Cooney and Black

The last years of Sir Henry Cecil…700 hours of chemotherapy and working when he could scarcely walk. He needed an inspiration and he found it in a wonder horse called Frankel.

Sir Henry Cecil


CANCER encourages the mind to operate in a fashion that would antagonise even the most compliant zero-hour contract employee.

The illness certainly precipitated a few bouts of insomnia in me recently as my prostate journey took another unexpected and slightly disconcerting turning.

A few days ago, however – after watching a recording of a documentary which detailed Sir Henry Cecil’s association with the momentously successful Frankel – I felt obliged to reconsider my position with fate.

As the truly poignant Channel 4 programme ended, I promised never again to seek refuge in self pity, no matter what potentially iniquitous eventuality befell me.

The template for such resolution was provided by my fellow Aberdonian, Cecil.

Before we deal with his resurrection as a sporting icon, allow me tell you about my only interview with him. It was the early 90s and I had been despatched to meet him at his Warren Place stables by a tabloid sports editor I wholeheartedly despised.

At the time, Cecil was completing preparations for another tilt at the Derby (a race he had won twice at that time). He was a charming and revelatory host that day, colourfully describing how he would count down to the blue riband event.

After the interview ended, he took me on an impromptu tour of his beloved rose garden. There, in the most unlikeliest of venues, I was given another insight into the great man.

We talked about his biography, which he revealed had been initially written by my then boss. Cecil was scathing in his condemnation of the book. “He (the writer) comes from the north of England and he wrote it in the vernacular. I had to pay Richard Onslow £10,000 to put it into f****** English!”

We both smiled at the unexpected donation of humour.

I was chortling as I left Newmarket and experiencing a great warmth for this man Cecil. That warmth morphed into something more substantial after I watched the recent documentary about his life with perhaps the greatest British racehorse of all.

The programme quickly delineated the man’s parameters: Cecil’s abhorrence of losing was such that he would not allow terminal illness to have its way with him until he had virtually no breath with which to breathe.

In the early days, his hegemony in the sport of kings was such that he captured the Derby four times, the 2,000 Guineas twice, the 1,000 Guineas six times and a plethora of other major races.

When adversity arrived – as it inevitably does – those quixotic owners who once posed shamelessly in the winner’s enclosure courtesy of Cecil’s brilliance deserted him, decimating the once omnipotent Warren Place stable.

Cecil was devastated, particularly so when he overheard another trainer pointing him out to a new owner, and saying: “He should have retired a long time ago.”

Failure in the field became a virus. His domestic life erupted into the market place and another contagion mutated: his second marriage disintegrated amid lurid headlines, his beloved twin brother David died of cancer and Cecil himself was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2006.

The option of retirement was too simplistic and therefore was quickly dismissed. Now supported almost exclusively by Prince Khaled Abdulla, the battle against the odds – and cancer – had begun in earnest.

Cecil won the Oaks in 2007 and then acquired Frankel, a bay colt with a mind of its own (before he reluctantly succumbed to his master’s tutelage) and a penchant for biting the hands that fed him.

In essence, Frankel put the bite on everything that opposed him. He won 14 consecutive races and earned his Middle Eastern owner almost £3million. (this, of course, was dwarfed by his value at stud : £125,000 a cover), and confirmed Cecil’s renaissance.

Frankel was some horse, but then, Cecil was some trainer and some man. I’ll leave you with the whispered words of someone who died in June of 2013. His was a spirit that was truly indomitable. He banished negativity from his mind and gave access only to positivity.

Right at the end of the programme, a close-up of that once aristocratic face
spoke graphically of a tumultuous struggle. If any additional emphasis was required, the dialogue provided it.

“What a great horse,” he said. “He (Frankel) was exceptional. I find it a little bit of a strain, having not been well through the year – the likes of 700 hours’ chemotherapy when you can hardly walk.

“But you try to do your work at the same time. It’s difficult. I do find it quite frustrating and demanding, but I think he helped me, He kept me going.”


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