Friday 28 June 2013

Great Sadness, but Magnificent Memories of Sir Henry Cecil

Everyone connected to racing has been hugely saddened this week, following the death on 11th June of Sir Henry Cecil. It would be hard to think of anyone in our sport who has been so loved by the whole racing community. A huge loss, but also as the incredibly moving obituaries have emerged over the week – particularly the one by Alastair Down in the Racing Post – there has been such a sense of reflection on and celebration of a magnificent training career. This is bound to pervade the whole of Royal Ascot next week. Apparently there is going to be a minute’s silence when the meeting opens on Tuesday, and the Queen’s Vase on Friday will be formally run in his memory.

It is actually difficult to grasp the enormity of his success since 1969, when he started training: 3,431 worldwide wins, 418 pattern races, 25 British Classic wins, 75 winners at Royal Ascot and 10 trainer titles. I’m sure we all have our own favourite horses from a career that spanned five decades. Few trainers have ever been so naturally gifted in the conditioning and training of the thoroughbred, particularly stayers. It seems a long time ago now, but I can still visualise the bold determination of that contrary character Le Moss winning the stayers’ triple crown of Ascot, Goodwood and Doncaster Gold Cups at the end of the 1970s. And amazingly Sir Henry did the same again with Ardross at the start of the following decade. He won the fillies’ Triple Crown with Oh So Sharp in 1985, and then exceeded that performance with the mighty Reference Point who completely dominated the Derby, King George and St. Leger with his captivating front-running style in 1987. I thought he wouldn’t be surpassed. But then, in the twilight of Sir Henry’s career, along came Frankel.

After the glory days, it was so sad to see the training and personal decline of Sir Henry to the nadir of 2005 when he was barely in the top 100 trainer list, and had been reduced to a miserly 12 winners. Worse was to come, with the physical decline as stomach cancer took its grip. And yet, in the same way that his beloved roses would often have a late-flowering bloom, so Frankel provided the perfect ending to a magnificent Indian summer that began with Light Shift in 2007 and ran through to Champions’ Day at Ascot in the Autumn of 2012. I always felt that Frankel’s most brilliant performance was in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot that year, when he thrashed Excelebration by 11 lengths and earned the highest ever Racing Post rating of 143. My wife Jack has a different view and thinks the 7-length victory in the Juddmonte International at York was more impressive for being over a longer trip. We were both on the Knavesmire that day, where the sense of the crowd’s overpowering goodwill towards the agonisingly frail trainer was almost tangible. We also both went to Champions’ Day to watch that victory, and followed Frankel in his final departure from the paddock, heading for his new career at stud. It was such a poignant moment, partly to see the last of a racehorse who had been undefeated over three seasons, but also because we believed he had helped keep his trainer alive, and that without him it would be hard to survive for very long. And so it has proved.

The five best Flat trainers I’ve seen are Vincent O’Brien, AndrĂ© Fabre, Sir Michael Stoute, Aidan O’Brien and Sir Henry Cecil. There are common characteristics: instinctive empathy for the racehorse, extreme patience and the ability to fine-tune and channel a horse’s natural talent so that it can deliver the highest quality of performance on the track. But to my eyes Sir Henry would be primus inter pares when compared to those other great trainers. Most definitely first amongst equals, not only because of what he achieved in training terms but through his charm, approachability and self-effacing dignity. A much-loved person who will be massively missed, not just by his friends and family but by the whole racing community.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Derby Day – Everything Crossed for the Burkes and Libertarian

By the time you read this, the result of the Derby may already be known. It is always one of my favourite races of the year, and it is great to have something to cheer about, after all the doping and corruption revelations of the last couple of weeks. It has had a special place in my heart ever since, as a student, I backed Morston at 25/1 just after completing Finals. I think I probably have fonder memories of that betting slip than I do of my degree certificate. It certainly guaranteed an enjoyable summer, with student days behind me. 33 years later, I ended up living alongside the Woolley Down gallops where Morston and Blakeney were trained – so, happy memories.

This year, I suppose everything depends on whether you believe Dawn Approach will stay, or not. With a few exceptions such as Sea The Stars, not many Guineas winners have done so; I think he may be a doubtful stayer, and definitely far too short a price. The Aidan O’Brien runners are bound to test him. Battle Of Marengo may be his best, but he seems quite exposed. Are Ocavango and Chopin any good? I liked the way Ruler Of The World won at Chester, and he is on my shortlist, but without any doubt the Owners for Owners community is bound to be behind Libertarian.

We had our final “Meet the Trainer” morning at Elaine and Karl Burke’s stables the day after the Dante. Most of us had backed Libertarian at 33/1, so it was a real privilege to be able to stand alongside the horse at Spigot Lodge. There may only have been a few of us there, but we had a terrific morning. I hope everyone else was forming an orderly queue outside various bookies, lumping on at 20/1+ for the Derby. We saw our horses Paradise Spectre and Aran Sky up on the High Moor gallops, did the posing with Libertarian and then took Karl and Elaine off to the Wensleydale Heifer for a good lunch. Amazingly, it was Karl’s 50th birthday as well, so there was a lot to celebrate. When we expressed amazement, he came out with the great line: “You don’t think I’m 60, do you?”

Anoraks like me love stats and history. Libertarian is the first Yorkshire-trained horse to have won the Dante since Dante, so it was a fabulous achievement by the Burkes. They bought him out of a breeze-up for 40,000gns. Despite having done the slowest time at the sales, he is a lovely, strapping son of New Approach and no matter what happens today he can only improve this season, and into next. Elsewhere on the web site I have sung the praises of Karl Burke and Lars Kelp in spotting high-potential horses. Look no further for proof. By the way, Spigot Lodge is named after Jack Spigot, the 1821 St. Leger winner, and The Flying Dutchman won the 1849 Derby from these stables, before his famous match against Voltigeur on the Knavesmire at York in front of a crowd of 100,000. But I bet you knew that anyway. The BHA’s Great British Racing campaigns have got a bit of catching up to do!

However, the main reason I’ll be cheering Libertarian home today is that it signals the return to the top flight of training for the whole Burke yard. Back in the dark days of 2009, when Karl was warned off for a year for passing information to a very dodgy character, Miles Rogers, there was a possibility that all their hard work and endeavour would have been in vain, with their whole livelihood falling apart. Karl had just won his first Group 1 with Lord Shanakill at Chantilly, and was on the point of breaking through to the top ranks of training. Within weeks the number of horses in the yard had dropped from 90 to 25, and most of the staff were laid off. It was an agonisingly sad time for everyone. We kept our faith in and support for the yard, and nothing will give me greater pleasure than seeing a good run today from Libertarian. Everything crossed. As a horse who will only mature with time, there is always a risk that he may not have the necessary luck in running at Epsom. Let’s hope that he breaks well and William Buick is able to have him in a forward position at the top of the hill. If not, never mind - his day is bound to come. I’m already on for the Leger!

Hats off to Karl, Elaine, Kelly and Lucy Burke and all the crew up at Spigot Lodge. As Derek Thompson would doubtless say: “Enjoy the moment.”