,” says his trainer, “but he is coming along and will probably run next month. He’s not Frankel but he could be all right.” Many of these won’t run this season as Cecil uses the privilege of his experience to give them the patience to develop their talent. Many will turn out no good, but one or two just may prove to be the diamonds in the dross. That’s the all absorbing dynamic of the training game but its darker side clouds in as we again walk over the heath to watch the canter.
First Henry sympathises with Peter Chapple Hyam for his beaten odds-on shot the previous day at Yarmouth only to also hear that in a later race the trainer had a filly so badly struck into that she will have to be put down. Cecil has had his own brushes with mortality and the mournful look remains as Gay Jarvis rides up with difficult news about her much loved husband Michael’s own battle with illness. At moments like this, those two year olds on the gallop are just young horses cantering up a hill – but they carry dreams with them, and dreams can be a treatment too.
The most potent on Wednesday seemed to the filly Epoque who winged easily up the polytrack under Cecil’s sister in law Sally Eddery in preparation for a first racecourse appearance at Newmarket yesterday . She promises the future but as we later gather in the main yard for a team photo we are celebrating the present and the excitements of the immediate past. Dan de Haan, the big powerful horseman son of Corbiere’s Grand National winning partner Ben de Haan, rode Frankel through his first formative and at times tempestuous first season. It was he who last spring found a way of anchoring the potential runaway and it was he who first felt the horse power that may even lay claims to be the greatest of them all.
“To start with all I was thinking of was trying to get him to settle and go straight,” said Ben as vets and farriers and secretaries and dogs were rounded up in the grudgingly smiling way of these things, “but then one morning we went down to the Al Bahathri (all weather gallop). I took him up on his own and suddenly realised what was beneath me. Frankel is not actually that big, with me on him he looks quite small, but when you sit on him he feels as massive as Denman and the power beneath is just incredible. When I came back Mike said ‘what’s that like?’ and I said ‘it’s an absolute beast. It could be anything.’”
As we swung off the roundabout into Newmarket High Street the hands on the clock tower showed half past eleven – exactly 7 hours after our headlights stabbed through the dark driving up Warren Hill. Morning was ending but for the stable the day would stretch through the afternoon into the night. At 3.20 Principal Role did a bit to justify her exalted box mates Midday and Timepiece by cruising clear in Yarmouth’s race of the season. An hour later the two year old Feel The Difference drew clear at Beverley, and finally the Kempton floodlights looked down on those two food faddish girls last seen spurning their breakfast. Asterism and Chabada finished first and third at Kempton.
“It has been a good day,” said Mike Marshall as he celebrated with his wife and mother in law later that evening. It had been but he knew, and we all know, that none of it will be enough until “The Elephant” has done his stuff at Ascot.