The Times, 5th June 2021
Only in Derby week, only on Watership Down, only from Kingsclere in Hampshire could there be a challenge like that facing a slim three-year-old colt called Youth Spirit as he winged towards us in the sun-drenched lark song of Tuesday morning — measuring up to the past.
The Epsom Derby is no longer the No 1 sporting event of the year, as it was right into the 1930s, but it is still the race every trainer wants to win, especially the athletic-looking figure in shorts, trainers, baseball cap and King Power-sponsored gilet supervising Youth Spirit’s final preparation.
At 48, Andrew Balding is already 15 years older than his father, Ian, was when saddling Mill Reef to win the Derby for Kingsclere half a century ago but he is a long-established leading trainer and wants nothing more than to put right the disappointment of the favourite Kameko’s fourth place last year.
Since 1972 Watership Down has been famous for the exploits of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits in Richard Adams’s much loved novel of that name. Since 1992 the Watership Down Stud has controlled the paddocks set below us as a breeding operation not all that less successful than the musicals that the owner Andrew Lloyd Webber first previewed in the converted chapel in the grounds of his adjoining Sydmonton Court.
The horses spin closer across the timeless backdrop and on Youth Spirit the talented teenager William Carver needs to feel the finishing kick that a Derby horse should give. At 15.3 hands and a mere 430kg, Youth Spirit is only an inch bigger and probably no heavier than the diminutive superstar who lit up Epsom, Ascot and Longchamp half a century ago and whose skimming stride across any surface was the most perfect I have seen. But the way Youth Spirit left the triple winner Classic Lord behind him was still a sight to lift the heart and, along with his gutsy win over the full Derby distance at Chester last month, evidence that he has a decent outsider’s chance.
Youth Spirit and his companions would have trekked up the slope from Kingsclere just as eight other Derby winners had done before Mill Reef’s day, seven of them trained by John Porter, starting with Blue Gown in 1868. To be exact, the gallops had been used by two winners earlier than that but they were stabled to the south at Cannons Heath, the first in 1858, the hot summer of the “Great Stink” when parliament was moved to Windsor because MPs found the sewage-clogged Thames too whiffy.
Yet it is Kingsclere and all that it represents that casts the strongest spell. Porter was a visionary, a Victorian of the dutiful kind who built good accommodation for his lads in the belief that the best results came from mutual respect and it is a tradition that was splendidly fulfilled by Ian Balding and now further enhanced by his son.
At the end of Mill Reef’s record-breaking year I somehow, with amazing support from Ian and the owner Paul Mellon got Hugh McIlvanney to write and Albert Finney to narrate a film about the horse, lyrically entitled Something to Brighten the Morning. Looking at it again this week was to see how much has changed and yet how much has stayed the same.
The giant cedar and redwood trees still stand sentinel over Park House’s proudly redbrick Victorian façade and the two handsomely built stable blocks that do duty behind it. The clock tower still looks over the opening courtyard with the racing silk-lined “colours room” to the left, just as it was in those desperate August days in 1972 when Mill Reef broke his leg on the Downs and it became an improvised hospital for his extraordinary 7½-hour life- saving operation.
Just as then, most of the staff live on and around the stables in this self- contained little kingdom half a mile from the village. It’s only when you go past Porter’s yards that you take in how much the place has grown and changed. In Mill Reef’s time Ian Balding had only 60 horses under his care; his son has more than 200, many housed in five new 24-box barns complete with a staff flat above. The two most recent, the Kameko Barn and the Chairman’s Barn, are named after last year’s classic winner and the late lamented Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, whose family have continued their support for the yard just as happily as they have for Leicester City. In 1971 every rider would be male and bare-headed; now helmets and backpads are universal, the gender split nearly 50-50 and the resources beyond the dreams of half a century ago.
“That’s what has improved the most,” Andrew says in that soft-spoken voice, so uncannily if unsurprisingly similar to that of his sister, Clare, the broadcaster. “To think that when Mill Reef broke his leg Dad had to wait hours for the x-rays. Nowadays we can get them back almost instantly and we can ‘scope’ a horse and know straight away whether its breathing is clean, whereas they were into guesswork.”
All elite stables depend on the balance of staff, and two contrasting figures play key roles at Kingsclere: the Hull-born former head lad and now assistant trainer Nigel Walker and the racing manager, former barrister and Cambridge graduate Tessa Hetherington. Nigel has as encyclopaedic knowledge of the traits of the horses and staff, as Hetherington has of the technology that now plays so significant a part.
Not least among these is Equinity, a sort of ultimate equine exercise app attached to a horse’s girth, which gives data on speed, stride length, heart rate and recovery times. Youth Spirit’s figures may not match the 45.65mph of the royal sprinter King’s Lynn or the all-round excellence of last year’s 2,000 Guineas winner, Kameko, but his recording last week of 43.48mph, a seven-metre stride, and 1min 20sec rate, fully entitle his tilt at today’s higher competition.
“Because of the sprinters in his pedigree and his early-season keenness, our big concern was whether he would stay [the mile and a half],” Balding says. “But Diana Magalhaes, who is on him most mornings, was a Portuguese event rider and you can see the job she has done from the way he settled at Chester. If [the Derby favourite] Bolshoi Ballet doesn’t perform he could be in the mix.”
Derby Day has receded a long way in public consciousness since it was an unofficial London holiday, with parliament closed and Charles Dickens writing: “A population rolls and scrambles through the place that may be counted in millions.”
It can never be what it was but at Epsom today, as at Kingsclere on Tuesday, you can treasure the thought that great things can still happen when turf and thoroughbreds meet.
A historic yard
The nine Derby winners saddled at Kingsclere, by trainer:
John Porter Blue Gown (1868), Shotover (1882), St Blaise (1883), Ormonde (1886), Sainfoin (1890), Common (1891), Flying Fox (1899)
Fred Butters Mid-Day Sun (1937)
Ian Balding Mill Reef (1971)