9 January 2005

A packed congregation at Caro Balding’s memorial service is testament to the popularity of a trainer’s wife who enhanced life

There are trainers’ wives, dodgy trainers’ wives, good trainers’ wives, and then, tall, imposing, inclusive, and with the very best laugh in the whole of racing, there was Caro Balding. Her memorial service was held on Friday in the 13th-century village church at Thruxton, near Andover. Even the overflow tent was overflowing.

Caro was a one-off in a consort role which is unique in British sport – a mixture of business partner, hostess, stablestaff, telephonist, driver, cook and a washer of a lot more than bottles. With a big stable there are no such things as working hours – the involvement is, quite literally, every waking minute. Understandably this can lead to a narrowing of the views, a certain limiting of the conversation to horses, horses and more horses. But Caro was an expansionist. And we loved her for it.

The church had six bell ropes hanging from the belfry, a rather intimidating plaque of the Ten Commandments hanging on the north wall, and a plucky lady working the creaky organ through Jerusalem and Praise My Soul The King of Heaven. It had a packed congregation of often leathery faced and rusty limbed ex-members of the Balding academy.

It also had Caro’s brother-in-law Ian Balding paying tribute to a life-enhancer. Caro once won the Jackpot on a visit abroad and on her return immediately ordered a new kitchen. When it was ready she invited 150 people to lunch in justification of her wish to be reincarnated as a bird – “I could spend my life putting food into other people’s mouths.” This legendary meal ended with the 100 most able-bodied guests playing a newly invented game of “Scrugger” including the biggest scrum ever seen in the south of England.

Caro did 45 years and almost 2,000 winners with Toby Balding only to be cruelly claimed by cancer within a month of Toby’s handover of the brand new yard at Kimpton to son-in-law Jonathan Geake last November. There was a Gold Cup winner (Cool Ground) and two winners each of both the Grand National (Highland Wedding and Little Polveir) and the Champion Hurdle (Beech Road and Morley Street).

As Ian spoke you thought of just what a role all trainers’ wives have to play. It was not for him to say but the strain of the role has not suited all people or all marriages. With a 70-strong yard it demands a “Pelmanism” type memory as to which horses belong to which people. It entails an understanding and tolerance of the all encompassing racing routine. Above all it needs a public and private loyalty to the trainer which would make a feminist choke. When Toby Balding was not included in Racing’s 100 Men of the Century, Caro sent a scathing letter of protest.

From the very beginning, and remember Toby was only 21 when his father Gerald died, the Balding method was to say that all were welcome and at Thruxton last week were trainers, jockeys, officials, owners and just people once infected by the all-pervading enthusiasm not just for racing but for life itself. The central place of welcome was the kitchen but the breakfast had to be shared, and sometimes negotiated, by the huge assortment of pets with which Caro surrounded herself on the principle that they might add a touch of sanity.

Not all of them were as popular as Hetty The Hen, the obliging fowl whose daily turn was to waddle into the kitchen and lay her egg in the egg basket on cue. There was a dog called Weenie who left no ankle unbitten, a peck-happy macaw called Maxwell on whom all sorts of jockeys constantly swore revenge, and a white cat called Elouise who always sat by the Aga and lived until she was 30.

The cat’s demise was something straight from Monty Python. Caro had taken off to Islay, the Scottish retreat which she used as an escape from the Hampshire madhouse and the housekeeper was concerned at a level of inactivity excessive even by Elouise’s Aga-bound standards. Jockey Brian Reilly was eventually delegated to prod the still warm pooch – only to find Elouise not just stiff but very much an ex-cat.

Reilly was one of the string of pilots who came on Friday. Eddie Harty and Jimmy Frost were there, riders of the Grand National winners Highland Wedding and Little Polveir, but the most touching tribute came from the rider whose exploits have brought renown beyond even those of such Balding acolytes as Bob Champion, Graham Bradley and Adrian Maguire. It was to Toby and Caro Balding that Tony McCoy came as an inexperienced teenager 12 years ago. He has won a championship every season since. He was seconded to Towcester on Friday and had to rush off early from Thruxton, but on the back of the Order of Service were these four lines to show exactly how he felt.

“When I arrived from Ireland I was welcome in your home

And you are in my thoughts and prayers. You are not alone.

When I look back over my life, the fortune and the fame,

I’ll remember your kindness and whisper your name.”

Ian Balding ended with the renowned tale of “The Cattle Round-up”. At one stage Toby had unwisely invested in a herd which proceeded to constantly escape and aggravate the neighbours. Everyone was dragged out to drive the recalcitrant beasts into the open truck in the gateway. The task was only achieved after many cloven-hooved breakaways and even more cursing from the trainer. But just as gripes and grumbles began to rise Caro swept the whole team into the kitchen and said “I thought you were all absolutely marvelous.”

It would have been said with a laugh. It was a warm and musical laugh combining both affection and a sense of the absurd. It would spread out across a room with a sort of encompassing breathless chuckle which gathered everyone who heard it. May its echo never still.

More Posts