Cecil’s Light shines bright in Epsom memories

Horse Racing

Popular 2007 Oaks win provided gear Shift for trainer.

The Oaks has produced many brilliant winners during its long history – yet the 2007 renewal created two points of argument that are, while more anecdotal than empirical, equally worthy of note.

Light Shift is arguably one of the most aptly-named winners and received the biggest reception for a horse ever to run in the race since its inception in 1779.

Sir Henry Cecil, saddling his eighth and final victory in the middle leg of the fillies’ Triple Crown, felt the warmth of the crowd. He never quite understood the adulation he was afforded or the esteem in which he was held by his adoring public, and the reception he received moved him to tears.

For this moment encapsulated, to the public at least, a glimmer of light at the end of the trainer’s dark tunnel.

“I think a lot of people thought this was his last hurrah, but little did we know it was the beginning,” said his wife, Lady Jane Cecil.

Cecil, a modest man, had almost effortlessly scaled unimaginable heights in a career which stared in 1969 and brought 25 domestic Classic winners and 10 trainers’ titles.

Top-class victories flowed with regularity. Wollow, Kris, Le Moss, Ardross, Slip Anchor, Oh So Sharp, Reference Point, Indian Skimmer, Bosra Sham, Oath and Reams Of Verse – things came easily to Cecil for so long.

What followed is well documented. The removal of Sheikh Mohammed’s horses from the Warren Place yard in 1995, the death of his twin brother David, from cancer, five years later and the breakdown of his second marriage, all took a heavy toll.

Sir Henry Cecil (right) was brought to tears by the reception he received after Light Shift's success at Epsom
Sir Henry Cecil (right) was brought to tears by the reception he received after Light Shift’s success at Epsom (Rebecca Naden/PA)

“The joy went out of his life and the focus went,” said Lady Jane, “particularly after David’s death. He took it very badly.”

In 2005 he saddled just a dozen winners and his stable of 200 horses shrank to barely 50.

A year later, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Life’s fates then turned once more, with Light Shift providing the most significant winner in his career.

Musidora winner Passage Of Time was the 9-4 favourite. Also trained by Cecil, she was expected to give him his 24th Classic winner.

However, she had not wintered as well as Light Shift and had an issue with her throat, which came to light after the race, in which she finished eighth, over 21 lengths behind her stablemate.

But the diminutive Light Shift, a daughter of Kingmambo, who had broken her maiden at the third attempt the previous September, was no forlorn second-string.

She came to Epsom on a hat-trick, having opened her Classic season with a win at Newbury, followed by a comfortable Cheshire Oaks victory under Ted Durcan.

“She was so straightforward,” said her jockey. “She was neat but was extremely well-made and light on her feet.

“She was a lovely-moving filly with a lovely action and a lovely mind on her. She was a genuine, straightforward filly.

“Although she was a little bit antsy, there was no malice in her. She was one of those fillies who didn’t like hanging around or being held up in her regime. She loved getting on with it.

“She was a little bit headstrong as a two-year-old, but she learned to settle and was just a really sweet filly.”

Light Shift (left) filled Durcan full of confidence in the Cheshire Oaks
Light Shift (left) filled Durcan full of confidence in the Cheshire Oaks (Martin Rickett/PA)

He added: “I was very taken with her in the Cheshire Oaks. She gave the leaders a good head-start and picked them up in a matter of strides. On paper it says she won by a neck, but literally she won under hands and heels. I never had to give her a flick. She glided around Chester and showed an electric turn of foot.

“Once she won like that, we all headed to Epsom very excited, as she had every attribute you needed.

“She glided under the radar. At Epsom, I was mindful that I didn’t want to get her in a ruck, because she wasn’t over-big and it might light her up.

“But we had a lovely, smooth run around. The only thing was I was left in front too early. I thought by following Mick Kinane on Four Sins, who I fancied to run a big race, I was in a good position.

