27th JUNE 2010
We underrated him. Everyone did, family, friends, schoolteachers but most important he underrated himself. Leaving a roomful of boozy Newmarket youth sometime in the early sixties one racing worthy muttered, “what are we going to do about Henry? He seems so hopeless.”
At the time it was easy to see the point. For all the world Henry appeared to be one of those quite sweet but rather feeble, upper-crust young men whose one redeeming feature was an absolute lack of the arrogance that often goes with their privileged position. He had never done anything, won anything. He had not even passed the entrance exam to Eton which in those days was set at almost retard level. If you had polled that room as to whom would carve his name in history, not one person would have voted for Henry Cecil.
True he was assistant to his step father Sir Cecil Boyd Rochfort and true also he saddled Wolver Hollow to win the 1969 Eclipse in the first season after he took over. But as the willowy 26 year old received his trophy there was more grateful embarrassment than the ambitious, “first of many”, podium pledges you expect from rookie trainers. Many were willing to believe him when he spoke of “beginners luck.”
Even when he won successive 2,000 Guineas in 1975 and 1976 with Bolkonski and Wollow (both ridden by Frankie’s father Gianfranco Dettori) most people still could not really come to terms with this fey, rather foppish figure who deflected all compliments with a clipped, but almost humbly gracious “we’re very pleased, thank you very much.” His wife was Noel Murless’ outgoing daughter Julie, his head lad was the uncompromising, flat-nosed Paddy Rudkin. They must call the shots we thought. Crikey, Henry didn’t even bother to watch the race with binoculars.
By the time he took over Warren Place from his father- in-law in 1977 he had already saddled 31 Group winners and soon the river was in flood. We knew that his system worked, we knew that the Cecil “first canter” was quicker than anyone else at Newmarket so that there must be some steel beneath that sensitive, rose-sniffing exterior. But about the man and about the secrets of his success we could get no closer than the self-mocking dandy in the winners’ circle and a few monosyllabic words from the even more unfathomable Lester Piggott who rode so many of the Warren Place fliers.
This did not make Lester or Henry unpopular, rather the reverse. Much as many of us may advocate openness, racing fans also love a bit of mystery about their heroes especially if they continue to provide a stream of winners to back. But in 1985 the arrival of Steve Cauthen as stable jockey brought us a trainer/jockey double act more popular than anything witnessed before or since. Steve had been a star since birth but suddenly his admiration for and contrast to his trainer made Henry a cult figure whom the public have come to cherish through thick and thin.
Those were very much the thick days. In just five seasons Steve and Henry shared 78 Group victories and 12 televised classics. We had started Channel 4 Racing in 1984 and the racecourses were happy to accept a new, more breezy approach. We were even allowed to do live interviews in the paddock – just fancy that.
The unsaddling enclosure after a big Cecil winner became one of the happiest pantomimes we ever shared. Henry would stand in the centre of the media scrum dipping his head to one side and give those shrugging little answers to the TV questions and then turn things round by cryptically asking “what do you think.” He was usually too well mannered to actually publicly “take the mickey” but a smile used to play around his lips as if he was heeding his own watchword of never taking it all too seriously.
Then Steve would come on. With that young, open face and that rich, deep Kentucky voice he would tell us about the horse he had ridden, talk us through the replays and crucially, pay tribute to the trainer. From Steve we understood how important were the crucial decisions, the instinctive touches with which Henry guided his horses through the season. From Steve we fully understood that we were in the presence of something unique.
We never got any closer. We did interviews in Warren Place, we were shown Henry’s wonderful set of toy soldiers, filmed him and his Arab horse on the gallops but his actual mastery of his training routine was always very hard to fathom especially as he usually wanted to deflect the praise to others.
He was always rather surprised by his popularity and so to some extent were we. Because he was not a warm or jokey man you could put your arm round. He was never very fluent in his answers and indeed could even be quite prickly on occasion. But he had a brilliant, self-deprecating charm as if he still could not understand how someone so hopeless in early life could continue to be so successful and that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and find it had just been a dream.
That charm has never left him – but the dream has turned into a nightmare more than once. Henry may have survived the trauma and staff loss from the break-up of his marriage to Julie and even have had a £2.4 million Oaks and Derby “annus mirabilis” in 1999 when his links with Natalie were in meltdown, but the new Millenium seemed to trail doom in its wake not just with his own problems but the sickness and death of his twin brother David.
By 2005 the seasonal total had shrunk from three figures to just 12 and the sick but still colourfully dressed figure sitting on his white hack was such a forlorn sight that the mind went back to that original disbelief. Had all that success actually been the product of others? If there had been something, was it now as much of a burnt out ember as the rider looked on the hack? He didn’t ask for sympathy but we felt it. “What,” we asked again, “should we do about Henry?”
What has happened over the last five years is in many ways a greater achievement than all that has gone before, and the ultimate proof that a magician never loses his touch. With new staff, new jockey, new horses and a wondrous new lady in Jane, he has put his training life together again. This time around the public reaction has been even keener than in the golden days. For something that was lost has come back to us, someone who had suffered was once more in the limelight but was even more diffident and sweetly, poshly, grateful than when he first began.
This week, this paper now has the right answer for that old “what shall we do with Henry?” question. Celebrate him.