When Henry Cecil is on song he tilts his head and you are not sure whether he is serious or going to make a joke about you or about himself. He is on song this week and he is entitled to be. “I think we could win it,” he says with that funny little smile. He’s serious – and not just about Twice Over in the Dubai World Cup on Saturday.
At Warren Place on Tuesday morning Henry had been up at five and on the phone to his wife Jane and his jockey Tom Queally at Meydan to talk through Twice Over’s progress. “He’s enjoying himself and doing very well,” says the trainer about the horse he describes as “one of my best friends.” But just before you think he’s getting mushily sentimental, he dives off into elaborate detail about the problems with Twice Over’s front fee and of how he has flown farrier Steve Kielt out to fit the special shoes which have made such a difference.
That’s the thing about Henry, he likes to wear his learning lightly. “I don’t want to be a bore,” he says as he smokes what is clearly not the first cigarette in the patio outside the kitchen at 6-30. It is a beautiful Newmarket morning. Clumps of daffodils splash yellow across the garden and over in the yard Guineas and Derby favourite Frankel heads a 140 head string that is set to add to those glory years which saw ten trainers’ titles and for which Twice Over’s Champion Stakes victory last October took the Group One success total to beyond the century mark. Boredom? Wonder more likely.
The first wonder, of course, is that Henry is here at all. The ink should soon run dry on how family problems, his twin brother David’s cancer and the his own, reduced him and his stable to a sick shell of what it once was and in 2005 logged just 12 winners from less than 40 horses with the most of Warren Place either empty or rented out. “I am still having some remedial chemotherapy,” he says briefly, “but I am determined to stay positive. I am sure it helps your body if your mind keeps positive.” Looking round on Tuesday suggested there was a lot to be positive about.
Frankel is in a barn over on the far side. “We tried bringing him in to one of the boxes nearer the house,” says Henry, “but he much prefers the barn. He likes to have other horses to talk to.” In a celebrated interview some years ago, Henry stated quite openly that his horses talk to him. Quite what Frankel said when his trainer pulled back the exercise sheet on Tuesday remains between the two of them, but the shining slab of muscle across the colt’s quarters was a loud enough statement of three year old’s well being.
So too was his demeanour as he followed his full brother Bullet Train to join the rest of the string taking their preliminary trot round the big covered ride that Henry’s father-in-law Sir Noel Murless installed back in the 60s for the princely sum of £12,000. Frankel is not massive but is plenty big enough and there is real power across that slightly low set neck. Almost too much power to judge by the way he pulled in the Dewhurst, and to control it on Tuesday he had a cross-noseband on his muzzle and Shane Featherstonehaugh on his back.
Frankel is not the first Derby favourite that Shane has ridden through the winter. He was the quiet figure in the saddle who stayed calm and un-flurried while Motivator did his routine whip rounds at the bottom of the Warren Hill canter and let fly his double-barrelled bucks on the way home. Frankel is not as dance-on-the-spot volatile as Motivator but a sudden leap as he follows Bullet Train out of the school, and the arms-tugging stretch of his neck up the canter indicates some pretty high calibre explosive at the end of the rein.
“I think it is very important to match the rider to the horse,” says Henry suddenly all serious. “Shane is just about the best rider we have. He is very calm and he settles Frankel well. But the horse is growing up. They do you know.” The words are quick and crisp but the eyes are watchful because we have driven round to Warren Hill and Henry has marched over to his normal vantage spot three quarters of the way up the polytrack. At 68 he is still a slightly dandified figure with a dark blue French style cap topping a brown leather bomber jacket and gloved fingers with yet another cigarette on the go.
“Here they come,” he says as specks begin to grow in the distance. No binoculars but no doubting the focus on what is happening in front of us. “Frankel is going to work a mile tomorrow up the Cambridge Road polytrack (see earlier story),” he says, “he has done a lot of conditioning and is where I want him to be but tomorrow will be the first time we move him away from his leader. He won’t work again on Saturday because I am away but after that it will be Wednesday and Saturday up to the Greenham. He’s a proper horse but there are some other nice ones here you know.”
What follows is a recitation of horse names often unknown but always enviably related. “That’s been backed for the Derby,” Henry says casually as a handsome bay sails easily by, “he’s called World Domination, by Empire Maker out of (Cecil trained Oaks winner) Reams Of Verse. That’s All Time, a full sister to Passage of Time (whose G1 success in 2006 was a start of the climb back) . That’s Midday Sun, a half brother to Midday by Monsun. They are all unraced but I think they could be decent.”
