Today Sir Henry Cecil was due at York Races with his legendary racehorse Frankel. Chris Titley talked to the trainer on a previous visit to his North Yorkshire bolthole
Sir Henry Cecil takes a slurp of his coffee, puffs on his cigarette and looks around. “It’s a lovely place. I love it,” he says. “Unfortunately I don’t get up here very often.”
Here is Cliff Stud, 250 acres of lush meadowland which is home to some of horseracing’s 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 sport’s greatest ever trainers, he is inextricably linked with his stables in Newmarket. But this land, leased from Lord Feversham’s Duncombe Park Estate in North Yorkshire, is clearly very important to him.
“Unfortunately I don’t get up here very often. About five nights a year, which is rather sad really.”
Few know it exists. “It’s the best kept secret in Yorkshire,” says 54-year-old Guy Stephenson, who has managed Cliff Stud for the past seven years.
Although regularly acclaimed by crowds of tens of thousands, today 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 not relishing interviews 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.
[column width=”55%” padding=”5%”]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.
“Newmarket’s 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 it’s 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.”[/column][column width=”40%” padding=”0″]
I’ve always been competitive. I don’t like being an also ran. I like a challenge. I never want to go out as some sort of disaster or failure. I couldn’t face that from the point of view of my family, my children, or myself
Most of these horses go to other trainers, so the stud is not a source of potential winners for Sir Henry.
“I don’t make money out of having this here. It’s a question of trying to break even. But the whole place serves a purpose. It’s a lovely place to have.”
For a time the stud was run by Sir Henry’s twin brother David Cecil. “When he came back from America I 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. I’m lucky now I’ve got Guy who’s very good.”
David died of cancer in 2000, which Sir Henry has described as like losing half of him. The ten-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 69 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 their whole life is rosy,” he says. “A lot of people have bad periods in their life. I had about five, six years when I went right down to the bottom.
“People would say, that’s Henry Cecil over there, he should have retired long ago.
“I’ve always been competitive. I don’t like being an also ran. I like a challenge. I never want to go out as some sort of disaster or failure.
“I couldn’t 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 four-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 I’ve 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 are lucky to see Frankel competing in the Juddmonte in York. Sir Henry is rationing the colt’s outings.
“Everybody has different ways of doing things. My way has always been to watch carefully and let them tell me what I should be doing. I don’t 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 stud’s enduring history is demonstrated by a plaque to St Paddy, bred here in the Fifties, 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 night’s sleep.
The trainer’s 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 wouldn’t recommend the life to his youngest son Jake, 17. “I’d rather my son went in to landscape gardening. Something less stressful. There’s 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. I love the Yorkshire people and I love Yorkshire.”