Henry Cecil: Racing trainer honoured with knighthood

Great sporting champions can triumph after adversity, and a knighthood for distinguished racehorse trainer Henry Cecil is the latest chapter in his own remarkable recovery.

Ten champion-trainer titles, 72 Royal Ascot wins and four victories in the Derby at Epsom tell only a small part of the Cecil story.

The 68-year-old slumped from training king to also-ran, and bounced back again.

During a terrible few years he went through a divorce from his second wife, the death of his alcoholic twin brother David and a fall from the top of the training perch .

He failed to land a Group One race between 2001 and 2005, and plummeted to 94th in the trainers' list.

It was the racing equivalent of football manager Sir Alex Ferguson losing his job at Manchester United and being forced to scramble for points with a League One side.

CECIL AT ROYAL ASCOT

  • His 72 career wins are equivalent of landing every race at the meeting two years running - plus the first two days of another year

In February 2007, Cecil revealed a battle with stomach cancer which he has not only valiantly fought to win, but has somehow pushed to one side while resurrecting his career with top-class horses such as Twice Over and Midday.

"Fantastic. That's so well deserved," said Cecil's stable jockey Tom Queally when I told him of the award.

"Henry was written off a few years ago and he's bounced back and shown them all again.

"He's seen the ups and downs and nothing seems to phase him."

The award to Cecil of a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours List is a tribute to a man as quirky as some of the animals he trains.

And it comes just three days before his current stable star, the brilliant 2,000 Guineas winner Frankel, is set to run on the opening day of the Ascot meeting his Newmarket trainer has dominated like no other.

Frankel has not just got the racing world talking because of his sheer speed, but because the man who looks after him is a racing icon.

At first glance an apparent aristocrat, yet with a genuine feeling towards the 'ordinary' public, Cecil is known for taking time to sign autographs or chat to curious racegoers.

"He's a lovely man, a people's man. He has an important job and could be as up in the clouds as he wants to be, but he's very approachable, very understanding," says 26-year-old Irishman Queally.

Henry Cecil, Tom Queally and Frankel

Cecil, Queally and Frankel after victory in the 2,000 Guineas

"If there's anything on my mind, or a weight on my shoulders, I wouldn't think twice about going to him."

Cecil, whose father died in the war, aged 28, before he was born, does not hail from a racing background.

His mother lived on a farm eight miles from Newmarket, and it was her marriage to trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort that introduced Henry to the sport.

He assisted his stepfather, who trained horses for the Queen, before taking out a licence himself in 1969 and going on to be the leading trainer of his generation.

Cecil's roll call of winners at the highest level in Group One races reads like a who's who of equine champions.

Ardross, Bosra Sham, Light Shift, Love Divine, Oath, Oh So Sharp, Reference Point, Slip Anchor and Wince are among the horses that have ensured the flag, which is raised after every Group One win, fluttered regularly at Cecil's Warren Place yard in Newmarket.

Oh So Sharp was the last filly to win the Triple Crown, claiming a hat-trick of Classics in the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger of 1985.

Cecil has particularly excelled with the female of the species, and in a revealing interview with the At The Races channel in 2009, admitted he had a feminine side.

"I'm very vain. I think I should have been born with female hormones. I love shopping," said the trainer, who put an afternoon trip to the top shops of Knightsbridge and Chelsea as part of an ideal day.

Henry Richard Amherst Cecil likes to dress well, with his attire often featuring top-notch ties, shiny loafers and and brightly coloured socks. He tilts his head to one side while fielding questions from the media and has a habit of blinking when thinking about his answers.

He confesses to liking horses with big ears, has an impressive collection of toy soldiers and in his battle with cancer has concentrated on the positives - "good things like ice cream, theatre and roses".

HENRY CECIL FACTFILE

  • Age: 68
  • Trained since 1969
  • Won 25 Classics including the Derby four times - Slip Anchor 1985, Reference Point 1987, Commander in Chief 1993, Oath 1999
  • His jockeys have included Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen, Kieren Fallon and Pat Eddery

While racing is a sport pored over by statistics buffs, examining times, distances and going, Cecil prefers not to rely on stopwatches. He goes on instinct.

"His understanding of horses is second to none. He trains with his eye. He'll very often do or say something, and I'll wonder why. As time rolls on, I'll think he was right about that," says Queally.

"He's a straightforward man, he has all the qualities. He could meet anybody. He's so approachable and people love him.

"It's a good yard to work in, with a family atmosphere. Everyone is hands on."

There is an almost childlike enthusiasm the trainer has for racking up victories, and he admits that he "likes beating people".

Cecil enjoys drawing up an empty crossword at the beginning of each season and colours in one box for each winner he has.

Few, it seems will have a cross word to say on learning he has been knighted. Perhaps the only surprise is that it did not come earlier.