Our plane broke out of gray clouds revealing a patchwork of rolling green countryside as we landed at Mildenhall, a Royal Air Force base in Suffolk, England. Shortly after we arrived we drove off in the rain.
Outside my rain splattered car window, I caught a glimpse of a rider, wearing a mackintosh and dark velvet hat, mounted on a majestic, dappled gray hunter. In no rush to seek shelter from the rain, horse and rider walked down a path edging brilliant green pastures. The horse’s gray coat glistened, a striking contrast with the dark and gloomy surroundings. It looked like a scene from an old Flemish painting.
I’ve never forgotten that fleeting image from my first day in England. It seemed a foreshadowing of all that awaited me in the British riding world ---which was to include a friendship with one of England’s most talented and accomplished racehorse trainers.
It was 1975, and my husband, a U.S. Air Force pilot, had just been transferred from Indiana to RAF Mildenhall for a three-year tour. We settled into a charming cottage in the village of Wicken. The property had a stable, so once we moved in, I was eager to buy a horse. I found a sweet Arabian gelding, and as I was closing on the purchase, the owner brought out a striking Irish Thoroughbred mare named Shaney. He invited me to ride her, and I fell in love. I ended up bringing both horses home.
It was Shaney, in her way, who introduced me to the world of British horse racing. One spring morning in 1978, I was riding her down a quiet country road when a car approached and slowed. The driver stopped, rolled down his window and looked up at us as if he had never before seen a horse. With a broad smile and crisp British accent, he said “What a lovely mare you have.” Of course, this is what every horse owner loves to hear.
The man reminded me a bit of Agent 007 as he climbed out of his Jaguar and approached Shaney and me, tilted his head and introduced himself as Henry Cecil. At the time, I had no idea who he was, but I found him charming. He stroked Shaney’s neck, and asked me to tell him about her.
In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had recently accompanied a journalist friend on her interviews with well-known racehorse owners. To my delight, Henry invited me to interview him in his home at Warren Place, Newmarket.
Riding with the first string
On the appointed day, I arrived at Henry’s magnificent Tudor-style home. I was ushered into an oak-paneled study, where I took a seat on a sofa, surrounded by oil paintings, bookshelves and leaded glass windows.
I jumped when the heavy door swung open and Henry burst in. He greeted me with a huge smile, then sat down on the sofa beside me and began to tell me about his childhood and career. His ancestry was rooted in English and Scottish aristocracy, but he had known tragedy. His father was killed in North Africa before he and his twin brother were born in 1943. His mother remarried, to Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, a leading racehorse trainer, and Henry started out as an assistant in his stepfather’s stable. But he wanted me to know that despite his privileged background, he had worked his way up through the ranks---mucking, sweeping, feeding and doing the other chores of a stable lad---before receiving his trainer’s license.
Henry then told me about his current operations, speaking fondly of his 110 horses in training. He invited me to come to Warren Place to serve as guest rider for his first string, escorting his top horses to and from the training track for the season.
This meant that each morning I would ride out to the ancient Newmarket Heath where the modern sport of horse racing began in the time of Charles II. Sitting astride a hack, I led one of a 30-strong string of blue-blooded hopefuls and stakes winner alike, snorting and jigging beside me, out to their exercise gallops.
One morning, riding Charles, a retired racehorse, I ran into Henry near the starting gate. Joking, he asked if I’d like to have a go. With visions of Charles bursting out and leaving me hanging onto the rails like a frightened monkey, I declined. Gently encouraging me to overcome my fears, later in the season, Henry asked me if I’d like to gallop Charles on the ancient Rowley Mile Course. I thought it would be fun but I hesitated---I’d never galloped a former racehorse on a track. Nonetheless, I gave it a go.
As I neared the start, I had second thoughts when Charles suddenly tossed his head and quickened his pace. Rather than hold him back and struggle with him, I gave him his head. He burst into a gallop, leaving me struggling for balance at first. But, after he stretched out and steadied his pace, it began to feel as if his hooves never touched the ground. We sailed over the course. It was a glorious feeling with the rushing of the wind and all that power underneath me.
After that summer, I left England to follow my husband on his next assignment. Henry generously offered to ship Shaney back to the States at his expense, but it wasn’t possible due to import restrictions in place at the time. So I had to leave behind my lovely mare, my charming cottage and my new friends. But most difficult of all, I left a piece of my heart at Warren Place.
A horseman’s legacy
In the three decades since I left Warren Place, I went back to teaching, rode many more horses, raised my children and survived breast cancer. But my experiences at Warren Place forever changed my approach to horses and riding. Especially when I am schooling younger horses, I find I always have this little voice in the back of my head asking, How would Henry handle this horse? What would Henry do in this situation?
A few years ago, I decided to look up Henry on the Internet. I learned that his stable topped the British earnings list 10 times from 1976 to 1993. Then a series of personal setbacks and tabloid scandals nearly derailed his career.
But Henry made an astonishing comeback. In the 2000s he rebuilt a winning stable that included Frankel---unbeaten in 14 stakes races from 2010 to 2012. Henry was knighted in 2011. And, I learned, he was dying from stomach cancer.
In January 2013, I wrote Henry a letter, thanking him for his kindness and generosity all those years ago. The next month, I received a handwritten reply. Henry thanked me for my letter and enclosed recent photos of himself with Frankel and his Warren Place staff. He passed away that June.
Every now and then my thoughts return to Newmarket. One memory in particular stands out: Before reaching the starting point for the exercise gallops, I brought my horse to a standstill in the thick fog that so often settles on the heath.
As I watched, the fog gradually lifted, and a figure emerged, patiently waiting trackside to watch his racehorses go by. Sitting pensively on a gray Arabian, the man gently stroked the neck of his horse. His dark, unruly hair protruded from beneath his riding helmet. When he looked up and saw me, a shy, wide grin broke across his face that lit up his compelling blue eyes. This remains my fondest memory of Henry Cecil.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 486, March 2018