Sir Henry Cecil about the highs and lows of his racing career and his love for Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 11:42 12 October 2011 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013

Sir Henry Cecil

Sir Henry Cecil

One of the kings of horse racing talks to Chris Titley about the highs and lows of his career and his love for Yorkshire Photographs by Joan Russell

Sir Henry Cecil takes a slurp of his coffee, puffs on his cigarette and looks around. a lovely place. I love it, he says. He is talking about Cliff Stud, 250 acres of lush meadowland which is home to some of horseracings past and future superstars. Dotted round the fields are former winners and their foals. In one paddock alone graze animals worth around 2 million.


While Sir Henry is known as one of the sports greatest trainers, he is inextricably linked with his stables in Newmarket. But this land, leased from Lord Fevershams Duncombe Park Estate in North Yorkshire, is clearly very important to him. Unfortunately I dont get up here very often. About five nights a year which is rather sad really.

Few know it exists. Its the best kept secret in Yorkshire, says 54-year-old Guy Stephenson, who has managed Cliff Stud for the past seven years.

We are meeting a day after Sir Henry had been acclaimed by a 20,000-strong crowd at York Racecourse when his horses took first and second places in the prestigious Juddmonte International stakes. This morning no one has a clue he is here. It probably suits him this way. Sir Henry is far happier working with his horses than stepping in to the limelight. But despite his shyness he is a warm, knowledgeable and funny companion.

He begins with a brief history lesson. Founded just before the last war, Cliff Stud was taken over by champion trainer Noel Murless in 1948, who was based at the top of Sutton Bank. When he moved south, to Warren Place in Newmarket, he kept the Yorkshire stud.

Noel was father-in-law to Sir Henry, who now runs both Warren Place and Cliff Stud. Because of its slightly high and dry position, its limestone base and good drainage, the stud is the perfect place for young horses to roam free and grow strong bones.

This is a rearing, breeding area which, in my mind, is much better than around Newmarket, says Sir Henry. Newmarkets had horses on it for so long. Here we have more than 200 acres and we probably have say, 30-something animals on it.

The thing about Cliff is that its very good land. We can give the animals a much more natural upbringing. Our yearlings run out in the paddocks 24 hours a day in the natural way.

Most of these horses go to other trainers, so the stud is not a source of potential winners for Sir Henry. dont make money out of having this here. Its a question of trying to break even. But the whole place serves a purpose.

Its a lovely place to have.

For a time the stud was run by Sir Henrys twin brother David Cecil. When he came back from America gave him the job managing the stud and he did it very well. He was very good with animals, he was a great help. It was nice to keep it in the family. Im lucky now Ive got Guy whos very good.

David died of cancer in 2000, which Sir Henry has described as like losing half of him. The 10-times champion trainer, with more than 3,000 winners ridden by the likes of Lester Piggott, Kieren Fallon and Pat Eddery, fell from supremacy. He endured two divorces, his stables shrank and so did his number of winners. And, just as he hit the comeback trail, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Today he looks tanned, healthy and younger than his 68 years. With his aristocratic features and voice he could pass for a relative of King George VI. He married for the third time in 2008 and is back at the top of his game.

For most people, not the whole of life is rosy, he says. A lot of people have bad periods in their life. I had about five, six years when went right down to the bottom. People would say, thats Henry Cecil over there, he should have retired long ago.

Ive always been competitive. dont like being an also ran. like a challenge. I dont want to go out as some sort of disaster or failure. couldnt face that from the point of view of my family, my children, or myself really.

A big reason why life looks better today is a three-year-old racehorse called Frankel. An animal which seems to be able to win Group 1 races at will, including the 2,000 Guineas, Frankel is class the best horse Ive ever seen Sir Henry has said.

Did he know this was a special horse when he first saw him? You have a feeling. As time goes on you realise that it could be something better than average. We might see Frankel competing in the Juddmonte in York next year. Sir Henry is rationing the colts outings.

Everybody has different ways of doing things. My way has always been to watch carefully and let them tell me what should be doing. dont try and tell them.

As we walk round Cliff Stud, his way with horses becomes clear. Foals and mares come up and nuzzle him as he talks to them in a gentle murmur.
The studs enduring history is demonstrated by a plaque to St Paddy, bred here in the 1950s, and winner of the Derby and St Leger among other classics. It was the first of many winners reared above Helmsley.

On a beautiful day working here could seem like an idyllic life. But in winter it can be tough during the snow storms last year, Guy and his team spent all day carrying water to the animals. And at foaling time he can go weeks without a proper nights sleep.

The trainers life is hard too. Sir Henry is up at 4am every morning. And all his work can be undone by an unexpected injury to a horse. He wouldnt recommend the life to his youngest son Jake, 17. Id rather my son went in to landscape gardening; something less stressful. Theres quite a lot of stress in racing.

There are highs, of course, when the winners come home. And for Sir Henry, travelling up here is stress-free. The racing people at York love seeing a good horse. love the Yorkshire people and love Yorkshire.



The print version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life

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