The Horse Rider's Journal

Flying colours: the making of a racehorse

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We joined Longines for a behind-the-scenes look at the legendary Kingsclere Park House Stables racing yard, where the Balding family train the star athletes and jockeys that thunder down the world’s finest tracks.

TEXT Susanne Madsen PHOTOGRAPHY Helen Cruden VIDEO Astrid Hiort

Training a racehorse is “basically like teaching 14-year-old boys and girls at a boarding school,” Anna Lisa Balding says with a smile. Alongside her husband, renowned racehorse trainer Andrew Balding, she heads up the historic Kingsclere Park House Stables in Berkshire, one of the UK’s finest race yards. The Balding family have been here since the 1950s, producing legendary winners such as Mill Reef, Phoenix Reach and Elm Park. King Power Racing put their horses in the Baldings’ skilful hands, as does HM Queen Elizabeth II.

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We’re at Kingsclere at the beginning of the season, days before Ascot kicks off. The house and stables – a vision of red brick handsomeness – date back to the 1800s and sit surrounded by lush turnout, below the hallowed grass gallops up on the hills. It’s Watership Down land here: the actual place that forms the backdrop for the late author Richard Adams’ seminal novel. Rolling landscapes as far as the eye can see – all the way over to Downton Abbey aka Highclere Castle, who also run a successful stud, as do the neighbouring Lloyd Webber estate named after the rabbit story. “It’s a racing valley,” as Anna Lisa Balding notes.

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The horses at Kingsclere are between two and eight years old and hit their prime at three: the age group for the big money races and the derby. When they arrive here they’ve just been backed at a breaking yard. “They want to go nought to sixty in two minutes but that won’t win any races. You have to teach them to travel through the race, go through the gears and then pick up on the last furlong,” Anna Lisa explains. In the saddle are the yard academy’s 16-year-old jockeys fresh out of school who then turn pro at the end of their teenage years.

There’s a steady rhythm at Kingsclere: on Mondays they do one canter, on Tuesdays they do two, then a gallop on Wednesdays. This formula gets repeated over the next three days before they have a day off on a Sunday. Nothing is left to chance here: temperatures are taken daily before training, oilseed rape is kept as far away from the gallops as possible due to pollen affecting the horses, and they sleep on paper shavings to minimise any dust in their airways. They dine on 16 pounds of feed a day plus ad lib haylage, and there’s a horse swimming pool and an on-site farrier. “My favourite part of the job is when we have a big winner,” notes Eugene Cullen, who is shoeing a horse with his apprentice Abbie Bayley as we walk through the stables. The horses are trained in bespoke steel and then get a set of lightweight haute couture aluminium shoes for the races.

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Out in the covered warm up track the horses are gearing up for the day’s exercise: first a walk followed by a mile of trot. Overseen by Andrew Balding, they are paired with riders depending on the horse’s needs, and the eagle-eyed trainers look for anything out of the ordinary during trotting: lameness, sweating, a horse that seems listless. Before they head out to the all-weather gallops, Andrew gives them very specific instructions as to what they have to work on depending on where they are in their training regime. Some might wear heart rate monitors.

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As they head off down the tree-lined avenues, you wouldn’t think this was a gaggle of babies: relaxed yet eager to work, they set off one by one up the gentle slope in canter. (We are several dressage riders visiting today, who all sheepishly note that clearly their idea of a canter is our idea of a gallop.) Every horse is in a snaffle, and what the team are looking for is “as natural a movement as possible. The fluidity is important,” Anna Lisa explains. Interestingly, there’s no timing involved. Because the training primarily takes place on grass, it’s all about the timing in Andrew Balding’s head – hitting the line at the right time, and the technique. “But it’s only a clock that can tell you if a horse has broken a record,” Anna Lisa notes.

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How do they balance the need to produce a racehorse quickly – compared to the relative leisurely trajectory of a nine-year-old and upwards Grand Prix dressage horse – with not being in a rush? “Every single horse is different and you’ve got to look and learn and listen to them. Like a child, you can build stamina in a child and there are children who are always sick and tired and that’s because they spend a lot of time watching TV and don’t go out in fresh air. So you’ve also got to treat a horse as you want it to be, but then listen when it gets sore shins, or it grows back end first,” Anna Lisa says.

