H&H interview: Racehorse trainer Andrew Balding *H&H Plus*

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  • This year’s 2000 Guineas-winning trainer talks to Catherine Austen about his long-awaited second Classic victory, training for The Queen and the team effort behind his Kingsclere operation

    Racing lends itself to dynasties; the same surnames are found repeated in generational gaps throughout its history. That comes with advantages, of course – knowledge is inherent, networks are pre-established and often facilities are inherited. It also comes with heavier loads, however; expectations are high, while successes are perhaps taken for granted and failures more public.

    In the build-up to the 2020 Derby, there was barely a mention of favourite Kameko and his trainer Andrew Balding that didn’t include a reference to Andrew’s father Ian’s victory in the race with Mill Reef in 1971, 18 months before Andrew was born. That great horse’s statue stands proudly at the heart of the Baldings’ training establishment at Kingsclere, Berkshire, in the yard that bears his name.

    “The problem with the Derby is that you get very few goes at it, and it is incredibly hard to find a horse that is a genuine candidate,” says Andrew. “It could be another five years, it could be another 10, it could be never.”

    We are talking two days after the Derby. Kameko finished fourth behind Serpentine in a “funny, muddled” race, and Andrew can’t keep the flat tone of dashed hopes from his voice.

    “I can’t deny we are disappointed. A true gallop where he could get some cover and work his way into the race would have suited him much better,” he says.

    “Great battling qualities”

    The immediacy and fast-flowing nature of racing, particularly in this headlong, abbreviated season, means that we have almost forgotten that Kameko won the 2000 Guineas just a month earlier. It was a second, long-awaited Classic for Andrew; he took the Oaks with Casual Look in 2003, just months after taking over at Kingsclere from his father.

    Had it felt like a long time between those two landmark successes? “Yes,” he replies. “We have had runners in the Derby, we’ve had horses win trials and go to the Derby with a lovely chance, and I hope it will happen again – you keep trying – but it was hard when I was starting off training for anyone to send you a horse that might have the credentials to be a Derby candidate. Now we get sent three or four with the pedigree to suggest they ought to be Derby horses, and that really helps.”

    The Qatar Racing-owned Kameko wasn’t Andrew’s only Derby runner this year – he also saddled Khalifa Sat, who actually finished second, two places in front of his more fancied stablemate.

    “We were thrilled with Khalifa Sat. He showed great battling qualities when he won at Goodwood [the Listed Cocked Hat Stakes, two weeks before the Derby]; he’s got stamina and is a quality stayer who will probably get a bit further in time. He’s a very different model to Kameko – taller, sleeker, an old-fashioned model for the middle-distance stayer.”

    The more compact Kameko is more of a modern type with the looks and pedigree of a miler or a 10-furlong horse.

    “He’s a terrific horse to have anything to do with,” says Andrew warmly. “He’s very relaxed, good-natured and he’s a pleasure to deal with – a professional.”

    Hard on the heels of Kameko’s Guineas triumph came a Royal Ascot winner in the shape of Tactical. While Andrew already had five winners at the Royal meeting – including two in 2019 – in his bag, this was a first one owned by The Queen.

    “That was very special,” he says. “My uncle [Lord Huntingdon] and my dad both trained for The Queen and had Royal Ascot winners for her; that’s an amazing thing and the pleasure she derived from it was very satisfying.

    “That’s the thing – in a normal time we would have caught our breath and thought, ‘Oh my God, how amazing was that,’ and it really is. Maybe come November we will have time to reflect.”

    Tactical, bred as well as owned by The Queen, has since won the Group Two July Stakes at Newmarket and stands near the head of the juvenile reckonings this season. A Group One will no doubt be on his radar before long.

    The 2020 season has yielded nearly 60 winners for Andrew to date, and he is in fourth place in the trainers’ table. Alongside Kameko, Tactical and Khalifa Sat, other stars include Dashing Willoughby, who won the Group Three Henry II Stakes at Sandown and who may have the Melbourne Cup in his sights.

    “He won at Royal Ascot last year and it is lovely to have a horse that maintains his form,” says Andrew. “As a trainer that is what you are hoping to do, to have horses improving from season to season; it’s satisfying for the whole team to have horses holding their form.”

    Gaining trust

    After the initial splash of Casual Look’s Oaks win, it took a few years, as Andrew has said, for him to gain the trust of owners and breeders and for them to send him their best horses.

    The numbers of winners consistently increased, and big races – including Group Ones – were won with the likes of the well-travelled and doughty Phoenix Reach, who took the Canadian International, the Hong Kong Vase and the Dubai Sheema Classic, Here Comes When and Elm Park.

    Andrew was bold and imaginative in his targets, winning the valuable Topkapi Trophy at Veliefendi in Turkey and the EP Taylor Stakes at Woodbine, Canada, with Blond Me, and the Mackinnon Stakes at Flemington in Australia with Side Glance.

    Major successes abroad rack up the prize money and develop a trainer’s international reputation, but everyone wants to win the big British and European races at heart.

    Andrew says: “The best trainer in the world can’t turn water into wine. Getting your hands on Group One horses is key for anybody; you can’t magic them up.”

    With the injection of high-calibre horsepower from the likes of the mighty King Power team, in the past few seasons his annual totals of domestic winners have passed 100 – a record 126 in 2019 and Kameko’s Newmarket Classic victory seemed like a natural progression.

    Coronavirus has probably put paid to exceeding that this year, but lockdown wasn’t as painful at Kingsclere, which is a world in itself with its traditional yards and spectacular downland gallops, as it was elsewhere.

    He explains: “We have 200 horses all in a self-contained property. All of our full-time staff – 72 of them – bar three live on-site. It’s like a little community on its own, which was pretty helpful during lockdown because we could carry on nearly as normal without jeopardising everyone’s safety in terms of biosecurity. We maintain our own gallops and have two full-time gallops men to do that.

    “It’s a big operation. Everyone from Orlando who mows the lawns to my assistant Nigel Walker has a role to play, and the success is down to everyone doing their roles effectively.”

    A family affair

    Anna Lisa, Andrew’s wife, plays a very important role in the business and staff side of the operation and, while Ian is less involved these days, Andrew’s mother Emma is a partner in the business. “She has a say in and an opinion on any strategy there might be,” he says with a grin.

    Andrew and Anna Lisa have three children – Jono, Toby and Flora – and, like Andrew and his broadcaster sister Clare, will grow up steeped in racing and Kingsclere.

    “Jono, who is our eldest at 13, has been riding out three lots a day during lockdown. Toby is 12 and has been riding two lots a day. Flora is only nine and is a little young to be riding out yet, but the boys have really got to grips with racehorses during lockdown and have been mucking in,” he says.

    Andrew and Clare both rode as amateurs, and the next generation look set to as well. “Jono is already 6ft 3in and will be too tall, but he’s ridden out at Joseph O’Brien’s and Jessie Harrington’s, so we are trying to give him a good go before he does get too tall – he’s had a lot of experience for someone of his age,” Andrew says.

    “Toby is much smaller and lighter and if his weight held up he could be a half decent jockey, I’d say.”

    Andrew says that he never considered any other path in life: “I was far too lazy and unimaginative at school to think of anything else.”

    Perhaps yet another generation of Baldings will take the bit between its teeth and send out top-class winners from Kingsclere.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 20 August 2020