Donn's Articles » Sariska v Midday

Sariska v Midday

Twenty-one years ago today, Henry Cecil sent Sheikh Mohammed’s filly Diminuendo to The Curragh to contest the Irish Oaks. Winner of the Musidora Stakes, winner of the Epsom Oaks, she was sent off the 2/9 favourite to follow up in the Irish equivalent and she was expected to win doing handsprings. She didn’t. She scrambled home under Steve Cauthen to just about force a dead-heat with the Michael Stoute-trained Melodist, her jockey Walter Swinburn also sporting Sheikh Mohammed’s maroon and white silks with a distinguishing white cap. Not content with half an Irish Oaks, Cecil sent Alydaress over the following year, another Sheikh Mohammed filly, and she won it on her own.

Things have changed since 1988. You don’t see very much of Sheikh Mohammed’s old maroon and white silks these days, and you certainly don’t see them coming out of Henry Cecil’s yard. It’s life. Things change. 1988 is a long time ago. Wimbledon won the FA Cup in 1988, Ronald Reagan was President of America, Nelson Mandela was still in captivity – that’s how long ago 1988 is.

Things have changed as well for Henry Cecil. In the 1988 flat racing season, Cecil trained 112 winners in the UK. He was champion trainer, the only trainer to send out more than 100 winners that season, the only one to break through the £1 million barrier in win prize money. He won the Champion Stakes, the Irish Champion Stakes, the Fillies’ Mile, the Oaks, the Yorkshire Oaks, the Sun Chariot Stakes and the Prix de la Foret. It was a typical year for Cecil at the time, nothing extraordinary. This year so far, he has trained just 30 winners, no Group 1 winners and just one Group 2, Father Time in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The one thing that Father Time hasn’t changed is the regard, nay affection, in which Cecil is held by the racing community. If anything, it has strengthened as the years have eased through the hour glass. In 2005, at his nadir, Cecil trained just 12 winners in the UK, amassing a total of £145,000 in prize money for the entire season. To put the paltriness of that sum into context, in 1988, some 17 years previously and without adjusting for inflation, Indian Skimmer had won more than that amount just for landing the Irish Champion Stakes.

Cecil’s road back to the Premier League of his profession has been both painstaking and public, but it is one of the really good racing stories of recent years. The genuine heartfelt goodwill that buoys his every success is palpable. Light Shift’s win in the 2007 Epsom Oaks was fairytale stuff, the post-race celebrations choked with sentiment. It had been seven years to the day since Cecil’s previous Classic success, and there were many years in the interim when you wouldn’t have got odds-against about no more.

Father Time’s win in the King Edward at Royal Ascot last month, Cecil’s first at the meeting in seven years, tugged at the emotions again, emotions that were no doubt heightened by confirmation that the trainer’s treatment for stomach cancer was still ongoing. Incredibly, it was Cecil’s 71st Royal Ascot winner. No other trainer has had that many. He said afterwards that he would like to reach 100. “I’ve had a few flat years,” he said, disguising all emotion, poker-face. “It takes a bit of catching up. I’ve still got quite a lot to do.”

Michael Bell didn’t take out a licence to train racehorses until the year after Cecil’s first Irish Oaks win. In many ways, their careers have been mirror images, Cecil’s yin to Bell’s yang. While Cecil was busy winning Group 1 races and championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bell was scraping together 20 and 30 winners a season. When Bell burst onto the scene courtesy of Motivator’s win in the 2004 Racing Post Trophy, Cecil ended the season on 21 winners. When Bell achieved household-name status in 2005 by winning the Derby with Motivator, Cecil had 12 winners. Poles apart.

Yet, there is a synchrony to their respective careers as well, much more than the fact that they are both Newmarket-based. Cecil may have had a 17-year start on Bell, but the younger trainer appears to be treading a similar path, similar ambition, similar grounding, similar matter-of-fact no-nonsense way. Cecil trained his first Derby winner when he was 42, Bell trained his when he was 44. Cecil was also 42 when he landed his first Epsom Oaks three days later. Bell had to wait until six weeks ago to notch his, but he has now joined Cecil as one of a handful of current trainers who have landed both Epsom Classics.

And it was at Epsom on the first Friday in June this year when the pair last collided. Sariska was favourite for the Oaks, Bell’s filly, deservedly so, the Musidora winner who was all set to improve for stepping up in distance. Midday was third favourite, winner of the Lingfield Oaks Trial, the same race that Cecil had used as a prep race for two of his Oaks winners of the 1990s, Lady Carla and Ramruma.

Perhaps they didn’t quite collide, but they came mighty close at the two-furlong pole as Tom Queally screamed for room on the inside on Midday and Sariska and Jamie Spencer rolled down the camber. They went toe-to-toe for the whole of the final furlong at Epsom. You couldn’t have guessed which of them was going to come out on top until they flashed past the line. It was only on the freeze-frame that you could see that Sariska’s nose broke the tape, and even then you had to wait until after the stewards’ enquiry to find out that she kept it.

Interestingly, neither filly was entered in this afternoon’s contest at the original entry stage, but very soon after the Epsom Oaks, Michael Bell said that Sariska would probably be supplemented. It would cost €50,000, but it would be money well spent. Shortly afterwards, Cecil confirmed that Midday would be supplemented as well. I’ll see your 50 grand, all-in, no emotion here, now turn them up.

Get ready for the flop.
© The Sunday Times, 12th July 2009