Sometimes sport can shape a man; take the rugged talents that lie within and elevate him to a status that transcends expectation. Very, very occasionally, there comes a man that shapes a sport. Boxing had Muhammed Ali; football had Pele. Horseracing had Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, or just ‘Henry’ to most.
His peers called him a genius; a man that could nurture the unruly and unpredictable temperament of the thoroughbred racehorse and channel that energy and spirit into athletic perfection. He was never afraid of doing things differently, once telling a group of journalists that asked about the secrets of his success: “I do everything by instinct really, not by the book. I like to think I’ve got a feeling for and understand my horses, that they tell me what to do really.”
He had a natural grace, a touch of class, but – to paraphrase Kipling – could talk with crowds and keep his virtue, or walk with Kings and not lose the common touch. Every winner trained by Sir Henry was greeted with rapturous applause from landed gentry and the common punter alike; frequent cries of “go awn Sir ‘Enry” would ring out across the Epsom Downs, mingled with the polite congratulations of the Queen’s Stand.
His training record is virtually unparalleled: 25 Classic winners, 10 trainers championships, an unrivalled 75 Royal Ascot winners and – perhaps his crowning glory – the career of that paragon of equine perfection that was Frankel. He masterminded Frankel’s unbeaten record, which yielded 14 victories at the highest level, culminating in one of the most memorable days in modern racing history with Frankel’s final race at British Champions Day at Ascot last October.
In many ways Frankel was a mirror of Sir Henry’s own spirit – perhaps headstrong and wayward in his early days, but gradually, with experience, developed into one of the greatest assets the sport has ever possessed. It would be wrong to say that Sir Henry was flawless – few of the truly great ever are – and he freely admits to experiencing some very dark moments in the years after his twin brother died, also of cancer. His passion for racing and the thoroughbred remained undimmed, even when his once 200-strong stable of horses had dwindled to less than fifty, and his name was lost in mid-table mediocrity within the lists of leading trainers.
The British love an underdog, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and as Sir Henry emerged from the gloom of his wilderness years, with victories at the highest level with horses like Light Shift, Twice Over (whom the great man felt was the horse that gave him back his career) and Midday, the public embraced him with even more reverence than they had before.
Famed for not only his charm and his prolific ability to elicit the best from his horses, he was a consummate gardener (his rose garden was his sanctuary from the rest of the world) and a collector of anything he found beautiful: “I’ve always liked nice things…nice things are…a comfort” was the laconic, simple statement of a very private man when asked about his collections.
There will be thousands of words written praising the abilities and character of Sir Henry Cecil, the master of the thoroughbred, the troubled genius, the velvet glove that fitted around an iron fist of determination. He will be remembered not only for what he did, but for how he made people feel.
Every man dies, but not every man really lives; Sir Henry not only really lived, but leaves a legacy of achievements that will echo long into the future of horseracing.