BALDING HANDS OVER THE REINS ON A TIDE OF GOOD MEMORIES

3 November 2002

A fine horseman retires safe in the knowledge he has added his magic to Kingsclere.

Pride is the key. Ride around Kingsclere with Ian Balding and you will realise that he has plenty to be proud of.

Not for himself, although in the week of his 64th birthday Ian still displays much of the fearless energy which 43 years ago brought off the unique sporting double of riding a winner in the first race at Huntingdon before getting across to Cambridge to play full-back for the university the same afternoon. No, as Doncaster brings the turf season to a close and Balding prepares to hand over to his son, Andrew, after 38 years with a licence, the trainer fairly glows with pride in the place he immortalised by saddling Mill Reef to win the Derby, the Eclipse, the King George and the Arc de Triomphe in 1971.

Ian doesn’t shout about it. The voice is quiet, still almost in awe of Britain’s greatest and most historic private training centre, of which he suddenly found himself in charge when Peter Hastings Bass succumbed to cancer within three months of Balding joining as assistant in March 1964.

Kingsclere, six miles south-east of Newbury, still has the red brick Victorian buildings, the landscaped Hampshire paddocks and the sweeping downland gallops where 100 years ago the legendary John Porter was ending a 30-year training career which had reaped three Triple Crown winners, including Ormonde, whose unbeaten exploits in 1886 earned him acclaim as “the horse of the century”. But that is the past, Balding watching a bunch of two-year-olds and then literally galloping me round the place on a tour of inspection, is revelling in the present, albeit still slightly dubious of all next year’s arrangements. “I wanted to run one yard entirely by myself but Andrew says it won’t work, that we will discuss things but he has to be in charge. He is probably right.”

In Mill Reef’s time the training system was little different from the routine of the John Porter era: long weeks of preliminary road work before stretching the muscles and clearing the wind on that great grassy bank, whose springy turf leads on to the land where Richard Adams made “Fiver”, “Woundwort” and the other rabbits famous in his best-selling Watership Down.

The busy roads are now not an option but within the 500 acres of the Kingsclere estate there is today every sort of modern facility, be it a swimming pool, a covered exercise ride, a horse walker or miles of artificial gallops, very different from the single track of plough which was the summer mainstay in baked grass days of yesteryear.

We are now off down one of the modern strips and, being with Ian Balding, there are jumps in the way. Fortunately, the horse I ride is used to his owner’s foibles and has an arching leap in him which would not shame a springbok and regularly sees Ian lead the local drag hounds. He won the Hunt Race with his elderly (shh) owner last spring. Before turning to go back up the six-furlong fibre sand gallop, the trainer pauses to point out the paddocks and tracks and cottages which make his operation almost completely self-contained.

The cottages continue the tradition of caring paternalism established more than a century back and which meant that this week I was seeing half-a-dozen of the same faces among the staff as I had when making a film about Mill Reef exactly 30 years ago.

“Of course, I have been spoiled,” says Balding. “Spoiled with the place, spoiled with the horses I inherited [Silly Season won at Royal Ascot within three weeks of Ian receiving his licence] and spoiled with the staff. But we have tried to make this a decent place for both people and horses.”

This characteristic understatement is followed by his biggest complaint about the modern era – that the horses are becoming more fragile. “There is so much emphasis on speed, both in breeding and in preparation,” he says, “that many more horses go wrong both in body and in mind. The staying sires used to add stability.”

There have of course been star sprinters like Lochsong to complement the middle-distance exploits of the likes of Glint of Gold, Selkirk and Mrs Penny, but in recent years the flow of potential champions has dwindled as the original set of owner-breeders have passed on, with Mill Reef’s Paul Mellon dying in 1999, aged 95. Faced with this challenge, Ian has for the past three seasons enlisted his son, Andrew, as assistant and, while 14th place in the trainers’ list is hardly table-topping, 63 winners this year is a healthy total and 30-year-old Andrew has already shown his hand by personally supervising the Cesarewitch winners Top Cees and Distant Prospect, as well as this year’s Royal Ascot scorer Pentecost.

The younger Balding will take over a 100-strong string and plans to make a new entrance and office block to handle the needs of the new breed of syndicate owner he is already serving well. Father-and-son operations are notoriously difficult, but Andrew’s optimism – “we get on very well” – has a persuasive witness, his sister Clare, the BBC’s multi-talented mistress of sport. “If it was me, it would never work,” says Clare with a laugh, “but they really do operate well together and the great thing is that in Casual Look and Rimrod, Andrew has two Classic prospects for next season. Mind you, Dad is much too competitive to take too much of a back seat.”

Ian Balding’s tour is now completed by taking a spinning gallop back towards his other horses. Later, we rejoin a bunch of two-year-olds and, as Balding gives instructions, the mind wanders back to when he first started doing this. In Miami, a young Cassius Clay was being pictured with the Beatles by the same Chris Smith who was now putting Balding against the skyline. The visitor finds a feeling familiar to all who come to Kingsclere. Proud to be part of it.

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