Robin Oakley

Royal Ascot is not the same without Henry Cecil

Royal Ascot is not the same without Henry Cecil
Text settings

For a moment it seemed incongruous reading obituaries in the same week of Sir Henry Cecil and of Esther Williams, the Hollywood star whom most of us only ever remember seeing in a swimsuit amid whirling patterns of leggy lovelies in water ballets. Then I recalled her comment that the only thing Hollywood’s moguls ever changed in her series of films were her leading men and the water in the pool and I realised there was something of a parallel. Esther Williams did her thing so exquisitely that all people ever wanted to see was a repeat. Those whom she did it with became irrelevant, and there was something of that about the master trainer too.

He did his thing superbly and he did it in a highly personal style that nobody else will ever be able to match. His instinct for training racehorses, particularly fillies, was sublime — and instinct is what it was down to. But he was showbiz too and he knew it. The only time I ever spoke to Henry Cecil off the racecourse was on Newmarket’s Limekilns one morning and I will never forget the sight.

He was sitting astride his then wife Natalie’s skewbald hack Poteen wearing a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, monogrammed blue suede riding boots with tassels and a blue velvet riding hat. Effectively Cecil was holding court to a covey of owners and stud managers, a visiting racing tour party and assorted correspondents. The tall, elegant and authoritative figure, I reflected, was the nearest equivalent to a King of Newmarket there had been since Charles II frequented the gallops with his hawking friends. And he had a real sense of history. We were standing, he told me, on the oldest piece of cultivated grassland in the world, unploughed since Carolingian days, one of the largest mown grass areas in the world. It may even have been him who added that Boadicea used to practise her chariot manoeuvres on the turf where the occupants of Newmarket’s stables now make their preparations for the racecourse.

What the dandyish attention to his clothes and his rose garden and his quizzical attitude to correspondents eager for a quote sometimes obscured was the sheer hard competitiveness of the man, that inner steel that enabled him to fight his dreadful disease for so long. By the time you read this we will have been through the first Royal Ascot since Henry Cecil’s death and it simply will not have been the same place without his presence. Over four decades he trained 75 winners at the most competitive Flat race meeting in Europe, a record no one has come close to equalling.

Trying to find myself a little punting money for Ascot at Sandown last Saturday,  I was aided by the 11–1 victory of Andrew Balding’s Roserrow in the Novae Insurance Handicap. Sandown is one of those courses that some horses handle better than others and I couldn’t believe the price for a horse who had won over course and distance just five days earlier, even if he was carrying 5lb more. Roserrow still seems to be progressing and Andrew planned to miss Ascot and run again at the Surrey course in July.

The truly eye-catching performance of the day, however, was that of Roger Varian’s Morawij, ridden by Ryan Moore in the Listed five-furlong sprint. Given his draw, the rider had to try to make it all and Morawij only just lasted home, but as his trainer said afterwards, ‘This is a very fast horse,’ and he is likely to be ridden with more restraint in future. Over the minimum distance he will surely win again.

The ever approachable Ralph Beckett is having a super season, having trained the first two home in the Oaks, and at a different level his Secret Art impressed me too in the very strongly run seven-furlong handicap. Secret Art runs in the colours of Phil Gregg’s Circuit Racing, a rather unusual racing partnership in that several of the original members entered racing ownership as a result of winning poker tournaments staged by 888poker.

Ralph Beckett confided that originally he hadn’t really liked the horse but Secret Art was a case of love at first sight for Phil Gregg, a London hotel director, after a 12-hour day spent at Tattersalls Sales. He told me, ‘This great big flashy red colt with a white blaze gave us an unusually direct “pick me” stare walking past and we really warmed to him.’ They had expected him to be beyond their budget but secured him at a price they could afford perhaps because it was right at the end of the day.

The huge Secret Art has taken time to fill his frame at Kimpton Down. He was not rushed as a two-year-old but has repaid his trainer and owners’ patience, having made the frame in every one of his six outings so far. The Sandown success was his second victory and Circuit Racing’s other £20,000 purchase, Blazing Knight, has won three.  Clearly a syndicate to watch, even if you wouldn’t dare to play poker with them.