Memories of York we will cherish – Lady Cecil

Jockey James Doyle and trainer Lady Cecil in the parade ring during the Summer Stakes Day of the 2014 John Smith's Cup Meeting at York Racecourse, York.
Jockey James Doyle and trainer Lady Cecil in the parade ring during the Summer Stakes Day of the 2014 John Smith's Cup Meeting at York Racecourse, York.
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LADY JANE CECIL is not just a trainer who will make history today if she becomes the first person in a generation to saddle successive renewals of the Betfred Ebor if Mighty Yar or Retirement Plan prevail in Europe’s richest handicap today.

She is also ‘the rock’ who gave so much support to her late husband Sir Henry Cecil during the final years of his life as he oversaw the career of the incomparable Frankel with such precision while fighting a personal battle against cancer.

It is why York – and the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival in particular – will always have a very special place in Lady Cecil’s heart.

After all, this is the racetrack where Sir Henry enjoyed so much success, not least with the legendary Frankel two summers ago, and where Tiger Cliff won an emotional Ebor less than three months after her husband had passed away.

It is a story tinged with a poignant post-script – Tiger Cliff, who was switched to Alan King’s stables last winter to begin a National Hunt career, lost his life when racing on the Flat at Royal Ascot this year.

Yet Lady Cecil’s training career continues to blossom thanks to the loyalty of her owners, the commitment of her staff at Warren Place in Newmarket and horses like the rejuvenated Noble Mission who won an emotional Grade One Tattersalls Gold Cup in May following an inspired James Doyle ride.

The poignancy was palpable – Noble Mission, like Frankel and Ebor contender Retirement Plan, runs in the pink, green and white colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah who stood by Sir Henry when his career teetered with financial ruin just over a decade ago.

Prince Khalid’s racing manager, Lord Teddy Grimthorpe, is also York Racecourse’s chairman, and this triumph against the odds meant that the Cecil flag could once again be raised above Warren Place – Sir Henry’s unique way of celebrating every win at the very highest level.

“Prince Khalid and Lord Grimthorpe have been immensely supportive – just as they were for so many years with Henry. It was lovely that we were able to, in some way, repay their faith in us with Noble Mission’s Group One win. That was a great day for team Warren Place,” Lady Cecil told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

“There is nothing like the feeling a winner gives you. It was wonderful to win the Ebor last year on what was a very busy day.

“I was at Goodwood to saddle Stipulate in the Group Two Celebration Mile and then we had to swiftly head to Windsor for Al Waab, who was in the Group Three Winter Hill Stakes. They both finished second, so it was great that Tiger Cliff won for us at York.

“Mighty Yar is a horse that Henry always liked. He won on his debut as a two-year-old and then again on his sole start at three. This season he has performed solidly, winning a handicap at Newmarket and also finishing second last time out at York in a mile and a half handicap.

“The way he was staying on strongly on that occasion suggests he should be suited by the extra distance of the Ebor. He has shown a preference for quicker ground, so we are hoping that the rain stays away.

“Retirement Plan had a small setback after running in the Spring at Thirsk. We’ve been patient with him and so it was lovely to see him win well on Shergar Cup day. That race was only a fortnight ago, but he has come out of it very well and, with the Ebor being such a prestigious race, we feel it is well worth him taking his chance. It is a drop back in trip, but I am sure it will be a strongly-run race, so – fingers crossed – that shouldn’t inconvenience him.”

The Ebor, a one and three quarter mile handicap which dates back to 1843, was a particular favourite of Sir Henry who saddled Kneller and Tuning to victory.

Yet racing is also in Lady Cecil’s genes; her brother Rae Guest won the 1997 Yorkshire Oaks with My Emma before the family enjoyed an even greater triumph four years later when Richard Guest won the 2001 Grand National on the mudlark Red Marauder. He now trains near Wetherby. “One of my fondest memories is when Rae won the Yorkshire Oaks with My Emma – that was a great day,” said Lady Cecil.

“I know Henry always had a huge fondness for York – racegoers at the course really love and understand the sport.

“That was something Henry recognised, plus he had a lot of success at the track as well. I can recall being here with him when Midday won the Yorkshire Oaks – that was a win that meant a lot to him as did Twice Over’s success in the 2011 Juddmonte International. Then, of course, there was Frankel’s fantastic win in that race a year later.”

This was the day when Sir Henry defied the wishes of his doctors to saddle Frankel.

Paperclip-thin, he walked into the paddock wearing a fedora – his health shocked those present – and he spoke with a hushed whisper because of the enduring effects of his cancer treatment.

“It was one of Frankel’s greatest performances,” she said. “I remember just before the race we were all somewhat nervous as it was the first time the horse had run over a mile and a quarter. His work beforehand suggested the distance would be no problem for him, but of course the racecourse is where they prove it. Anyway, there was a small group of us who all stood in with the racegoers 20 or so yards back – there was no room in the packed stands – from the winning post.

“It was such a thrill to watch Frankel that day. After he won Henry took us right down to the rail as the horse was paraded in front of the stands. The atmosphere was amazing, as was the reception in the winner’s enclosure afterwards. It was an unforgettable memory – one we will all cherish.”