“I thought that filly would take me a bit longer into the straight, but she emptied quickly and I was left in front a bit sooner than I wanted.”

The Aidan O’Brien-trained Peeping Fawn, closed the gap significantly to half a length, but Martin Dwyer’s mount could not quite reel Durcan in.

Lady Jane Cecil thought Light Shift's win mattered most to her late husband
Lady Jane Cecil thought Light Shift’s win mattered most to her late husband (Steve Parsons/PA)

“Aidan’s filly turned out to be brilliant. His filly may have lacked a little experience on Oaks day, but she showed she was smart afterwards and won four Group One races on the trot,” said Durcan.

“I think anyone who didn’t have an interest in the race wanted Henry to win with one or the other.

“Anyone who was neutral, or who loved racing, they were willing Henry to win the race. When one of the fillies won, everyone’s goodwill and emotion was aimed towards Henry, and rightly so.

“It was his day and that was right. One of the nicest things was the Niarchos family and Juddmonte had stood by Henry in his lean times. So for him to have a runner for both of them, and for one of them to win, it just added up to a magical day.

“It was my first Classic and an honour for a rider of my stature to win one. I totally appreciate how fortunate I was, as there were a lot better riders in the weighing room who were not fortunate enough to win a Classic.”

Light Shift’s Epsom win and marriage to Jane (nee McKeown) gave Cecil the fillip he needed.

Sir Henry Cecil with Frankel, who remained unbeaten and whose offspring will run in both Classics this weekend
Sir Henry Cecil with Frankel, who remained unbeaten and whose offspring will run in both Classics this weekend (Steve Parsons/PA)

“You’d never see Henry cry, but he shed a few tears that day with the reception he got, although he didn’t understand the public’s affection,” said Lady Jane.

“Light Shift wasn’t very big, but she was very brave. She was actually a bit of a worrier, so to do it on a day like that was incredible.

“It was a completely amazing day. That was the race that mattered most to him, because that was really the start of things.

“He was amazed by that response. Things from then, they started to get better and it bloomed from there.

“I was there when Love Divine (2000) won and that was a wonderful day and we had lots of well-wishers. I thought ‘this is marvellous’, and that we’d never get that feeling again, but when we arrived back after Light Shift, it was a whole different feeling, it went to a whole other level. You could just feel the love.

“People were willing Henry to win, because he’d had all that treatment and he didn’t look that good.

“He was so pleased for the Niarchos family, who were lovely to work for. Maria (Niarchos) was so delighted, as much for Henry as the horse.

“And Ted was a good rider. He knew her well and was a very good jockey and a very nice person. Henry liked him as a person and as a jockey, so he was delighted for Ted as well.”

Cecil’s story was yet to have its glorious final chapter written. The unbeaten Frankel, who gave him his final Classic in 2011, with a memorable 2000 Guineas romp, is the most famous of his training success stories.

Cecil bore his illness and treatment so gracefully, with such humility and dignity right until the end, which came eight months after Frankel’s retirement in October 2012 following victory in the Champion Stakes.

Lady Jane will keep a wistful eye on the action at Epsom this weekend with Soul Sister, a daughter of Frankel, bidding to give Frankie Dettori another big win in what is set to be his final season as a jockey. He also partners Arrest, another son of Frankel, in the Derby.

Ted Durcan celebrates his first Classic with Light Shift
Ted Durcan celebrates his first Classic with Light Shift (Rebecca Naden/PA)

“Both races are very interesting this year, especially with the Frankel factor,” she added. “It’s just incredible really. That is the saddest thing, that Henry is not around, because he would have loved to have trained any of the Frankels,” she said.

“It’s so lovely to have the interest. There’s the Frankie factor as well. If it was Frankie’s last Oaks and Derby, winning either would be a great send-off, wouldn’t it?”

Who knows, it might even get the same hearty reception accorded to Light Shift, Durcan and the imperious Cecil.

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