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York week brings special memories of Sergeant Cecil

Bought from a field for £1,000 and unremarkable in his early races, Sergeant Cecil was at one point a thoroughly unlikely candidate for the role of much-loved people’s horse.

But his is a long tale that takes time to gather pace, the story of a “slow burner” whose ascension was seemingly endless.

Sergeant Cecil was owned by Terry Cooper, who purchased him cheaply as a foal and initially sent him to be trained by Seamus Mullins.

The gelding did not show much promise in his early runs and was eventually switched to the Devon yard of Rod Millman, who picked up where Mullins had left off with the now four-year-old.

“The previous trainer had looked after him really well and I was lucky to take him on at the right time,” Millman said.

Sergeant Cecil winning the Northumberland Plate
Sergeant Cecil winning the Northumberland Plate (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“Though he was a long way from the finished article and still quite a raw horse.

“He was very much a slow burner, the first season we had with him we thought he was a nice horse, we definitely thought we’d win a race with him later on.”

Incrementally, Sergeant Cecil began to improve, he picked up his first win in a handicap at Sandown and repeated the trick at the same track shortly afterwards, ending his season on a rating of 89 having started it on a mark of 63.

The following season brought about more progression, but it was in 2005 that the chestnut landed his most significant race to date when taking the Northumberland Plate under Alan Munro at 14-1.

It was the partnership with Munro, one that had started at the beginning of the campaign, that led to Sergeant Cecil hitting upon the form of his life thus far as a six-year-old.

“What was hard was that we couldn’t get a regular jockey for him,” Millman said.

“He was always ridden by good riders, but it wasn’t until Alan Munro came along that we had the consistency.

The second victory of his staying treble, the Ebor at York
The second victory of his staying treble, the Ebor at York (John GIles/PA)

“Alan was able to ride him consistently and he got to know him, he rode him for a turn of speed as he loved overtaking horses.”

Munro then partnered the horse to victory in the Ebor at York and then to a 10-1 success in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket, a unique staying treble that had never been achieved before and has not been achieved since.

“He was a stayer with a turn of foot, that’s what made the difference with him,” said Millman.

“And as he got older he got stronger and he just sort of came into himself.

“The year he did the treble, that was at the peak of that, he was a very well-handicapped horse and he was an improving horse.

“We were offered a lot of money for him as a four-year-old, because the potential was there and he was improving, but the owner didn’t want to sell and we didn’t want to sell him either.

“He’s the only horse to have ever done it, which shows how hard it is, I think it’s almost impossible to do now as you’ve got to be more or less badly handicapped to get into these races – you’re not going to get many horses like Cecil who are ahead of the handicapper.

“It makes a good story because he was trained by a trainer not in the (big) centres and then ridden by Alan Munro, so it made a bit of a story.

“He had a nice name as well, he was named after an old soldier, it’s a nice name and he was quite a flashy chestnut.”

Sergeant Cecil taking the Cesarewitch Handicap at Newmarket
Sergeant Cecil taking the Cesarewitch Handicap at Newmarket (Chris Radburn/PA)

Those successes were punctuated by a second-placed run in the Group Two Doncaster Cup, a performance that proved the presence of Pattern-race potential that would be realised the following season when Sergeant Cecil finished second in the Yorkshire Cup and then went one better in the Lonsdale Cup.

The latter race was the first of a trio of consecutive wins, with a successful tilt at taking the Doncaster Cup next on the agenda before a trip to Longchamp where the chestnut obliged as favourite in the Group One Prix du Cadran.

“The next year he was second in the Yorkshire Cup, it was a good run, but Percussionist won it,” Millman explained.

“We had some near misses and we ran a decent race in the Goodwood Cup after being boxed in – a typical race at Goodwood.

“Then poor Alan had a convulsion on an aeroplane on the way to Deauville and he was stood down, so Frankie Dettori came along and that increased the hype.

“Frankie got on him and won the Lonsdale on him and the Doncaster Cup and then we went for the Cadran, the Group One race, that was the pinnacle really.”

The following season saw Sergeant Cecil, now an eight-year-old, land one last Group prize when claiming the Yorkshire Cup, his fourth win in front of a Knavesmire crowd that always seemed to see him at his very best.

Sergeant Cecil winning his last race, the Yorkshire Cup in 2007
Sergeant Cecil winning his last race, the Yorkshire Cup in 2007 (John Giles/PA)

“Probably some of his best form was when he won the Yorkshire Cup as an eight-year-old,” said Millman.

“He was very tough, he had a great constitution, he was able to take the work and he had a great tenacity – he was like a street fighter.

“At the time he was the oldest horse ever to win the Yorkshire Cup.”

Sergeant Cecil now shares that title with Peter Niven’s Clever Cookie, who also won the race aged eight in 2016.

In 2008 the decision was made to retire Millman’s stalwart, who ran a handful of times in his final season before bowing out to return to the care of his owner, where he remains to this day at the ripe old age of 22.

“You never want it to end, but of course it does,” Millman said.

“Time catches up with all of them eventually, even the best horses, and it caught up with him in the end.

Frankie Dettori jumps for joy from Sergeant Cecil
Frankie Dettori jumps for joy from Sergeant Cecil (John Giles/PA)

“Unfortunately when Cecil retired Terry stopped having horses, he just felt that he’d never have a horse like him again and it was very hard to replicate the feeling we got with him.

“He was a lovely horse and we haven’t given up trying to find another one, Terry bought him out of a field for about £1,000 and nobody dreamt he’d be this good.

“It was almost a dream, but when you’re involved as closely as I was you don’t realise that until he’s gone.

“It’s amazing how time flies, it doesn’t seem that long ago but 15 years soon goes by.

“We always look forward to the new bunch of horses coming into the yard, but we’re still waiting for the next Cecil to come along.”