Sir Henry Cecil and Echoes of the Past

Last week the world of horse racing lost one of its greatest stars with the death of Henry Cecil. The papers were full of comments describing him as ‘a genius’, ‘the toast of Epsom and Royal Ascot’  and ‘one of the most influential and successful racehorse trainers of all times’. And it did make me think about how horses run in the Amherst Cecil blood. I remembered coming across this photo amongst Billy’s letters. Billy grew up to be an excellent rider, and particularly passionate about his hunting. How proud Billy would have been of his grandson Henry. In fact a passion for horses and racing runs further back in the family as May, Billy’s mother was renowned as an excellent horsewoman. Didlington Hall even  possessed its own racecourse on which, Phosphorus winner of the 1837 Derby had trained.

Billy on Horseback
Billy on Horseback

Henry did indeed have an extraordinary career which included  winning The Derby four times and The Oaks eight times. His was a life full of brilliance, mixed with despair – and maybe it was this mix that made him so popular with the masses of race goers. The death of his twin brother David, and his own fight against cancer must have provided some of the darkest moments, while the arrival of Frankel, ‘star of stars’, must have been one of the brightest.

When I heard of Henry’s death last week I couldn’t help thinking how immensely sad it was that not only did Henry never know his grandfather, he never knew his father either.

History can strangely repetitive. When Billy was killed on the Aisne in 1914, at the age of twenty eight, he left behind my father, William who was two years old and, Henry who was just six months. For both boys being fatherless must have been very hard, but for Henry it seems it was a tragedy. He was completely charming, immensely popular, and totally wild. Always after excitement, he was quick to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment. He was fatally wounded in 1942 in the Battle of Oudna in North Africa. He, like Billy, was twenty eight years old when he died. He left behind him four young sons, Strongbow (known as Bow), James and the twins, David and Henry. The twins were in fact not even born until a few days after the news of his death had reached their mother, Rohays.

I am extremely sad that Henry can’t be with us when we visit Billy’s grave next year to commemorate the centenary of his death. But there is no doubt that he will be there in our thoughts.



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