The Uproarious Julie Cecil
By Emma Berry
“One of the really great trainers. A marvellous horseman with understanding and patience.”
This was how Lester Piggott described Sir Noel Murless in the biography of the nine-time champion trainer, The Guv’nor, by Tim Fitzgeorge-Parker. It is a description which could equally have been applied to Murless’s successor at Warren Place, Sir Henry Cecil. There is however a far more vibrant link between the two than just bricks and mortar or champion trainer titles, and that is Julie Cecil. To describe her as the daughter of one or wife of the other is only to scratch at the surface of the woman whose unique blend of ribald humour and stoicism has ensured that she is adored as much as she is admired.
The victory of Glass Slippers, trained by Kevin Ryan on top of Sutton Bank, at this year's Breeders' Cup meeting reminds us of the depth of turf history embedded in that splendid part of North Yorkshire. Many of racing’s great characters have hailed from that area and it was here that Julie Cecil spent her formative years. Born in February 1942, amid a snowstorm in the middle of World War II, her entry to the world may not have come at the most opportune moment but as she moved, eventually, with her parents from Hambleton Lodge, to Beckhampton and on to Newmarket, hers was a childhood straight from the pages of a Nancy Mitford novel.
One of her oldest friends, Alex Scrope, whose father Colonel Adrian Scrope managed Lord Derby’s studs, recalls the ‘pack’ with which a young Julie Murless ran. She says, “When we were children there were the two van Cutsem boys, Hugh and Geoffrey, Julie, Mick Ryan, my sister Tessa and myself, and we used to hunt one another through the paddocks at Stanley House. The van Cutsems had tremendously smart ponies, Tessa and I had ponies that other people had grown out of, and Julie always had something completely unrideable. Somebody would be the fox and we would be the hounds and we used to tear past Hyperion and Alycidon. They didn't even pick their heads up, they were so used to these idiots racing around their paddocks.”
She continues, “On race days at the Rowley Mile we used to ride down to the bushes, 10 or 12 of us, and jump in at every race. Our wretched ponies used to run five or six two-furlong races a day. We just had an absolute ball.”
Though Julie can now very much be considered a Newmarket grandee, having spent almost 70 years living in and around the headquarters of British horse racing, she admits to an enduring love for one of the country’s most famous racing estates. She spent almost five years at Beckhampton in Wiltshire from 1948 when her father succeeded Fred Darling as the incumbent trainer.
“I loved it there but the landlord, Mr Dewar, was a right old bastard,” she says with her customary bluntness. “I loved Beckhampton because you could go off and ride for miles and miles. Then we got to Newmarket and all you could do was go on the Heath.”
Unsurprisingly, riding has been the cornerstone of her life. In 1959, long before the days when women were allowed to ride in formal races, the name Julie Murless was inked onto the roll of honour for Newmarket’s oldest and most peculiar race, the Town Plate, when she rode the Humphrey Cottrill-trained Adam’s Walk to victory for Stanhope Joel. Photographs exist of the tall and willowy amateur rider towering above her rivals but she recalls standing out for another reason.
“I was the only one not wearing breeches – I had my jodhpurs and boots on,” she says with a laugh.
It was in her father’s string that Julie caught the eye of Henry Cecil, then assistant to his stepfather Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort at Freemason Lodge.
Cecil recalled his attempts to attract the attention of the woman he described as having “the best sense of humour in Newmarket” in his 1983 autobiography On The Level.
He wrote, “She used to ride out for her father every lot, every day, and in the hope of being able to have a word or two with her I used to take our horses to the part of the Heath where the Warren Place string was working whenever possible. This manoeuvre did nothing to endear me to Sir Noel, as my palomino hack seemed to have an upsetting affect on a number of his horses.”
Eventually, the attitudes of both father and daughter softened towards Cecil. Henry and Julie married in 1966 and went on to have two children, Katie and Noel. A decade after their marriage, following the retirement of Murless, they moved to Warren Place and Julie, referred to by the staff as ‘Madam’, resumed as the stable’s key work rider, a role in which her fiercely competitive streak was demonstrated with each gallop.
