For a time, during his fallow years, Henry Cecil was a man who was here but not really around, a trainer detached on a hill in Warren Place as well as from his great glory years. At Royal Ascot, the opposite was achieved.
Cecil had left us but his imprint was everywhere, not least in the winner’s enclosure. Only a curmudgeon would argue that Riposte and the ill-fated Thomas Chippendale could not effectively be considered the 76th and 77th successes of his string’s efforts at the Royal meeting. Thus Cecil posthumously continued the revival he had wished for when I met him at the depths of his career – 94th in the trainers’ championship and with just 50 horses in his care. “I just want to come back a little bit,” he said at the time. “I would hate to retire on a down.”
That he did not was perhaps the greatest of Henry Cecil’s achievements. Gifted an aristocratic lifestyle and gilded office from an early age, he could have been expected to crumble with the edifice of his decaying career. He did not. He pulled on his Doc Martens, got out on the mean streets and scrapped. He cleaned up his act and, with great serendipity, was rewarded with a new wave of brilliant horses led by Frankel.
Gifted an aristocratic lifestyle and gilded office from an early age, Cecil could have been expected to crumble with the edifice of his decaying career
Cecil may not have been academically gifted, but he was not daft enough to believe he was the important part of his sporting partnership. “Good horses make good jockeys and good trainers, not the other way round,” he said. “I can’t come back without the material, good horses. I can’t give them wings.”
We were again reminded of this occasionally forgotten truism when a trainer from the very highest level retired recently. It does not seem that long ago that Noel Chance was training two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners in four years, the master of his trade. Now, he still wakes up at 5.30am but then he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
Chance probably dreams of the afternoon in 1997 when Mr Mulligan, who had been purchased with the business lolly of the ice-cream cone manufacturer Michael Worcester, came bounding up the Prestbury Park hill. Certainly he was not an easy horse to forget, less a paradigm of God’s finest animal creation and rather the sort of crude painting a child might scribble with a crayon. “He was this great orange thing with white spots,” Worcester said.
“After Mr Mulligan won the Gold Cup some fellow told me that it must be my finest hour,” Chance added. “I didn’t say so, but I thought to myself ‘certainly not!’ Winning a race ten years ago to survive was my finest hour. Banks don’t look too favourably on the training fraternity. It’s too dodgy for them. They don’t appreciate the phrase ‘fell at the last’. But we’re still here because there is no substitute for experience in a hard school.”
Chance does not much fancy answering to the bank manager any more and, 13 years after Looks Like Trouble gave him a second Gold Cup, he’s getting out. It may have all been different if, like Cecil, another superstar had come trotting up the lane in Lambourn.
“For the last six or seven years I’ve been looking to get my hands on the next good horse but it hasn’t come along,” he said. “I could see four or five years forward and I could see myself in a spot of bother. I didn’t want to go skint.”
So, as usual, Noel Chance will take the summer off. He will get out his rod and search for the only big fish he is interested in any more. He won’t be back with all the other trainers looking for an athletic celebrity to keep him afloat. But he does not depart with any recriminations.
“It’s a wonderful life,” he said. “I never had a bob, but I didn’t eat in a bad restaurant or stay in a bad hotel. It’s a surreal existence training racehorses. You’re dealing in vast amounts of money belonging to other people and you tend to lose touch with reality to a certain extent. You tend to lose the value of money, particularly when it’s other people’s.
“We would make a living now rather than a lot of money. Bad prize-money is the problem. The fellow working at the Honda factory in Swindon would be earning a lot more money than me if he did the same hours that I do.
“But there is such a thing as quality of life, and you could pay ten times as much and you wouldn’t get me on that assembly line.”