With the passing of Henry Cecil in June it is worth considering his place in the pantheon of the great trainers. It is also worth looking back on the subsequent impact of his runners in the breeding sheds. Surprisingly, for such a successful trainer over such a long career, Henry trained very few important stallions.
Ranking as a trainer
As a ten time champion trainer, its obvious that Henry Cecil must take very high rank amongst the list of great trainers. However for me, there are a few factors that temper my enthusiasm for ranking him anywhere near Vincent O’Brien, who is the benchmark for trainers.
1. Firstly Henry had it easy. He came from a privileged background being a stepson of champion trainer and Royal trainer Cecil Boyd Rochfort and his early marriage to Julie Murless (daughter of another champion trainer and Royal trainer) meant he was quickly seated at racing’s top table. His starting position would have taken others a decade or more to achieve.
2. Apart from Wolver Hollow’s Eclipse in his first season his early years were underwhelming. A lot of tributes talk about Henry’s instinctive way with horses, however to me if there is nothing significant happening for a number of years it looks less like genius and more of a gradual tweaking of the same old methods used by others. Henry may have had a reputation for working his horses hard at Newmarket but he wasn’t much of an innovator in his methods. Gradual improvements in staff, methods and stock are a road map to training success but they are rooted in the ordinary rather than in genius.
3. Henry largely ignored the rest of the world. Henry may have felt that British racing was the best in the world but in his heyday he spurned many opportunities for his runners overseas. His tally of two US wins (Yashmak in 1997 and Midday in 2009) is very underwhelming given the relatively easy pickings available in the US for turf horses. His tally of 6 Irish classics is also less than one would expect. In my view, his Anglo-centric approach didn’t do justice to his horses or his owners by ignoring the opportunities that were available throughout the world.
4. He didn’t succeed with sprinters. I don’t know the reason for this but it is noticeable that he never trained a really top class sprinter and almost all of the big sprints are absent from his cv.
Great Stallions trained by Henry
Very Good Stallions trained
1. Kris (1976 Sharpen Up- Doubly Sure by Reliance).
Kris was a superb miler who should have won the Guineas and won 14 of his 16 races. His first crop yielded the outstanding Cecil trained triple crown winner Oh So Sharp (1982 Kris ex Oh So Fair by Graustark). His second crop yielded Irish 2000 Guineas winner Flash of Steel (1983 Kris ex Spark of Fire by Run the Gauntlet). His final career stats show 75 black type winners from 846 foals, a very creditable 9% and include other Group 1 winners such as Shavian, Rafha and Balisada. However Kris is regarded as a fillies sire and no important sire sons have emerged to continue his male line.
2. Diesis (1980 Sharpen Up- Doubly Sure by Reliance)
A brother to Kris, Diesis was a brilliant two year old who achieved a rare Middle Park, Dewhurst double. Like his brother he made an immediate impression with an outstanding filly in his first crop-namely Diminuendo (1985 Diesis ex Cacti by Tom Rolfe). Other Oaks winners followed in Ramruma (1996 Diesis ex Princess of Man by Green God) and Love Divine (1997 Diesis ex La Sky by Law Society). However unlike his brother there was not the same sex bias amongst his offspring who ranged from sprinters such as Keen Hunter (1987 Diesis ex Love’s Reward by Nonoalco) to milers such as Docksider (1995 Diesis ex Pump by Forli) and superb 10 furlong performers in Halling (1991 Diesis ex Dance Machine by Green Dancer) and Elmaamul (1987 Diesis ex Modena by Roberto). His final stud statistics showed 82 black type winners from 1069 foals (8%) and his sire line is just barely hanging on through Muhtathir (a son of Elmaamul and sire of Doctor Dino) and Halling who has a few sons at stud.
Really Disappointing Stallions Trained by Henry
1. Reference Point (1984 Mill Reef ex Home on the Range by Habitat)
An above average Derby winner who won a Futurity at two and seemed to have the pedigree to succeed at stud. He was very disappointing and his early death was not lamented by many breeders.
2. Hello Gorgeous (1977 Mr Prospector ex Bonny Jet by Jet Jewel)
As a winner of a Dante and Futurity (aka Racing Post Trophy) and a son of the new American sensation Mr Prospector, Hello Gorgeous proved popular at Coolmore and big money was paid for many of his early offspring. He was a disaster and led to a distrust of sons of Mr Prospector in Europe that took a long time to fade. His final stats show 10 black type winners from 510 foals (2%).
2. Old Vic (1986 Sadler’s Wells ex Cockade by Derring Do).
From the first crop of Sadler’s Wells, Old Vic was a brilliant winner of the Irish and French Derby’s. Retired to Dalham Hall he was very disappointing as a flat sire before proving to be an exceptional jumps stallion.
Of Henry’s other Derby winners, Oath (1996 Fairy King ex Sheer Audacity by Troy) and Commander in Chief(1990 Dancing Brave ex Slightly Dangerous by Roberto) found themselves in Japan and failed to make much impact. Slip Anchor (1982 Shirley Heights ex Sayonara by Birkhahn) did reasonably well, but as a stamina source was never fashionable enough to attract sufficient high quality mares.
National Hunt sires
Henry was associated with many great stayers such as Le Moss (1975 Le Levanstall ex Feemoss by Ballymoss), Ardross (1976 Run the Gauntlet ex Le Melody by Levmoss) and Buckskin (1973 Yelapa ex Bete A Bon Dieu by Herbager) . He trained a lot of other horses who also made names as national hunt stallions such as Gunner B (1973 Royal Gunner ex Sweet Councillor by Privy Councillor), Moscow Society (Nijinsky ex Afifa by Dewan). In addition to the previously mentioned leading jumps sire Old Vic, he also trained the King George winner King’s Theatre (1991 Sadler’s Wells ex Regal Beauty by Princely Native) who became champion NH sire.
Henry’s standing as a great trainer is not in doubt and only Michael Stoute has stronger claims to be regarded as the outstanding British trainer of the modern era. A trainers job is to train horses for the racecourse and he has no influence on whether they succeed as stallions. It is of no relevance to Henry’s standing as a trainer that he was not associated with any horses who proved to be great stallions. It is just one of those statistical curiosities. His success as a trainer of stayers inevitably meant that he was associated with horses who ended up earning their oats as national hunt stallions. Henry’s greatest project, Frankel is now embarking on his stud career and he has every prospect of success, so there could yet be a great stallion associated with the Cecil name.