thu 13/05/2021

The Trainer and the Racehorse: The Legend of Frankel, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Trainer and the Racehorse: The Legend of Frankel, Channel 4

The Trainer and the Racehorse: The Legend of Frankel, Channel 4

The emotional story of an extraordinary bond between man and steed

The comeback kid: Sir Henry Cecil finds renewed success with the amazing Frankel

This was the story of a remarkable man, Henry Cecil, a genius with horses and 10 times Champion Trainer. He was felled by tabloid scandal but rose again to train one of the greatest racehorses in history, Frankel.

This was the story of a remarkable man, Henry Cecil, a genius with horses and 10 times Champion Trainer. He was felled by tabloid scandal but rose again to train one of the greatest racehorses in history, Frankel. This wholly absorbing programme was not a tale of everyday folk, but of horse racing, told through its human and equine characters, looking into a rarefied bubble inhabited by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world – and the finest thoroughbreds of the animal variety.  

You don’t have to follow racing to have heard of Frankel, said to be the finest racehorse since the first three Arabians were introduced to England in the 18th century to found the Thoroughbred line. It is curiously appropriate that his owner is the Saudi Prince Khalid Abdulla – and Frankel’s trainer, Henry Cecil, a descendant of those Tudor Cecils (a model animal – commemorative replica of Frankel, pictured below).

Frankel ran for only two years, winning all 14 of his races, retiring to stud in 2012 when he was only four. Cecil, we were told, transformed him from a rambunctious, lively horse of remarkable physical gifts – his stride a foot and a half longer than that of his contemporaries – into a horse taught to keep his liveliness, his larger than life personality, but to control his waywardness.

Cecil died in 2013, aged 70. We met him here retrospectively as a cadaverous, heavily wrinkled, utterly charming, laconic and very tall sexagenerian, his voice a raspy whisper, and learned that he had metastatic cancer. In the last year he trained Frankel, he had some 700 hours of chemotherapy, timed round Frankel’s training and races. 

He led a life of some turmoil. Cecil's father was killed in the Second World War two weeks  before he was born, and his twin brother David died aged 57 of pancreatic cancer. His first marriage to the daughter of the hugely successful trainer Sir Noel Murless ended in divorce when he had an affair with a much younger woman whom he married. Then this second marriage ended in tabloid scandal, and coincidentally his professional fortunes dramatically declined. In the 1970s and 1980s Cecil had as many as 180 wins in a season, and hundreds of horses in his stables. By the early 21st century he was down to a handful of wins and a handful of horses. And then came Frankel (winning at York, pictured below).

This affecting documentary was put together from family photographs, interviews with racing colleagues, stablehands, jockeys, the Guardian’s racing correspondent, Cecil’s doctor, his third wife Lady Jane and his younger son Jake, who told us that his father’s life was his horses. We saw how his relationship with the costly horses in his care depended on intuition and close observation of the individual animal rather than science. Lord Grimthorpe, Prince Abdullah’s racing manager, explained how Cecil wasn't interested in endless medical examinations and tests to see how a horse might do, but rather looked for a sense of the horse’s character, the way he moved, responded, had his animal being.

Dee Duncan, head stable lad, told how Cecil in his last year would watch over Frankel practically all night through the security television in his stable stall, and how everyone, including Cecil himself, thought Frankel kept Cecil alive. Nonetheless even Cecil was not wholly immune from Frankel’s habit of giving his human handlers a quick nip, probably with an equine laugh. We heard from Shane Fetherstonhaugh, Frankel’s work jockey at his stables, about his lively character. Surprisingly, we heard nothing from Frankel’s racing jockey, Tom Queally, who rode hime for all his 14 races, nor were we let into exactly what training a racehorse involves, other than riding out on the gallops at Newmarket at dawn and through the day.

We saw racecourses with their huge jostling colourful crowds, and felt the enormous excitement (Frankel with Cecil in the winner's enclosure at York, pictured left). Here was Henry Cecil in a top hat riding in the Queen’s carriage at Ascot, doing interviews in the winner’s circle, and of course we saw Frankel racing. Even if you knew nothing about the sport, you could marvel at the extraordinary way in which Frankel just romped home, breaking all conventions by running flat out for distances of more than a mile. There were wonderful moments, too, of Frankel loose in a field, simply bucking, rearing, galloping with sheer joyful high spirits. 

The film climaxed with Frankel’s last triumph at Ascot in October 2012, over atrocious and very heavy saturated ground, the worst possible for the horse and his weight: but after a moment of uncertainty we saw the inevitable triumph. We heard from Cecil himself how he wanted another year with Frankel, as he thought the horse would just get better and better, then watched the poignant departure from Warren Place as Frankel was put to stud and never ridden again. Loud and clear is Cecil’s sheer love of life and determination to live, although he was finally felled by his cancer nine months later.

The story of Cecil’s rise and fall and rise, and of a horse of inexplicable genius who was actually taught how to use his athletic skill, had several dimensions. It demonstrated a fascinating combination of expertise, opportunity and luck, and perhaps above all an ability to seize the day. It showed us a man and a horse who used their talents and their opportunities to the full, and allied them to endless hard work – and sheer exuberant delight.

Cecil transformed Frankel from a rambunctious, lively horse of remarkable physical gifts into a horse taught to control his waywardness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


Just brilliant Both Henry and Frankel x

heart felt,fantastic show,what guy till the end,frankel only good because henrys training.

he was the master of his game,

What an amazing program on our dearest Sir Henry, It made me cry, what a gentle soul, may we all learn from him, when he said "when you have dark thoughts think of a beautiful rose that is growing or someone that you love" and push those thoughts away, I too wish he was still with us all, my love to all the family , Diana xx

Strange programme in some ways.Most of the wonderful footage was already in the public domain.However not to involve his jockey, Tom Queally, to the extent that his name wasn't mentioned once in the whole programme,was most odd,and for me the documentary left something to be desired as a result.

I thought this was brilliant and have watched it twice a week - always brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. What a horse! I'd like to see it released on dvd.

Can someone plse tell me where I can get a dvd of that program. I must have it. It’s just wonderful

I’m still trying to get a model of this GREAT race horse, to put with my collection

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters