Sir Henry Cecil – an (unlikely) working class hero

I HAVE always had a strange obsession with Sir Henry Cecil.

When I was about seven or eight I started to follow his horses. I made lists of his two-year-olds and three-year-olds. Wollow and Kris were among the early favourites.

A bit like a child deciding to support a football team just because they were the best, I became fascinated with Henry… because, well, he was the best. Everything he saddled seemed to win, or nearly win.

Slip Anchor, who won the Derby for Sir Henry Cecil in 1985

Granted, it was a bit odd that a kid growing up in a working class northern family would become a fan of aristocratic Henry, with his blueblood ancestry, posh garb and almost plummy tones.

I mean, Henry’s dad was the younger brother of the 3rd Lord Amherst of Hackney and his mother, Rohays Cecil, was the daughter of Major-General Sir James Burnett of Leys, 13th Baronet, owner of Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire. My mum worked in a cake shop in Warrington. We were unlikely bedfellows me and Henry.

So why the fascination? How come a northern urchin like me was so obsessed with a man who had such a distinguished pedigree?

I think the answer came on Oaks day in 2007 when Light Shift ground out an emotional victory in the Epsom classic. There was a standing ovation, not really for the horse or the rider Ted Durcan. The reception was aimed at Henry. It had been seven years since his last Group One success and the Cecil winner machine had almost ground to a halt.

Therein lies the explanation. Sir Henry has a strange ability to garner respect and admiration from all classes. He unites racing fans like few others. Maybe it is in the gentle way we often see him caress his beloved animals. Maybe it is his under-stated and self-deprecating manner. Sir Henry is just so damn likeable.

The brilliant Oh So Sharp and Steve Cauthen

During the Cecil halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s, Sir Henry delivered with ridiculous consistency. Reference Point, Slip Anchor, Diminuendo and the wonderful filly Oh So Sharp provided red-letter days and made sure Newmarket’s Warren Place remained a Group One-winning conveyor belt. Then there was Old Vic, Commander In Chief and Indian Skimmer. Yes there were ups and downs: the fallouts with flagship owners Daniel Wildenstein in the 1980s (remember the Vacarme incident?) and the spat with Sheikh Mohammed in the mid-1990s that resulted in the Sheikh withdrawing 40 horses from Warren Place.

But following the barren years of the early noughties came redemption with Light Shift. More success followed until on August 13, 2010, a fine-looking son of Galileo won his Newmarket maiden with an air of authority. This was Frankel, the freak of nature who has catapulted Sir Henry into the hearts and minds of thousands of new admirers.

Frankel – the freak of nature

Today at York Sir Henry will enjoy one of his finest moments. Hopefully he will be well enough to watch his equine superstar run his rivals ragged in the Juddmonte International. Cue another spine-tingling reception for both horse and trainer. It could be a special moment…

So it’s not just me. The racing fraternity, regardless of their class or family pedigree, has always taken Sir Henry Cecil to their hearts. He oozes decency and integrity. Fine qualities for any working class hero.



One thought on “Sir Henry Cecil – an (unlikely) working class hero”

  1. Mark Sandoe says:

    thanks for that – an excellent article!

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