Crucially, she stresses, it’s important to remember that these are horses that are bred to race and love to race. “They love routine, they love the same thing every day and they love going really fast, so that’s a huge advantage. So we are not actually teaching them to go fast. We’re teaching them to manage their speed, really, and of course not ruining them by doing it too early physically. They’d tell us if they’re not ready. Luckily with the way they’re bred, they are generally ready.”

Anna Lisa Balding with one of the Park House stable stars
Anna Lisa Balding with one of the Park House stable stars

As the horses walk back from their second canter Andrew Balding stands along the track and gets feedback from all the jockeys: has their horse made any noise, been keen? There are a few jump horses here, too, as Andrew has a dual license, and Anna Lisa hunts with the Tedworth. The yard also keeps three so-called hacks, the sane and sensible thoroughbreds that do the vital job of chaperoning the youngsters. Even dressage superstars Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester have ridden out here, on proper thoroughbreds, and Anna Lisa is a walking anecdote, regaling us with tales of how their superstar horse Montaly owned by Farleigh Racing nearly killed her before a race.

“I wish I had the clip!” she says, like it’s a funny cat video rather than a life or death situation. “He has a lot of attitude and kicks out when you’re legging up. He cow kicked and double barrelled me. And then he went and won the Chester Cup.” But, she says, the horses that are full of character are without a doubt the ones that do well. Once their racing years come to an end, Kingsclere are big supporters of retraining their horses for new careers. “Hand on my heart I can’t think of one horse where we thought, there’s nowhere for this horse to go, we have to put it down,” Anna Lisa says.

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In the conservatory, leather-bound racing calendars and the General Stud Book line the shelves alongside gleaming trophies and the small silver boxes winners get at Royal Ascot. “When the Queen was here for tea last year, she opened a box and it had the children’s crayons in it,” Anne Lisa says with a mortified look on her face. The Queen, ever the legend, quipped: “Oh, very special crayons then.” Longines trophies sit proudly on display, too. “Longines’ support for the top end of racing is wonderful. They support equestrian sports in such a great umbrella way,” Anne Lisa notes, adding: “One day we’ll have the Derby trophy sitting here.”

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They certainly have not only the horsepower to do that, but also the manpower, priding themselves on producing riders with incredibly good hands. One of their best apprentice jockeys, William Cox, originally came to the yard for a two-week experience and ended up staying. As the nephew of racehorse trainer Clive Cox, he always knew he wanted to ride, starting out with pony racing. With 63 wins so far, he’s off to a good start. “I’m learning different tactics, learning about different racecourses,” he says, noting that a Lingfield win on a Godolphin horse was very special. “Having Saturday winners is what we all aspire to.” Before a race, he’ll speak to other riders about what a horse is like. “And then it’s about not falling out with the horse before the race,” he says with a smile.

Some jockey apprentices do drop out because of fear, but racing is such a big industry that it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line. They can go on to stable management, administration jobs and much more. For the vast majority, they’ve caught the riding bug. At Park House Stables they not only learn how to ride, but also pick up essential life skills as for many of them it’s their first time away from home. It’s Anna Lisa and her team’s job to keep them fit, healthy and competitive “and away from the pubs. One bad egg can poison the whole yard. There’s a lot of looking after them. Teaching them to look after themselves. Don’t go to the pub, go play golf, take a driving lesson, play tennis instead is what’s encouraged. They have to get in the athlete’s mindset,” Anna Lisa says.

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For Will Cox, a typical day begins with coffee at 6.30am. He will usually go for a run, also to check the ground and the going. At 8 stone, Will watches what he eats but doesn’t “go overboard.” What would he get if he had to get food at a petrol station, Anna Lisa asks him. “I go for salads, a bottle of water, prawns at M&S,” is the reply. Will has a jockey agent and a valet. “People who work behind the scenes don’t get nearly enough recognition. Without them there wouldn’t be horse racing,” he notes. Case in point: Longines’ annual Award of Merit presented in collaboration with the IFHA to honour public figures for their contribution to racing.

Will has also got a coach, with whom he’ll re-watch his races for feedback. How does he feel if it’s not gone exactly to plan? “I try not to beat myself up if it’s gone bad, but it’s hard not to. But you have to stay positive even if you’ve given the first horse a bad ride because otherwise you’ll give the next three a bad ride too. That’s so important.” It’s the variety of the job that he really loves – the different horses, different races. “The experience of getting a pace right is what makes a great jockey. I’ll see the furlong marker and then count one, two, three, and then I’ll know if I’m going to quick,” he says, adding: “So many decisions can only be made during the race in a split second.”