The news that all racing had been dreading came on June 11. Henry Cecil, knight of the realm, outstanding trainer, and exceptional human being, left us after battling a cruel disease with enormous courage over several years.
The tributes rightly featured his genius as a kind of Dr Dolittle, who communicated with and understood the needs of every individual horse that came under his care, while also alluding to the essential humanity of a man who went out of his way to help and give pleasure to others. My admiration of him knew no bounds and I can but be grateful for the privilege of having known him for more than two score of his allotted three score and ten years.
I was present at Sandown on the occasion of his first great success, with Wolver Hollow in the 1969 Eclipse, and afterwards I witnessed every one of his modern record 25 Classic triumphs. But when I conjure up images of Henry on the racecourse, those that surface most readily are not about celebratory events.
I remember that Gold Cup when he beat himself up over having subjected his beloved, unsound Buckskin to an ordeal for which his gallantry was not quite enough. He had won the race with his other contender, Le Moss, but the victory gave him no joy. I remember that Oaks when he dashed to the aid of the stricken Scimitarra, whose off-fore cannon bone had snapped entering the final furlong.
Unfortunately, I have also to remember more recent occasions, when Henry, hairless, voiceless and ravaged by disease, put himself through the torture of supervising his runners on the course. We may be certain now that it was the peerless Frankel who kept him alive for so long.
Off the course, I remember the man who would always stop for a chat when we Newmarket residents chanced to meet in the town. In particular I cherish the memory of our 20-minute conversation in the street shortly before last year’s Lockinge, in the course of which he asked me how I would plan Frankel’s four-year-old campaign. No doubt he was right to ignore my advice and give the Eclipse a miss!
Frankel moved on, the greatest horse ever to call Warren Place home returning to his place of birth, and the latest news to have reached me from Banstead Manor told of upwards of 130 mares covered, 86 per cent in foal, with the prospect of up to 30 more expected, requiring service to southern hemisphere time. Things were different when another outstanding colt retired to stud after an unblemished 14-race career; a stallion was not to be over-taxed in his first season then, so in 1939 Nearco was limited to 18 mares at Beech House. Nasrullah figured among the dozen live foals who resulted.
Shortly before the death of Frankel’s trainer we learnt there was to be a significant reduction in Juddmonte’s operation. The announcement came as a surprise to many, though it was anything but surprising to discover that the star first-season stallion would not feature among the projected sales. The horse has already collected something in excess of £11 million in stud fees – dwarfing racecourse earnings of just under £3m – and, all being well, he will remain the chief contributor to the financing of a down-sized racing and breeding empire.
Juddmonte has been Khalid Abdullah’s passion for some 35 years. The fledgling operation hit the Classic jackpot straight away, with the 2,000 Guineas triumph in 1980 of Known Fact, one of the first yearling buys. By 1999 he had won all the Classics at least once, and the descendants of mares who had been shrewdly acquired early on and judiciously mated were getting quality stock. The business was self-sufficient, so there was rarely recourse to the market to supplement stock; auctions were for disposing of products thought surplus to requirements.
Buyers have learned to apply keen scrutiny to products of active, successful families who may well have excellent prospects of paying their way
Of course, there have always been culls. Large drafts are sent to Tattersalls every year to keep the operation at a manageable level, and buyers have learned to apply keen scrutiny to products of active, successful families who may well have excellent prospects of paying their way either on the racecourse or at stud. What is coming, it seems, is a more substantial reduction in numbers, and it is a logical move for a breeder who is getting on in years, has achieved every objective, and attained, in Frankel, a peak he could never hope to surpass.
In Abdullah’s shoes, I would be doing the same. It’s not quite the impossibility of ever producing another Frankel, because Classics may still be won by horses a stone and a half his inferior, but there has to be a sense of anti-climax about whatever comes next. After everything has fallen into place – not least choice of trainer – the realisation that perfection is not going to be attained a second time gives pause.
But every lesser breeder in the world – everyone, perhaps, bar the Aga Khan – has their ambitions to upgrade. When the details emerge of Juddmonte’s partial dispersal, there will be global interest in the prospect of acquiring a specimen or two from the most successful bloodstock nursery developed over the last four decades.
Such chances occur rarely – and this time it seems unlikely the Aga will seek to repeat his ploy over the Boussac, Dupre and Lagardere operations and buy everything. In fact, it would come as no surprise to learn in due course of a reduction in numbers in the Aga Khan Studs. Will Princess Zahra want to take on such an enormous operation?
Dispersal sales of prominent studs have always excited interest – and have often had significant consequences. On the death of King William IV in 1837, among the lots disposed of for the princely sum of 62gns was a filly-foal who acquired the name Pocahontas and is still widely recognised as the most important broodmare ever.
Prince Batthyany’s sudden death on 2,000 Guineas day in 1883 meant his bloodstock was auctioned a couple of months later, and among the horses of racing age was the two-year-old colt St Simon. Knocked down to the Duke of Portland for 1,600gns, he retired as an unbeaten champion after nine races, soon establishing himself as an outstanding sire, heading the list nine times between 1890 and 1901.
More recently, the Dewar dispersal of 1954 resulted in prices at unprecedented levels, including Festoon at 36,000gns and Refreshed at 30,000gns, and ten years later ten of 19 mares to realise five-figure sums at the December Sales came from drafts from the National Stud, which was withdrawing from breeding to become – temporarily, as it turned out – just a base for stallions. One dispersal that will be readily recalled by many was that of mares and fillies submitted by Jim Joel. That featured a 720,000gns bid for Fairy Footsteps and other massive sums for Magic Slipper (700,000gns) and Lady Moon (600,000gns). The lowest price in the draft was 5,200gns for five-year-old barren mare Regal Beauty, who became rather more valuable later as dam of two-year-old champion High Estate and King George victor King’s Theatre.
We can surely expect some fireworks, à la Fairy Footsteps, among the Juddmonte part-dispersal, and no doubt there will unsuspected bargains to compare with Regal Beauty as well.