It’s the same for everyone – life tests us all. But in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, Henry Cecil may well have wondered if he had been granted a unique exemption. Everything just seemed to flow so effortlessly for the master of Warren Place.
With a charm and flair entirely of his own, he stacked up Classic triumphs, champion trainer titles and Royal Ascot victories. How about 1987 for an annus mirabilis: he sent out 180 winners at an extraordinary 40 per cent strike-rate. It was a stellar season in which the trainer landed the Derby, St Leger and King George with Reference Point. Oh, and let’s not forget he saddled seven winners at the Royal meeting during a glorious June, the month that ardent rose-grower Cecil always looked forward to.
Dashingly handsome and possessed with an inimitable sense of style, he was as popular with the betting-shop punter as he was with the royalty, lords and ladies he trained for. The good times kept rolling, and Cecil could have been forgiven if he thought they were never going to end.
If only everything were that straightforward, though. By the turn of the millennium, the trainer’s world had started to cave in on him, and in November 2000 he suffered the crushing blow of losing his twin David to cancer. Cecil struggled throughout his brother’s illness, drinking too much and taking his eye off the ball professionally. The horses were laid low with a virus for a season or so, and his string size shrunk at an alarming rate. Aside from a couple of his major owner-breeders remaining loyal, faith in the once-mighty Warren Place was dwindling and new dominant forces had appeared to take centre-stage.
It was a very public decline, played out in the front as well as back pages of newspapers, not to mention the gossip columns. And with two marriages behind him, Cecil suddenly found himself very much on his own.
In 2006, a man with 70 Royal Ascot winners on the board was reduced to being represented by just a single runner at his favourite meeting. Had it really come to this? His filly, Novellara, contested the Ribblesdale Stakes, but could only finish an also-ran, epitomising how Cecil was perceived by many in racing at that point.
There were those predicting imminent retirement for the 10-time champion trainer. And their beliefs would have been further fuelled had they known he’d attended Royal Ascot that year with his morning suit covering the bandaging applied after a biopsy. For Cecil, like his brother six years before him, now had cancer. A sizeable mass was found behind his stomach. To be specific, he had follicular lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Only those closest to him knew – and they feared how he’d react. After all, he hadn’t coped at all well through David’s cancer battle; how on earth was he going to deal with his own?