The genius of Sir Henry Cecil – Brough Scott


Genius is a word that should only be used in the rarest of cases yet it was the one that appeared constantly and correctly last week amongst the tributes to Henry Cecil.  But litanies of famous winners are often no more than proof of talented inmates and an efficient training system.  The unexplainable is what genius does. Like what happened with Fleetwood in 1997…

Fleetwood was a brilliant but erratic two year old who was ridden every morning by the ebullient and experienced John Lowe who had come to work for Henry Cecil after twenty years of being a leading jockey up north.  When the talented but quirky tempered chestnut finally got to the track in September he came clear so powerfully that Kieren Fallon was dragged the whole length of the back straight before he could pull up.  Yet when Fleetwood and John Lowe came in after ordinary exercise two weeks later the trainer called them over and said “that horse is not right.” 

Lowe was enjoying Newmarket much more than on his first visit thirty years earlier when three lads at his new stable were killed in three weeks and the young scouser hustled back to Liverpool with his tail between his legs. But John was now a hugely resourceful rider who had been on Fleetwood practically every day. He assured Cecil that the colt was fine. “No,” came the reply, “there is something wrong with his knee.” Fleetwood never ran again. “How the hell,” remembers Lowe, “did Henry see that?”

 The intuitive understanding of the horses in his care was the true authenticity of Henry Cecil’s genius. His dress sense and the apologetically aristocratic politeness of his interview manner added charisma to the record classic winning prowess which stretched right back to Frankie Dettori’s dad winning on the free sweating Bolkonski way back in 1975.  The unswerving, uncomplaining courage with which he fought cancer at the same time as masterminding Frankel’s incomparable triumphs these last three seasons has added a saintly inspiration to the memory.  But if you want to define his actual genius, it has to be the way he knew his horses.

For it is only in that and in the way he envisioned the work patterns needed to get them to their peak that his treatment of his horses differed to any of the other excellent trainers of the era. Henry Cecil would be no more efficient around the yard, have no better veterinary back up than the other top notchers, but at his peak he could get pictures in his mind of what his horses might become which could be so vivid that Steve Cauthen felt that Henry needed to walk off into the rose garden just to calm himself down.

Even to the end he would take huge satisfaction in planning the full work mornings which traditionally took place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He would literally spend hours thinking of the right permutation of horse and rider and then developing an image of how things should go.  At the end of a successful morning he used to say – “I love to have things organised.  If I had been in the army, I would have been a general.”

Such an outcome might have been quite a shock to the military in view of the early Cecil’s hairstyles and trouser lines.  But the very thought betrays the inner drive which he discovered in himself only when he started training and which he never fully cloaked despite all the whimsy of his public persona.  It is now a hundred years since the American inventor Thomas Edison described genius as “one per cent inspiration and ninety nine per cent perspiration” and while he was dealing with  light bulbs and the first movie cameras rather than volatile young thoroughbreds, the description is not as far from Cecil’s methods as many would like to think.

He loved clothes even more than his roses and he had great pride in the Scottish heritage on his mother’s side. But it was his horses that fulfilled him. He had been a failure in life before his aged step father Cecil Boyd Rochfort took him on as an assistant more from obligation than any belief in what would actually transpire. But the niche proved perfect and in the closing years Henry Cecil was not so much a man who lived for his work but one who was only alive because of it.

In the early days head lad Paddy Rudkin would find himself complaining at feed time. “I used to say ‘the guvnor has done nothing all afternoon, just wandered from box to box with the horses,'” said Paddy. “But that is what set him apart. He could see thing others couldn’t.”  Even for Rudkin, Henry Cecil was one of those people who could leave you saying “how the hell did he know that?”

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