Racehorse trainer Andrew Balding’s stables resonate with Derby history. He explains to Kate Green why the race is still the ultimate prize and reveals his tips for the meeting.
That every trainer of Flat racehorses in the land wants to win the Epsom Derby is a statement of the obvious, but, for Andrew Balding, whose Kingsclere yard on the north Hampshire Downs sent out eight winners between 1868 and 1971, the quest is perhaps more personal. The last of the octet, Mill Reef, was trained by his father, Ian, in the year before he was born.
‘My father was a hugely successful sports-man and trainer, for whom the Derby was the pinnacle of his career and the major chapter of his life. I grew up very aware of that,’says Mr Balding. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by history and I love the fact that the Derby has been the ultimate test of a racehorse for 239 years. Once your name’s etched on that board, no one can rub it off.
‘The atmosphere is like no other. It’s the clash of cultures: top hats and tails on one side of the course and lucky-heather sellers and bare-knuckle fighters on the other.
And from a personal point of view, my yard, my house and my gallops [on Watership Down] were built by a man who trained six Derby winners.’
John Porter, who sent out Blue Gown (1868), Shotover (1882), St Blaise (1883), Ormonde (1886), Sainfoin (1890) and Flying Fox (1899), is buried in the churchyard at Kingsclere, as is the Victorian Derby-winning jockey John Wells. Another Park House Stables incumbent, Fred Butters, won the 1937 Derby with Midday Sun. Mr Balding’s maternal grandmother, Priscilla Hastings-Bass, is a descendant of the Earls of Derby.
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‘￼I love the fact that the Derby has been the ultimate test of a racehorse for 239 years’
In his first season, 2003, Mr Balding won the fillies’ blue riband, The Oaks, with Casual Look, after which he, his father and his BBC- presenter sister Clare were too choked to utter a word between them. He’s trained more than 1,200 winners in total, for owners who include The Queen; 2018 was the best season yet, with 125 winners and prize money totalling some £2.8 million, but he’s made very few Derby attempts, for the simple reason that genuine candidates are rare.
This year, however, Derby fever surrounds the Kingsclere representative Bangkok, winner of the bet365 Classic Trial at San-down last month, in which he was 10/11 favourite under the brilliant Brazilian jockey Silvestre de Sousa.
Bangkok is from the first crop of foals by the 2014 Derby winner Australia and his grandsire on the dam side is Darshan, a grandson of Mill Reef. He’s owned by King Power Racing, the empire of the Thai billion-aire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who died in the helicopter crash at Leicester City football ground last year.
Mr Balding says Bangkok is a similar sort to Australia: athletic, neat and well balanced. ‘There are four main requirements for a Derby winner. The horse needs the speed and class to get into a favourable position early on, then you’re asking it to have the courage to extend full throttle downhill. They have to be agile to handle the cambers, which are unlike anywhere else—like a cricketer playing at Lord’s for the first time—and they’ve got to dig deep for the last, uphill furlong.’
Mr Balding knew from the age of six, when he used to place bets with his grandmother, that he wanted to be a trainer, but he’s familiar with the vicissitudes of what can be a heart-breaking game; even as a horse enters the starting stalls, most trainers are already working out how to explain why things haven’t gone well.
‘His strength is that he neither gets over-excited nor down—he’s incredibly even and never forgets how lucky he is,’ says Mr Balding’s wife, Anna Lisa, who is the model trainer’s spouse and works tirelessly to keep everyone happy.
There’s a nervous inevitability about the rapidly accelerating exposure and expect-ation—the morning after our interview, Mr Balding had 14 journalists descending for bacon rolls and a view of another big-race runner—but he’s more worried about getting home in time for Game of Thrones. ‘My job is one that conditions you to not only handle disappointment, but also to really enjoy the good bits.’
Andrew Balding’s Epsom tips
Anapurna: she’s by Frankel, she’s owned by the best breeding operation in Europe, the Meon Valley Stud, and trained by John Gosden (Interview, May 8). She was impressive in the Ling-field Oaks trial and is the standout filly. The big dangers are whatever Aidan O’Brien (right, champion Irish trainer) decides to run.
Obviously, I’m hopeful of Bangkok, otherwise I wouldn’t have entered him; he’s the only winner of a recent Derby trial that’s entered. The Dante winner is usually an obvious favourite, although this year’s race result has tipped form upside down, with the defeat of the hitherto unbeaten Too Darn Hot (he will now run at Royal Ascot) by Hughie Morrison’s Telecaster—at the time of writing, a decision hadn’t been made on supplementing the horse for the race, which would be a cost to connections of £85,000.
There’s also the O’Brien factor – he could conceivably run up to six horses, any one of which would be good enough; Broome and Anthony Van Dyck are currently the highest in the betting. In the 1990s, he and John Magnier [owner of Coolmore Stud] single-handedly resurrected the status of the Derby as a race for producing top stallions, so I’d never begrudge them a win.
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