Cecil’s true-life story has a plot that defies fiction

Brough Scott’s long-awaited biography of Sir Henry Cecil is published next week. ANTON RIPPON reviews it

The story of Henry Cecil could have been the product of the imagination of a top novelist – decades of success at the very highest level of horse racing followed by years in the professional wilderness, together with deep personal problems including life-threatening illness, and then the most magnificent resurrection with a horse widely regarded as the greatest racer of all time.

Sir Henry Cecil: engrossing life story
Sir Henry Cecil: engrossing life story

No such writer was required to produce such a story. It is true; it happened. And the man charged with the responsibility of turning such a remarkable tale into a book is SJA member Brough Scott, three times the Sports Feature Writer of the Year, TV presenter, editorial director of the Racing Post and a former jockey who rode at Aintree and Cheltenham.

Scott’s Henry Cecil: Trainer of Genius, to be published on April 12, is up there with the very best sporting dramas, but it is a gripping story that goes well beyond the boundaries of sport.

Henry Cecil – we should call him “Sir Henry”, of course; he was knighted in the Queen’s 2011 Birthday Honours for services to racing – is one of the most successful racehorse trainers in history: in this country alone, 25 Classics wins, including the Derby four times; around the world, many other big-race victories. The public love him, this retiring, foppish figure from an aristocratic family. In return he loves the racing public, who he acknowledges with a shy tilt of the head.

The drama in his story comes from the fact that, after enormous success there followed a barren six-year period at the start of the 21st century when he did not train as much as a single Group One winner. Well before then, his relationship with owner Sheikh Mohammed had broken down and his first marriage had broken up.

Then his second marriage suffered a very public breakup; following the deaths of several owner-breeders with whom he had enjoyed close working relationships, his yard was losing money; and his twin brother David, an alcoholic, died of cancer.

In 2000 Henry Cecil lost his wife, the custody of his son, his driving licence and his own sobriety. Eventually it was revealed that Cecil himself had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

At last, in 2007, Cecil won the Oaks with Light Shift. It was the trainer’s 24th Classic success. Suddenly “there was a good feeling all round”. Then, of course, came the unbeatable Khalid Abdullah-owned Frankel.

Brough Scott is well-placed – perhaps best placed – to tell Sir Henry Cecil’s rollercoaster story. For decades he has witnessed at close quarters the genius of the man. And through the trust and integrity he has built up in his own career as jockey and then journalist, the author has been able to talk candidly with his subject and to contemporaries, all of which has enabled him to tell this often painful story with total honesty.

  • Henry Cecil: Trainer of Genius by Brough Scott (Racing Post Books, hardback, 372pp, £20)

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