Nobody with an appreciation of the higher rituals in our sport could contemplate Ascot's Royal meeting without an eye-moistening recall of its two most famous sons, Frankel and the late great Henry Cecil. In our walk down memory's lane last week, Cheryl and I made our first real-life acquaintance with the great horse himself at Juddmonte's Banstead Manor, where this grand beast is magnificently ensconced alongside last year's miler phenomenon, Kingman, and the block-busting stallions Oasis Dream and Dansili. In any other line-up, men of the ilk of Bated Breath, Champs Elysees and Cacique would demand preferential mention, but at Banstead, they're among the also-rans, and it seems that with their Ascot aspirant and French Derby hero of a fortnight ago, New Bay, the story of Khalid Abdulla's supremacy still has many chapters to go.
Emma Berry tells the story of the fittingly dark and wet morning of the 19 October 2012, when Frankel appeared for the last time on Newmarket's Heath. One steady canter up Warren Hill in company, as ever, with his brother Bullet Train was followed by a walk back, through the woods at the top, for home. Before he reached Warren Place, where he had been stabled throughout three gloriously unforgettable seasons, he was met by Sir Henry Cecil, who saw him safely across the Moulton Road. The trainer's giant hand clapped his star pupil on the neck as he crossed, as if to say, "My work is done, it's all up to you now." A little over 24 hours later, Frankel completed his 14th straight victory and bade farewell to his adoring fans in a blaze of publicity on Ascot's Champions Day. Make that Champion's Day, for there was only one that day.
The huddle of people that had gathered on Warren Hill the previous morning to see that last easy stretch had already said goodbye, with raindrops conveniently masking tear-strewn cheeks. An important chapter in Newmarket's rich racing history had ended, and we turned for home knowing that in after days the Heath would feel a little emptier without that singular daily presence of greatness.
Of course, long before Frankel came along, his trainer had made Newmarket Heath his own. Plenty of other good trainers have been based in the Suffolk town before, during and after his tenure, but nobody has seemed quite as at home on its swathes of springy turf as Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, whose initials are still borne on the exercise sheets of horses from Warren Place two years after his passing.
It seemed somehow appropriate that the trainer of 25 British Classic winners occupied the sole yard at the top of Warren Hill, keeping Cecil at one lofty remove from his colleagues in stables scattered beneath him, across the town. Not that he treated anyone as if they were beneath him, despite his aristocratic origins and his undisputed place at racing's top stable across four decades. No amount of success could ever quite conquer his diffidence, ensuring that his self-deprecating post-race analyses, conducted with his head cocked to one side in trademark fashion, won him a legion of fans from all social backgrounds.
Though born in Scotland and returned to its soil after his death two years ago this Thursday, he will remain one of Newmarket's favorite sons, his name - along with Frankel's - one of six to be embedded in flagstones on the inaugural Walk of Fame in the High Street last year. When it comes to race meetings, however, it is at Royal Ascot that Cecil's absence is most keenly felt.
He still holds the record of 75 winners at the meeting, a remarkable seven of which were recorded in 1987 alone. Fittingly, Frankel provided the final brace in the St. James's Palace Stakes and Queen Anne Stakes of 2011 and 2012, though Lady Jane Cecil, cut from similarly modest cloth to her late husband, would doubtless argue that his record stands at 76, with the perfectly named Riposte having secured an emotional victory in the Ribblesdale Stakes just nine days after Sir Henry finally succumbed to the cancer that plagued his final years.
To mark the start of this year's Royal Ascot meeting, Britain's Channel 4 has released a documentary entitled The Trainer and the Racehorse: The Legend of Frankel, but it deals as much with the legend of Cecil himself as it does with the equine champion with whom his name is now indelibly entwined.
At a preview screening in London on Monday, Juddmonte's Chief Executive Douglas Erskine-Crum was at pains to point out the pressure felt within at naming a horse after another of the operation's genius trainers, Bobby Frankel, who had himself died from cancer the year after his equine namesake was foaled. The son of Galileo and Juddmonte's blue hen, Kind, swiftly allayed any such fears and brought his own trainer more comfort than any drugs could deliver as his illness tightened its grip.
Towards the end of the film, Cecil admits what most of us had surmised during Frankel's final season. With significant understatement he says, "I found it a bit of a strain that year, having had about 700 hours of chemotherapy, but Frankel kept me going."
Cecil, who was knighted by the Queen for services to horse racing in 2011, had already engineered a Lazarus-like return to the pomp of his glory days as a trainer following a well documented and prolonged lean spell around the turn of the century.
Frankel was perhaps his reward for effort in the face of adversity through those dark days, offering a final chance to deploy every bit of intuitive nous in his possession to channel the talents of the feisty colt. That he did with aplomb, and in turn gave horse racing a champion its fans would never forget.
Many superlatives have been hurled Frankel's way. Cecil said simply of the horse he adored, "He was exceptional."
It takes one two know one.
Excerpt from Thoroughbred Daily News / Emma Berry
The Spectator (p)