They came, they listened, they remembered, and many unashamedly wiped away a tear as the life of trainer Sir Henry Cecil was celebrated at a service at Ely Cathedral.
The ancient ‘Ship of the Fens’ opened its doors to a congregation 1000 strong drawn from all corners of the racing world, who gathered to say a final farewell to the greatest trainer of the modern era who lost his long and courageous battle with cancer back in June on the eve of Royal Ascot, the racing festival he had made his own.
Leading owners, trainers, jockeys, breeders, stable staff who had worked at Warren Place over decades, and racing fans who, time and time again, had taken Cecil to their hearts, stood side by side listening intently to the tributes paid.
Lord Grimthorpe, racing manager for Khalid Abdullah, owner of the great Frankel, asked the congregation to imagine the great man’s life as a mural made up of masterpieces by the great artists, from Lowry whose matchstick men represented the public and punters who loved him, to Monet for his rose garden, Picasso for his colourful fashion sense and maybe a photographic study by Cecil Beaton, but all would have had difficulty capturing what Grimthorpe called his “exasperating naviety so often the heartbeat of genius”.
He recounted a story from the yard when Cecil had asked his work riders to come up the gallop “line abreast just like a bar of chocolate”.
“It didn’t happen,” said Grimthorpe “and when he asked the stragglers why one told him, ‘your chocolate bar just melted guv’nor’.”
He paid tribute to Cecil’s close family. his three wives, Julie for her sense of fun, Natalie, his willing shopping accomplice, and Lady Cecil who “put Henry back on the road to success with her calmness and pride”.
His children, Katie and Noel, who he said shared their father’s love of life, and were living theirs in the same tradition, and Jake who exuded the same effortless style.
He remembered Cecil’s twin David and the closeness they shared. “Henry suffered agonising back pain after a fall from his hack, Snowy. The day his brother David died so the pain disappeared,” he said.
“At the races as he legged up his jockey he would turn to us with that slightly tilted head and say: ‘We will do our best’ Henry Cecil always did his best and we are gathered here to thank him for that.”
Alan Cooper, racing manager for the Niarchos family, in whose colours Light Shift won the Oaks in 2007, signalling the revival in Warren Place’s fortunes, read an extract from Robbie Burns epic poem, Tam o’Shanter, which included the lines:
“But pleasures are like poppies spread: You seize the flower, its bloom is shed; Or like snow fall on the river, a moment white - then melts forever.”
Noel Cecil read from the Book of Revelation while Jake Cecil remembered his father as “an exceptional role model who taught me the importance of kindness and understanding, whether to a prince of Saudi Arabia, the Queen or even to Mr Kipper who delivered van loads of potted shrimp.” “He was an extraordinary character, praised for his charm, famous for his roses,” he said.
The youngest members of the clan, Cecil’s grandchildren Olivia and Jack Mackenzie remembered the “amazing grandpa who never gave up” and who would not be forgotten by anyone, and Cecil’s own voice echoed round the cathedral in a special audio presentation ahead of the haunting piped farewell by Pipe Major Linden Ingram.
As the crowds spilled out of the cathedral into the chill of an autumn afternoon there was an air of sadness but a certainty that as long as men and women gather to race horses, the legend that is Sir Henry Cecil will endure.
The final words were best left to the man himself: “I am very lucky to have had the life I have had. I have loved every minute of it, every minute.”