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Racing: Rough ride for top toff; BUT THERE IS NO SELF-PITY FROM THE OLD MASTER CECIL.

Byline: ALASTAIR DOWN RACING'S No 1 WRITER

AS RECENTLY as 1999 he landed the Derby-Oaks double and in his best season trained 180 winners.

Yet it's five years since he trained a Group One winner and his last six seasons have yielded fewer than 200 winners in total.

He has saddled 23 British classic winners, another 11 in France and Ireland and made Royal Ascot his own with 70 successes.

But this extraordinarily successful and singular individual is now relegated to the role of a peripheral player, though any winner of his is cheered to the echo by an admiring public who hold him both in affection and esteem.

The man in question is the great Henry Cecil, who at 62 enjoys elder statesman status but whose pride and still-hot-to-the touch ambition would give anything to be back centre stage.

A fortnight ago he trained his 3,000th domestic winner, an achievement that would have had the church bells ringing in Newmarket a few years ago, but somehow escaped public notice like an unstruck iceberg gliding past in the night.

Many things distinguish Cecil from his fellow man - he is a dandy, fond of outrageous clothes, loves the company of women and at one time or another has been an industrial smoker and found his way round a few gin bottles.

He is also that most unfashionable of things - a proper toff, bred in the purple and raised in a castle. You'd think he would strike few chords with the general public, but Henry has long been the acceptable face of toffism and not just because he has trained the punters a shedload of winners, but because they somehow identify with this flawed but immensely likeable upper-class Englishman.

There is a vulnerability about him that is appealing. He may be the product of privilege but he seems heir to all the problems, perils and pratfalls that all the rest of us are.

Different trainers succeed for a stack of varying reasons. Yet there are few of them to whom one would apply the much overworked term "genius". But much of Cecil's mastery lies in instinct, understanding and "feel" for the racehorse.

Everyone who has watched Cecil working at close quarters is in awe of his ability to look at a raw two-year-old and see in his mind's eye exactly what the colt or filly will be and need at three.

It is like you and I running our eye over a five-year-old child and having an uncannily exact picture of that same creature at the age of 16.

There is much twaddle written and many specious words waffled about training racehorses - which basically comes down to imposing a suitable diet and exercise regime on equine athletes not blessed with the biggest of brains.

But some trainers - Cecil would be one and Michael Stoute most definitely another - have the insight to get inside a horse's mind in some way.

They can get under their skin. It may be psychology or kidology but they can distil horses down to their essential essences - answer their needs if you like - in a way others can't.

So why has Henry lost his place at the top table? Why is the champion trainer of 1976, '78, '79, '82, '84, '85, '87, '88 and '90 feeling the chill wind of a massively reduced string and a Group One drought?

The reasons are as complex as Henry himself, but Sheikh Mohammed's departure was a factor, while the passing of the era of the great British owner-breeder aristocrats such as Lord Howard de Walden also represented a series of holes below the waterline.

Doubtless Henry has at times taken his eye off the ball and let his pride get in the way of the necessary practicalities of making individual owners feel they are the most important patrons of the stable.

But one of Cecil's many likeable traits has been an almost total absence of self-pity. He has obvious regrets that "fings ain't what they used to be" but there have been no wails of "poor me" emanating from Warren Place.

If he hasn't shown courage in adversity he has certainly mustered one hell of a lot of dignity.

And so the racing public wait for Henry to get a horse that can get him strutting his stuff once more. When that happens the general joy will be infectious.

And should the big-race winning post be on his spiritual home of Newmarket's Rowley Mile, then the accompanying roars of approval will necessitate starting the search for the stands roof somewhere the other side of Cambridge.

CAPTION(S):

PAST GLORIES: Oath (left) and Ramruna (inset) did the Derby-Oaks double for Cecil (right) in 1999
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 7, 2005
Words:783
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