07/13/2011 3:19PM

Cecil settling in early at Del Mar


If you are a trainer operating a public stable and feel compelled to have any style at all in terms of public image, Del Mar is a challenge.

You pass through the main gate of the barn area driving over a cattle guard. When you leave, you can only turn right. Parking is a crapshoot, most of it on dirt. The barns themselves – except for the multi-purpose monstrosities nearest the grandstand – escape attention for pretty much the entire 10 months since the previous closing day. Graffiti lingers from year to year, some of it dating back to the Clinton administration.

On Wednesday, one week before the opening of the meet, a pair of work boots dangled from an electrical wire strung between Barns E and DD, offering a Del Mar welcome to the early arrivals. Some trainers sent rouge and landscaping ahead in hopes of sprucing up the joint. Jim Cassidy’s sod was freshly laid. Mike Machowsky’s corner was humming with homey activity. And while Jamie Lloyd’s horses had not yet arrived, his forest of potted palms were present and accounted for.

After giving the stall doors a fresh coat of dark blue paint, Ben Cecil’s crew was still raking away the rocks dotting what passes for a walking ring that circled the temporary pens nestled between his 20 or so facing stalls. In one of those shaded pens lounged a petite British filly by the name of Carousel – highly appropriate given her surrounding view – who did her racing back home for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (Charles and Camilla for you “News of the World” readers) but is now owned by Mike House, a hands-on cowboy who used to own a gelding named Battle of Hastings, which took place in England nearly a thousand years ago.

“She’s small, but I don’t necessarily mind that in a filly,” Cecil said. “And she’s by Pivotal, whom I like very much. She broke her maiden over there, so we’ll get a chance to see where she belongs here.”

Cecil could be found sitting alone with his thoughts on one of the backstretch guinea stands. When asked, he offered an explanation of why he was among the few who had fled Los Angeles with four days of racing left to run at Hollywood Park.

“A different kind of air down here,” said Cecil, who had been stabled in the increasingly uncomfortable heat of Santa Anita Park. “Plus, with Santa Anita closing the main track for renovation, even though I’d done most of my work on the training track there I’m still a big believer in these tracks. Certainly, the rest of the world is going that direction.”

Cecil was nodding in the direction of the main track, comprised of a version of Polytrack that will have its fifth summer at Del Mar. Do not bother comparing photos from that 2007 season, though, with what’s underfoot these days. The cloudy gray of the original recipe has turned dark brown, leading one to believe that synthetics age, or stain, or are modified with additives through the years.

At any rate, it made sense to Cecil to get his horses over the ground at Del Mar in advance of the meet. You take what edge you can. Despite his resume of stakes winners, including 2001 Del Mar Oaks winner Golden Apples and 2009 Del Mar Mile winner Ferneley, Cecil is one of many name-brand Southern California trainers who have been hit by a shortage of owner investment. A few winners during the high-profile summer meet could go a long way.

If nothing else, Cecil can take some encouragement from the comeback of his famous uncle, Henry Cecil, the 13-time British champion who trains the 3-year-old wonder-miler Frankel for Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farm. Frankel has ascended to the top of the World Rankings with a perfect 7-for-7 record, most recently taking the St. James’s Palace Stakes during the Royal Ascot meet in June. Ben Cecil was there.

“My wife and I watched the race from right at the finish post,” Cecil said. “It was very exciting, and especially so when you think of how my uncle was very much in the doldrums just five years ago, terribly down on horses. I’m sure it affected him deeply.”

And then the world turned, putting Sir Henry back on top. While abroad, Ben, who is 42, carries with him an undeniable Cecil family resemblance, which should not be surprising since David Cecil, his late father, was Henry’s twin.

“Yes, someone did congratulate me while I was at Ascot,” Cecil confirmed. “But he disappeared into the crowd before I could correct him.”

If congratulations are due, they would be best directed to the youngest member of the Cecil clan. Hugo Cecil was born to Ben and his wife, Kristy, on May 16, 2010, at 1 1/2 pounds and three months premature. He required several surgeries, constant monitoring, and a long hospitalization before he could safely go home. But he made it, and that was Hugo Cecil on the plane to England last month with his folks.

“He made quite an impression with the family in England," Cecil said. “He’s still very small, but you can’t think of how big he is in terms of his age, because he was so premature. He’s doing well, although he still wears a protective helmet. And he’ll always have those surgical scars. He’s a really happy little boy.

“In May they had a reunion of families with premature babies at Huntington Memorial,” Cecil added. “It’s something they do every two years. There were pony rides. All the doctors show up to see the kids. These are people we‘ll stay close to the rest of our lives.”

Now if Hugo can just see the inside of the Del Mar winner’s circle.