By now, it’s possible to see the determination beyond the throwaway “I don’t want to be boring” style. “That’s Panoptic,” he says, “she’s in the Guineas. She ran twice last year but got fizzed up both times. But she works well. She might get there but we will have to see how she gets on. I think the most important thing in training is to go with your horses not to try and bring them with you. You have to let them want to do it.”
Warren Hill is a very public place to do your daily business so watching the horses is mixed with banter from passing owners and trainers. Ed Vaughn comes up to thank for the Indian dinner he and Henry’s older son Noel had with Henry the night before. Michael Stoute comes up complete with purple Breeders Cup baseball cap. Not so much banter there but then Michael has lots of business to do. And a string to battle with.
For make no mistake, everything about Henry on Tuesday was a statement not just of how happy he was to be back but how keen he was to take it all the way. The life he had led looked as if it had run out on him. Now he is almost pinching himself with the simple delight in being able once again to play the game. There is ease about him but not idleness. For he is thinking not just of this year but of the next, and for all his casualness you can sometimes almost feel the electricity coming off him.
“Look at this,” he says, “pulling the rug back off a handsome bay with a big white blaze, “he’s Frankel’s full brother. Of course we have not done anything with him yet but he looks decent don’t you think?” There are a number of such unnecessary questions as he happily goes from box to box. Three as yet unnamed Dansili colts belonging to Khalid Abdulla as well as one called King Of Dudes owned by Andrew Tinkler and another called Malekov owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and a handsome Teofilio sired son of Oaks winner Love Divine called Hologram owned by the Lordship Stud.
The world wants him again and you can see why. Khalid Abdulla has been the most successful as well as the most loyal of all his owners having had 389 Cecil trained winners up to the end of last season. Three weeks ago, sitting in his elegant office overlooking Cadogan Square, Prince Khalid contemplated the question. “I think Henry is very special,” said Frankel’s owner. “He seems to really understand his horses and he again has a very good team working with him.”
Training a large string of racehorses can only be done if the personalities driving it complement and often contrast to each other. Mike Marshall, Cecil’s assistant of the last three years, is as short and square jawed as Henry is tall and languid, and there’s no doubting the drive and insight that he brings to the game. “Mike is down at the bottom of the canter seeing them on,” Henry had said on Warren Hill. “He always knows what we need and won’t let things slip.”
But then neither does Henry. “Some people get the impression,” says Shane Featherstonehaugh when Frankel is safely stowed away, “that Henry is floating around not paying attention. But I can tell you he is deadly serious. He is in total control of what goes on and it is really interesting watching him walking around the place. He is studying his horses all the time morning and evenings. He somehow puts himself on the same level as them and they definitely recognize and relate to him, especially the fillies. But most of all he wants to win the big races and to win that trainers’ title back. Obviously you have got to win at least a Derby or a King George but it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.
As Shane talked the mind went back to Henry walking round the yard with that strange mixture of jokey affection and firm almost pernickety attention to detail. “What has happened here,” he had asked firmly when one tacked up horse had its reins over its head in the box. “Why is that light still on?” he said of a glare in the barn before adding “I hate these things being slack. It’s the little things that count, they all add up.”
Confronted with a lorry load of hay he had pulled a handful out and sniffed and nuzzled it so horse-like that you could imagine him and Frankel chatting about later that evening. “I like to understand what is happening,” he says, “all staff have good and bad points and if you can get the best out of each of them you will be all right. That’s why I do my own list every night or early in the morning. A head lad may not change a rider because the other lad will get grumpy and give him grief. But if you keep the wrong person on a highly strung animal the horse is going to go the wrong way. If I think we need a change, I change it.”
Suddenly the authority is naked in the voice. “If anybody strikes a horse here,” he says, “they don’t get a warning, they are out straitaway or you get horses soured up. And you have to be careful of people who think they are jockeys and ride horses too fast to find out for themselves. I have really good head staff and have spies in the string. If I hear it is happening I tell them I am the man who is training the horses.
On the 17th May it will be 42 years since a horse called Celestial Cloud became the first of what are now 3,300 winners trained by Henry Cecil and anyone who doubted him then or still doubts him now should have been listening on Tuesday as he said. “Last year we finished fifth in the table but we could have been third without that Guineas disqualification and a couple of other things going wrong. This year I am a lot stronger. It is just a question of having some luck. I could actually win it again. I could, I probably won’t, but I am really going to try”.
As we left Warren Place the buds and the birdsong filled the eye and ear. The air, like the stables, was full of promise. Hope is an addictive thing but who knows, by the time the leaves are off the trees, Henry Cecil could have another song to sing.