Gunner B, Le Moss, Ardross, Bosra Sham… Henry Cecil sent out so many stars to deliver equine excellence at Royal Ascot. However, it’s hard to believe there can have been a performance at racing’s most prestigious meeting that gave him more satisfaction than Frankel’s astonishing victory in the 2012 Queen Anne Stakes. It was an 11th straight win for the unbeaten superstar colt and the margin of success was a mighty 11 lengths, coming at odds of 1/10.
The bare facts are impressive, but they don’t begin to do justice to the background that led to those moments, which are now indelibly inked into racing’s history books. It’s a story of teak-tough courage and peerless training. And it began six or seven years earlier…
Cecil and Jane McKeown had resumed their relationship at a time when Cecil’s career appeared to be in terminal decline. She helped to restore his confidence, reminding him that, unlike sportsmen who are diminished by the ageing process, his skill and experience were still very much intact. Her positivity and determination tapped into Cecil’s own desire not to be identified as a has-been.
For Cecil had always been a fierce competitor. And that iron will was called on from 2006 when he began a lengthy cancer battle. He fronted up to it with defiance, a bravery that inspired all that saw it. “I’m afraid I’m going to be around for some time yet!” he would tell his friends with that familiar glint in his eye. The more he fought for his professional reputation – fought for his life – the more he achieved. And the deep admiration of the racing public, who had always pulled for him, turned to love. A high-profile Cecil winner was now greeted with a guttural roar of approval, an outpouring of emotion.
How fitting it was that his masterpiece was saved to last. Frankel arrived as a colt at Warren Place in January 2010, sent from the trainer’s staunch supporter Prince Khalid Abdullah. Cecil swiftly recognised the innate talent, and before Frankel had ever run he told his great friend and fellow trainer Ed Vaughan that the horse “might be the best horse I’ve ever had”. How right he was.
Cecil’s genius was evident throughout the horse’s career, particularly in the patient and calm manner in which he trained him to relax. Frankel had an extraordinary action and stride – but he also possessed an enthusiasm that needed managing. In Cecil he couldn’t have had a better handler, armed with both the experience and nerve to make sure the horse was trained to perfection. The sure touch of the trainer and the extraordinary ability of the horse were never more evident than in the Queen Anne, in which Frankel toyed with and then destroyed the field. The manner in which he sustained his run that afternoon was simply spellbinding. It was perhaps the most visually impressive display that the son of Galileo produced.
Alongside Jane – his wife since 2008 – Cecil, in a cream-patterned tie with matching pale rose in his button-hole, smiled with contentment. The horse that had enthralled and challenged him in near-equal measures over the previous two and a half years had given a supreme exhibition of his gifts. It’s hard to imagine Cecil ever feeling so alive.
Equally, it’s sad to reflect that within a year the great trainer had died after cancer returned and took an unremitting hold. But that magical afternoon at Royal Ascot will never be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to be there. We saw a true giant of the turf in his rightful place, centre-stage in the Royal Ascot winner’s circle and our hearts were lifted.
Three cheers for Sir Henry…