Ian Balding


From Pieces, Lent Term 2002:

A racing certainty

Ian Balding LVO, racehorse trainer (since 1964). Born 7 November 1938. Studied Rural Estate Management at Christ's College 1959-62 (rugby blue 1961). Trained horses for Paul Mellon KBE; for HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother; and for HM The Queen 1964-99.

"I was brought up with horses. My father was a trainer, and my brother and I were his cheap labour at a very early age." Training racehorses is in Ian Balding's blood, and he is convinced that growing up with horses has been an advantage: "It certainly helps, because you learn not to be frightened of them. Most people who don't know horses are scared of them; and rightly so - because one end bites and the other end kicks. As a horseman you know what to do about it, and how to avoid it, how to deal with the animal in every sphere of horsemanship."

Ian has put his skills to good use in a glittering career spanning nearly four decades. During that time, he has trained for some of the world's leading owners - including The Queen. He speaks admiringly of her knowledge and experience: "The Queen could easily have trained horses herself. When she used to come round the stables here, I'd  pick her out about forty horses to look at. She'd want to see all the good ones and even some of the bad ones to compare with her own. She was also very observant. Sometimes you would have liked to say 'Ma'am, I wouldn't come into this box; this horse might kick you.' But I didn't have to say it: she would instinctively stay out of the box. She is just a natural horsewoman."

"Riding a thoroughbred is a different dimension - you get such a thrill from going that bit faster."

Millions of people follow racing, yet few understand the process of training a winner. Ian explains what is involved: "The first thing is acquiring the racehorse. Buying a yearling is a very specialised subject. What you're looking for is an individual who looks as if he will mature well enough to run successfully as a two-year-old, in the next season. You're looking for a horse that is enthusiastic and genuine - with a nice head and nice expression. More than anything, you're looking for an athlete. But you only see the horses walk, so you've got very little to go on. The training itself is a gradual process. You start as you would with a human athlete - going slowly, gradually building up muscle and strength. Once a horse is fit, it doesn't take a lot to keep it fit. We exercise our horses once, or in some cases twice, a day."

"A large part of the trainer's skill is picking the right race for the horse. Once you've picked the race, you have to try and get the horse in as good shape as you can. That's the bit I enjoy. The main difficulty, of course, is that the horse can't talk to you and tell you how he feels, or whether he is fully fit. That is what, with years of experience, you try and gauge." Ian's success speaks for itself: he has been the leading trainer once and leading international trainer three times, with a string of famous horses to his credit. One, in particular, stands out: "Mill Reef was by far and away the best horse I ever had. Exactly thirty years ago he won the Derby and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. He is still thought of as one of the very best horses ever to have raced in this country. I've never had, nor would expect to have, one as good as him again."

Racing has undergone major changes over the last forty years, and Ian has seen them at first hand - as trainer and before that as amateur jockey. One change has been in the horses themselves: "Sadly the modern thoroughbred has become much more fragile than it used to be. Even when I was first training, we used to get through a whole season hardly hurting a two-year-old. Nowadays we're lucky if, out of forty two-year-olds, we get to the end of the season with ten of them totally sound. Whether that is because of diet or over-breeding to speed, I don't know - but it's a shame."

"I'd love to win the Grand National." Ian talks of handing over to his son quite soon, but his ambition still burns brightly: "There are very few trainers who have won both the Derby and the Grand National. We've got a horse in the yard who just might be a National horse one day. I'd love to think he might win…"