Nearly half a century ago Prime Minister Harold Wilson remarked that a week was a long time in politics. In 2011 we discovered that a week could also be a long time in racing.
On the first Saturday in June there was widespread disappointment when the well-backed favourite Carlton House failed to provide the Queen with that elusive first win in the Derby, but only seven days later we woke up to the splendid news that nine-time champion trainer Henry Cecil featured in Her Majesty’s birthday honours list with the award of a knighthood.
The cynical notion that ‘nice guys win nothing’ was never so obviously refuted as in the case of the honour bestowed to universal delight on a fellow whose essential humanity is as admirable as his supreme gifts as a conditioner of thoroughbreds.
Cecil becomes the third titled member of the Newmarket training fraternity, but whereas Sir Mark Prescott inherited a baronetcy and Sir Michael Stoute was elevated for his contribution to the tourism industry in Barbados, the new knight is on his own for being recognised for his services to horseracing. Remarkably, the two most recently honoured for their distinction as trainers before Cecil were, in 1977, Sir Noel Murless, his former father-in-law and predecessor at Warren Place, and, in 1968, his stepfather Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, whose Freemason Lodge stable he took over when launching his career in 1969. The first training knight was Sir Jack Jarvis, honoured in 1967, Sir Gordon Richards having acquired his title when still a jockey in 1953.
I suspect that it is no coincidence that the gongs for Jarvis, Boyd-Rochfort, Murless and Cecil have all come in the reign of our present Queen
Frankel’s triumph in this year’s 2,000 Guineas was Cecil’s 25th Classic winner. That tally includes four in the Derby and no fewer than eight in the Oaks. Murless’s score, between Queenpot’s 1,000 Guineas in 1948 and Mysterious’s Oaks in 1973 was 19. He won Derbys with Crepello, St Paddy and Royal Palace in a career highlighted additionally by the likes of crack sprinter Abernant and another wonderful grey in dual Classic heroine Petite Etoile. Having started in a small way in the 1930s at Hambleton, Murless took over from Fred Darling at Beckhampton in 1948 and promptly became champion trainer. He won seven more titles after moving to Newmarket, where he was regarded with something akin to reverence.
Boyd-Rochfort waited a long time for his only Derby win, with Parthia in 1959, but he had previously saddled Guineas winners in the Royal colours in Hypericum and Pall Mall, and for decades was recognised as the nation’s top trainer of stayers. Six of his 13 Classic successes came in the St Leger and he had an outstanding record in Cup races. He saddled Meld for her fillies’ Triple Crown wins in 1955, a year after the Ascot triumph that probably gave him more satisfaction than any other – that of the Queen’s Aureole in the race named in honour of her parents.
Jarvis won only nine Classics and did not even have a full set, missing out on the Oaks. Ironically, when he died at the end of 1968, his successor, Doug Smith, took charge of a filly – Sleeping Partner – who would win that race in the colours of Lord Rosebery, his chief patron for nigh on half a century. Three times champion trainer, Jarvis always spoke in glowing terms of Rosebery’s Blue Peter, the best horse he ever handled and deprived of a possible Triple Crown by the cancellation of the St Leger following the outbreak of war.
From a family steeped in training, Jarvis began in racing as a tiny apprentice, notching his first big win in the 1903 Cambridgeshire on Hackler’s Pride, who carried 6st 10lb. It was hard to imagine the tall, upstanding gent he became as a teenage lightweight, but that was not the only way he changed. When I first went racing senior colleagues warned me about a formidable, short-tempered man who did not suffer fools, but I found him in mellow mood one afternoon on the July course, when he suffered my presence willingly enough for the best part of an hour and a half, while he reminisced about a career that had lasted for well over 60 years.
I suspect that it is no coincidence that the gongs for Jarvis, Boyd-Rochfort, Murless and Cecil have all come in the reign of our present Queen, whose knowledge of and passion for racing have been on a different level from most of those who occupied the throne before her. The sport had a far higher profile before her accession, in that it connected more readily with the man in the street, but then a lifetime’s significant contribution to the racing industry was never something deemed worthy of recognition in the honours list. Nearly three centuries of Royal patronage confirmed that racing was the sport of kings, but kings were not disposed to raise the status of the professionals who earned distinction in it.
Times have changed and any notable achievement in sport may now earn due acknowledgement, but knighthoods remain rare. The first sign of change came towards the end of George VI’s reign, when Don Bradman became a knight a few months after his retirement from cricket, but the second Elizabethan era had scarcely begun when the no less worthy Jack Hobbs – 19 years after his last game – was similarly rewarded and a precedent was set with a knighthood for a still-active sportsman. Sir Gordon Richards promptly won his only Derby on Pinza, beating Her Majesty’s Aureole into second place.
There can be no doubt that if Cecil’s 40-plus years of distinction as a trainer had come in the first half of the 20th century he would not have been knighted. And that prompts me to wonder which of his predecessors in the profession, if they had thrived in our more enlightened era, might have acquired a title.
Darling, Butters and Taylor
The three who stand out are Fred Darling, Frank Butters and Alec Taylor, who between them won 24 trainers’ titles and 55 Classics. The most prolific was Taylor, who was champion 12 times between 1907 and 1925, seven times consecutively, and whose 21 Classic triumphs included the wartime Triple Crown winners Gay Crusader and Gainsborough, and who trained one better than them in their sire, Bayardo.
Butters was associated with many of the successes by runners in the Aga Khan’s colours, notably 1935 Triple Crown hero Bahram. Eight times champion, with 15 Classic victories, he went out at the top, heading the list for the last time in his final season with a licence, 1949.
No less worthy was Darling, a five-time champion whose 19 Classic victories included four in the colours of King George VI in 1942 – Big Game in the 2,000 Guineas and Sun Chariot in the fillies’ Triple Crown. Not content with equalling the long-standing record of seven Derby triumphs between Captain Cuttle in 1922 and Owen Tudor in 1941, in retirement he became the breeder of Pinza.
Among the top trainers of the 19th century, there might have been accolades for John Porter, who won 23 Classics and saddled three Triple Crown winners in the incomparable Ormonde (1886), Common (1891) and Flying Fox (1899). Similarly prolific was Mat Dawson, whose charges won 28 Classics, none of them, he reckoned, of the calibre of his ‘one real smasher’, the unbeaten St Simon, who won the Gold Cup by 20 lengths as a three-year-old.
But if they were worthy of knighthoods, perhaps only a peerage would have been appropriate for John Scott, who dominated racing in the reigns of George IV, William IV and Victoria. His record of 40 Classic wins, including 16 in the St Leger, has never been approached and will surely stand for all time.