Popular, theatrical race-horse trainer who notched 25 classic winners
Henry Cecil : Born January 11th 1943; Died June 11th 2013
Horse racing trainer Sir Henry Cecil with Frankel at Ascot in June 2012. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Sir Henry Cecil, who has died aged 70, was one of the most successful and popular racehorse trainers of the past century. He is the only trainer since 1900 to have trained 25 classic winners, while his achievement in becoming champion trainer 10 times has been bettered only once. In 2012 his career was crowned by “wonder horse” Frankel, regarded by many as the best racehorse of the past 40 years.
Cecil’s effete, theatrical manner might have suggested an artistic lifestyle rather than a role in a competitive, cut-throat sport, but single-minded ambition enabled him to succeed. At his peak in the 1980s he trained 220 horses in two stables for many of the world’s most distinguished owners. However, his career was almost destroyed by a catalogue of controversies and misjudgments.
His home and stables at Warren Place, Newmarket were acquired through his marriage in 1966 to Julie Murless, daughter of legendary trainer Sir Noel Murless. They were a formidable team.
In 1990 Cecil won his ninth trainer’s title, but that season saw his life, and career, begin to unravel. His affair with and subsequent marriage to former stable girl Natalie Payne, 24 years his junior, brought about the gradual disintegration of all that had been built up in the previous 25 years.
Following their divorce, Julie set up her own training business. Many of the most valued staff left Warren Place, some to join Julie, while several key owners moved their horses elsewhere.
Despite this, Cecil never forfeited his popularity with the racing public. The last years of his life saw a remarkable transformation in his fortunes.
A twin, he was born in Aberdeen to Rohays, the daughter of a baronet. His father, also Henry, was the younger brother of a peer. Two weeks before his birth his father was killed in action in North Africa.
In 1979 his association with Joe Mercer enabled the veteran jockey to become champion for the first time, aged 45. But that autumn, amid some mystery, the jockey resigned, and Lester Piggott took over as stable jockey. In the following four years, the duo were rarely far from the headlines.
The new team got off to the best possible start in 1981, when Fairy Footsteps won the 1,000 Guineas. The following season Cecil was champion trainer for the fourth time and Piggott champion jockey for the 11th time.
In 1984 a scandal erupted over an unofficial payment contract Cecil tried to arrange with his owners on Piggott’s behalf. Always shy and sensitive beneath his dilettante exterior, Cecil found the complications of “life with Piggott” too much, and in June that year he announced that Steve Cauthen would take over from Piggott.
The next five years were the happiest of Cecil’s career. There were his first two Derby wins, victories in the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger, two other Oaks winners and a fourth St Leger success in 10 years.
Cecil developed stomach cancer in 2006. In the following years he stopped drinking; he married Jane McKeown; he was knighted in 2011; and in 2012 his 2,000 Guineas winner, Frankel, was hailed as one of the all-time greats.
Cecil’s courage during his illness was remarkable. Chemotherapy and his difficulty in digesting food saw his weight plunge. Yet at 6am every day, he would brave the winds to watch his string galloping and to welcome his friends.
He is survived by Jane; a son, Noel, and daughter, Katie, from his first marriage; and a son, Jake, from his second.