04/23/2013 8:34PM

Oh Henry


In "Henry Cecil - Trainer of Genius," biographer Brough Scott describes his subject as having "blacksmith's hands and an artist's face," then goes on:

"He is both a complex and a simple man. He can be dauntingly direct one minute and winningly vulnerable the next. But in the early years of the new century the winning ways seemed to have deserted him as a series of sometimes self-induced blows left him a cancer-ridden ember of his glory days."

So begins a remarkable journey, driven by the life of one of Great Britain's most admired, and controversial, Thoroughbred racing figures. The respected journalist Scott, a contemporary of Cecil's and a gifted horseman in his own right, has crafted a book of breadth and depth that puts to shame many of the celebrity biographies cluttering the shelves and e-files these days. Given the level of Cecil's accomplishmens -- 36 European classics, 10 British training titles, the horse named Frankel -- a less inspired writer might be tempted to merely enumerate, with embellishments, and let the book be sold by its cover. Scott, on the other hand, never cuts a corner. He has thrown heart and soul into a thorough examination, both historical and psychological, in order to "take a fresh look at what really drives this racing knight."

American audiences do not have a particularly clear view of Cecil. For all his champion horses, he has never been nearly as internationally adventurous as Clive Brittain, Michael Stoute, John Gosden, Aidan O'Brien or Dermot Weld. By season's end, when the others were off to Japan, Hong Kong or various Breeders' Cups, Cecil was the one who stayed back home, bedding down for the winter in anticipation of the new year to come. This attitude seemed born of Cecil's inherently organic approach to training Thoroughbreds, as well as an abiding belief that the enterprise is difficult enough without courting variables that should be avoided. In this regard, if Cecil reminds the reader of Allen Jerkens, Frank Whiteley, John Nerud or some of the other iconic American originals, you'll get no argument from me.

There is little doubt anyone possessed of basic racing history will enjoy wallowing in Scott's presentation of the sport as refracted through the prism of top-class British racing over the last half of the 20th and opening decade of the 21st centuries. Highlighted by the fortunes of the Cecil stable, the journey embraces the the greatest events on the European calendar, the ebb and flow of significant patrons, and the intimate relationships between Cecil and the series of legendary jockeys who rode most of his horses, led by Joe Mercer, Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen, Mick Kinane and Kieren Fallon.

I adored this book because I love to chew on a meal served up by a traditional storyteller like Scott, whose work has been paramount to the coverage of the sport in The Times of London and the Racing Post, as well as a shelf of fine books. There are times he'll circle the field before landing on a point, but the view while he circles is grand, and many times necessary to bring a complex man like Cecil to life on the page. After all, from some angles Cecil is hardly the most sympathetic character in racing literature. He inherited his first training yard from his step-father then married into his second, the rambling Warren Place in Newmarket. He drank, he partied, and he wore clothing straight out of Carnaby Street. His three marriages were accompanied by two bitterly public breakups. Cecil did things the rest of us -- admit it -- would love to try if we weren't convinced our mothers would get wind.

So yes, Cecil was a wild guy and probably still would be if he wasn't so busy in mortal combat these past seven years with the stomach cancer that migrated to his throat. His struggle with the disease, accompanied by an alarming fall from the upper reaches of the British training ranks, made his climb back to the top with horses like Midday, Twice Over and the unbeaten Frankel all the more amazing.

Through statements released through his website, Cecil has disowned the book, citing his disappointment with the inclusion of "some unhappy and difficult phases in my life...." At the same time Cecil did not quibble with the book's accounts, which may be the greatest tribute such a thorough biography can earn. No one wants to have the warts and all displayed, no matter how glorious the surrounding laurels, and for a biographer it's a tricky tango. But readers are smart. They can tell when a story is being fudged, and if they are forced to read between too many lines they'll finally decide it's not worth the trouble.

Scott's book is very much worth the time, illustrating in vivid, unflagging detail what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he wrote that "glory comes from the unchanging din-din-din of one supreme gift." Predictably, Cecil's refusal to endorse the book has helped put "Henry Cecil - Trainer of Genius" on its way to being a best-seller. It's a great story, well told, and someday, if Henry Cecil decides to read it, I'm betting he'll agree.