10/11/2012 5:31PM

Hovdey: The book on Henry Cecil - a quirky ride to the top


Henry Cecil doffed his Frankel cap and led his visitors through a side door of his home at Warren Place, in the horse crazy town of Newmarket, then made a quick right turn into his study.

“That’s a dinosaur’s egg,” he said, reaching into a corner cabinet to produce a petrified sphere. “And that’s a prehistoric shark’s tooth.”

The tooth, like a dark, oversized guitar pick, was displayed mounted in a frame hanging next to the cabinet with the dinosaur egg and across from the glass case of shelves on which armies of miniature Scots bandsmen posed in precise formation. For company the bandsmen had a rank of mounted medieval knights, the detail exquisite right down to the links in their chain mail. Cecil grabbed one to admire.

“Three thousand pounds each,” he said, replacing it gently. “Can’t afford to buy those anymore.”

Turning to a bouquet of walking sticks stuffed in a corner stand, Cecil grabbed the one with the gleaming tortoise shell finish and pointed it at one of his visitors.

“Grab it,” he demanded.

Julie Krone did as she was told, holding on tightly as Cecil yanked the head of the stick clear to expose a long, steel blade. Krone laughed with delight as Cecil sheathed the weapon.

“Again,” she said. “Do it again.”

“No,” Cecil said, returning the walking stick to its home. “You know the trick.”

This was a boy with his toys, animated and convivial above and beyond the call of any duty he might feel regarding an impromptu visit by a pair of wandering Americans. The fact that one of them was a retired Hall of Fame jockey and the other her lucky husband, an ink-stained wretch of a racing journalist, appeared to be almost beside the point of Cecil’s sharing the wonders of Warren Place with an appreciative audience, although he did seem to be more interested in the jockey than the journalist. Can’t blame the man for that.

Outside, the tour continued, to the covered round track that serves the Cecil horses so well in winter, past stalls that for the last 35 years have been home to the likes of Epsom Derby winners Slip Anchor, Reference Point, Commander in Chief and Oath, the filly Triple Crown winner Oh So Sharp, and such household names as Indian Skimmer, Kris, Ardross, Bosra Sham, Midday, Twice Over, and now Frankel, the horse of the hour, tucked away in a quiet wooden stall alongside fellow colts after a morning’s exercise up nearby Warren Hill.

“They’ve just gone,” Cecil said, apologizing for the muted, late September look to his famous rose garden fronting the two-story Victorian residence. “And we’ve just started repainting the house.”

Apologies accepted, and the tour continued, through the well-tended vegetable gardens and hot houses that dotted the sprawling grounds.

“Asparagus,” said Cecil, nodding in the direction of delicate spray of light green, as if acknowledging a Group 1 filly. “And this is the world’s oldest tree.”

At a certain point the leg feels pulled, and this was one of them. But Cecil, known for his mischievous moments, pressed on. The tree in question, a scruffy evergreen, was barely five feet high.

“It’s called a Wollemi pine,” Cecil said. “Oldest tree on earth, originally found in a cave in Australia.”

Did I mention the dinosaur egg and prehistoric shark’s tooth? By now, even after this briefest of encounters, every tale of Cecil’s eccentricities was lining up perfectly with his reputation of one of England’s greatest Thoroughbred trainers, knighted Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil in 2011 by Queen Elizabeth for exemplary service to the Thoroughbred racing industry.

There ought to be a book about Cecil, and thank goodness there is, courtesy of the veteran racing writer and television commentator Brough Scott, who was kind enough to provide this reporter with a copy of the final proof, at that moment tucked in a corner of the briefcase awaiting attention during the long flight home.

For some reason, however, the good people at Racing Post Books have decided to postpone publication of “Henry Cecil: Trainer of Genius” until next year. The whys and wherefores of publishing politics escape me, but in this case the Cecil biography can’t be in the hands of the public soon enough, and not because he is turning 70 next January, or because he is having his second go-round with cancer, or because his work with the undefeated Frankel is a fitting valedictory to a remarkable career.

It is because “Henry Cecil: Trainer of Genius” is a fabulous book.

Scott was born less than a month before Cecil, in the war-torn British winter of 1942-43, an inescapable coincidence that has given Scott the license to imbue his Cecil story with a breadth of historical scope shared only by the most qualified and ambitious biographers. In the end this is not just a book about Cecil. It is a book about British horse racing told by people whose lives – both Cecil’s and Scott’s – have been woven deeply into the pattern of that odd, enchanting world.

The roster of colorful characters is vast, rivaling the cast of “Canterbury Tales.” American readers will perk up when they get to the chapter “The Cauthen Years,” starring Kentucky’s favorite son, Steve Cauthen, who left North America at age 19 to establish himself as one of the finest jockeys Europe had ever seen, while riding primarily for Henry Cecil.

Of no less intrigue, though, are chapters hooked upon the Cecil seasons when Warren Place employed the likes of Lester Piggott, Joe Mercer, and Kieren Fallon, along with the machinations involving Cecil’s owners, both loyal and not-so. Then there is the Cecil inner circle, not the least including longtime assistant Paddy Rudkin and his invaluable staffers, both on and under the horses, like Willie Jardine. Dave Goodwin, George Winsor, and Steve “Yarmy” Dyble. Reality shows were never this real.

To his credit, Scott does not shirk from the controversial corners of Cecil’s life: the reckless youth, the marriages, the professional highs and desperate lows, the illnesses that have so defined his later years. Neither does Scott wallow in those woes, for on balance Cecil’s story has been one of incredible accomplishment at the uppermost levels of a profession at once highly revered and easily misunderstood. Some of the best parts give Cecil the floor to share his approach:

“You like to think you know your horses,” Cecil tells Scott, “but if you start organizing them, telling them to be ready for this race or that race, then it can go wrong. What you say to them is, ‘It would be lovely if you could go for the Guineas – and I’ll go with you if you do.’”

It was time to go, and now here was Cecil beneath wood-beamed warmth of the foyer’s vaulted ceiling, bidding his American visitors farewell. Given the effects of recent chemotherapy he had earned a lie-down at the end of a long morning, but he insisted on being the gracious host, raffish to the last.

“It was a pleasure,” he said, taking my wife’s hand. “You’re a lot taller than I thought you were.”

Then turning to her husband:

“And you’re a lot shorter.”