SUNDAY TIMES SPORT – 4th JULY 2010
For a full forty seconds yesterday Twice Over and Tom Queally were a horse and a rider with the Sandown hill in front of them and history in their grasp. When the Eclipse Stakes winning post was finally reached, that history belonged to the training phenomenon that is Henry Cecil.
It was way back in 1969 when, in his very first season, a then 26 year old Cecil stepped forward on to the victory rostrum to collect the Eclipse trophy for the four year old Wolver Hollow ridden by Lester Piggott. Then, as now, Henry was a tall, willowy, rather shy and apologetically posh figure. Then it was a surprise that the success should come so soon. Now it is a wonder that he is with us still.
For the 41 years since Wolver Hollow have seen Henry through several lifetimes as well as being beyond the lifespan of a very large part of the shirtsleeved crowd baking in the Sandown sunshine. Ten trainers championships and a record 24 British classics have long established Cecil as the pre-eminent trainer of his era and hundred winner seasons and seven figures worth of prize money were expected returns. But then the wheels fell off.
He had survived one marriage break up but when the second marital collapse was followed by his identical twin David succumbing to cancer and then he himself being inflicted by the disease, the once all conquering hero would look a sick and lonely sight on Newmarket Heath of a morning By 2005 the winner count had slumped to just 12 for the season. Days in the Sandown sun were surely confined to yesteryear.
But in his own quiet but stubborn way he stuck by his beliefs, his own instinctive method of decision-making, and one or two big players stuck by him. One of them was the Niarchos family whose Light Shift came home to huge and sympathetic cheers in the 2007 Oaks, Cecil’s first classic for a decade. Another was owner breeder Prince Khalid Abdulla whose then two year old Twice Over won both his races so impressively that autumn that he was at one time favourite for the 2008 Derby.
He did not get to Epsom that summer as the mile and a half trip seemed beyond him and although Twice Over ended up running second in the Champion Stakes that three year old year was largely a disappointment as did the early part of last season. But two confidence building victories in easy races saw him triumph in last October’s Champion Stakes, and run a great race in defeat in the Breeders Cup in California. Whilst he has this year been baulked in Dubai and slightly unlucky at Royal Ascot his condition yesterday justified both his trainer’s confidence and the punters’ support that made him 13/8 favourite.
But anyone who has watched any sport let alone risked their shirt on racing should know that there is the world of difference between having a winner’s chance on paper and actually doing it on the track. There were only 6 runners in yesterday’s Eclipse and only five by the time the magnificent looking but mulish minded Mawatheeq had utterly refused to submit himself to the indignity of entering the stalls. There had been doubts as to whether the gallop would be testing. There were’nt when the stalls opened.
For Andrew Lloyd Webbers filly Da Re Mi was jumped straight into the lead to use the stamina which she has in abundance and after Twice Over had missed his opening kick out of the gates, Tom Queally sent his loyal partner sharply up Da Re Mi’s inside to ensure the pace was honest.
Down the back stretch Queally began to get dissatisfied with the pace they were clocking and before the turn he upped the temp and once into the straight wound Twice Over up into full gallop with more than three furlongs of the Sandown hill stretching out ahead of him. It was a brutal move which broke his pursuers. At the two furlong pole they were all in trouble, at the one furlong mark there was still three lengths of daylight but then suddenly you realise that he might have broken himself.
Out from the back Sri Putra and Viscount Nelson bore down with wet sails and even got to within half a length at the line. But Twice Over was through, Queally had called it right, and Henry was back where he belonged. As the winner was led in we had to reflect that Cecil’s last Eclipse winner had been Gunner B in 1978 and before that Wollow in 1975 ridden, as past links to present, by one Gianfranco Dettori whom, racegoers and others might have noticed, now has a jockey son called Frankie in these parts.
Afterwards it was Tom Queally making a slightly more audible if equally lucid summing up of victory as Lester Piggott had of Wolver Hollow way back in 1969. “He’s such a lovely character,” he said of his big, honest headed, slightly roman nosed conveyance, “a real stable favourite. Last time at Ascot it was hard to get him going in the race traffic so we were determined to get into an early rhythm and to be honest,” he added with a self deprecating modesty caught from the trainer, “today the cards were dealt for me.”
When all the presentation and interviews and applause (including a spontaneous “three cheers for Henry”) were over the trainer came over with that same old quizzical smile on the slightly tilted face. “I am so pleased for the horse as he lost a shoe in the race,” he said, “he is such a nice person, a real friend. All this fuss has been a bit embarrassing. I can’t see that I deserve it but it is very nice. It is these big days that count.”