TRUE TALE

A chance en­counter on an English coun­try road led to a friend­ship that in­flu­enced my ap­proach to horses and rid­ing for­ever. By Carol Anne Hud­son

EQUUS - - Contents -

My sum­mer at New­mar­ket: A chance en­counter on an English coun­try road led to a friend­ship that in­flu­enced my ap­proach to horses and rid­ing for­ever.

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.

HENRY CE­CIL

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