“There could obviously be no finer recipe for racing success than this alliance,” noted Fitzgeorge-Parker on the Cecil marriage in The Guv’nor. Indeed, Henry Cecil claimed his first champion trainer title in his debut season at Warren Place. Nine more would follow, with only one coming after his divorce from Julie in 1990.
That period of her life, played out so publicly as she left Warren Place and her former husband remarried, could not have been anything but terribly upsetting for Julie. But, with typical dark humour, she refers to it simply as “when I got my P45”.
She also continues to speak fondly of her former husband, who died in 2013 after a prolonged illness with stomach cancer. “He was very brave,” she says. “He used to come down quite a lot and we used to sit and chat. He would bring me things that I could breathe into to help my breathing and he would have about six cigarettes. We were actually good buddies, Henry and I.”
For someone born during wartime, the old ‘Keep calm and carry on’ motto could not have been more apt. She adhered to this edict following her divorce, setting up her own training business back on Newmarket’s Hamilton Road where Henry had trained for a short spell before the couple’s move to Warren Place.
From Southgate Stables she sent out her first winner, Golan Heights, just a stone’s throw away on the Rowley Mile on April 18, 1991. The four-year-old was ridden by her old ally Lester Piggott, who gave ‘Madam’ a kiss as he dismounted in the winner’s enclosure.
Piggott wasn’t the only familiar face connected to Julie Cecil’s stable. A number of staff moved with her from Warren Place and, fittingly, Golan Heights was owned and bred by Lord Howard de Walden, a long-time supporter of that stable through the Murless and Cecil years. The owner-breeder extended his loyalty to Julie and was responsible for the best flat horse of her training career, the King Edward VII Stakes and Cumberland Lodge Stakes winner Kingfisher Mill.
Through Lord Howard, she also made one of her strongest personal allegiances, with his stud manager Leslie Harrison. A warm and intelligent man with a wit every bit as caustic as her own, Harrison was the perfect sparring partner for Julie. Their practice of hurling insults at each other while chuckling with laughter was testament to the depth of a friendship built largely on a sense of humour that often wandered into the puerile.
“He used to call me Fly Face and I would call him Four Eyes. God, we were bad. We had a tennis coach, this poor man called Erskine, and we used to call him Mr Foreskin,” says Julie. “Luckily he took it very well.”
This brand of humour engendered great affection and loyalty from the staff at Southgate Stables. Nigel Goodenough, who rode out for Julie and continued to drive for her after he finished working in racing, recalls, “She had a lot of people working for her who had been with Henry. She was always a good crack in the yard, taking the mickey out of people. Everyone had a nickname, and that was very different to the trainers I had worked for before, like Harry Thomson Jones. She once pulled down my trousers in the middle of the yard. I can’t imagine any other trainer doing something like that.”
The pulmonary disease (COPD) which afflicted her father’s life has also had a diminishing affect on Julie’s in recent years, rendering her largely house-bound. Her physical limitations have done nothing to diminish her sense of humour, however, as her many visitors will testify. Perhaps more remarkably, she has also embraced social media. In a year in which visitors have had to be reduced as the coronavirus has become a threat particularly to those with breathing difficulties, she remains an enthusiastic supporter of her vast network of friends via Facebook and Instagram.
“She's so stoic,” says Alex Scrope. “I remember when she was riding out and another horse upended and kicked her on the leg. She rode with a broken ankle for 16 years and it was only when Stoutey [Sir Michael Stoute] had his ankle fixed that she asked him for the name of his surgeon. The surgeon told her that he couldn't mend her ankle because it was in pieces but he could fix it so it would have no flexion. Just think how that must have hurt, but she just got on with it.”
She adds, “And how she has put up with her physical condition is just extraordinary because she's still got all the gas.”
Looking back on her time in racing, it is perhaps telling that the stories put forward by Julie, as well as those told about her, are of the capers, the nicknames, the practical jokes.
“We had so much fun, and there were so many characters,” she says. “At one point, Dad was the biggest trainer here. But now some of the trainers have 300 horses and I don’t see how you even have time to look at the buggers.”
She adds, “I don’t think people have time now to become characters.”
Whether a person is born a character or becomes one through life’s experience is open to debate. Either way, Julie Cecil, born to a life in racing, has enriched the sport and the lives of those around her through an uproarious sense of fun and her own extraordinary strength of character.