Royal trainer Andrew Balding: Jockeys used cocaine to have a good night without gaining weight

by Admin
Royal trainer Andrew Balding: Jockeys used cocaine to have a good night without gaining weight

Horses trained by Balding have won 78 races this year and won £1.8m in prize money – John Lawrence

Andrew Balding and his wife Anna Lisa are having their photograph taken, surrounded by magnificent horses, in the stable yard at Kingsclere. It’s nestled in the beautiful Hampshire countryside, looking out over Watership Down. They’re strikingly busy people running one of the most successful flat-racing stables in the country – “I suppose I should have brushed my hair and put make-up on before this,” says Anna Lisa, with a laugh. Andrew, phone close to hand, has a runner about to race at Kempton at any moment.

The red-brick yard at Kingsclere dates back to Victorian times but has been in the family since 1963, when it was bought by Andrew’s grandfather Peter Hastings-Bass. Balding is from a horse-racing dynasty that stretches back for generations; his sister is the radio and TV presenter Clare Balding, best known for her coverage of Wimbledon. They grew up in a house on the hill above the stables, but Balding has since moved his family into the large house attached to the yard.

Together, he and Anna Lisa are the stars of Horsepower, a BBC four-part documentary series that follows the day-to-day life of the operation at Kingsclere, from the October sales when prospects are bought at auction right through a tough season, to the glamour of Royal Ascot in May 2021, when the late Queen made her final visit to the racecourse.

Balding, 51, has trained a number of Queen Elizabeth II’s horses over the years, just like his father and grandfather before him. Her Majesty would visit to check on them. “Do you remember that first time she walked in here,” Anna Lisa says to Andrew, as we chat in the kitchen earlier. “We’d done up the kitchen, and we just wandered through, and you’d go and sit and have tea. I was amazed by her knowledge.”

“I think she felt relaxed here,” Andrew says.

The documentary captures the race day moments when Balding would phone the late Queen to chat through their hopes for her horses. And as the series shows, when one of them had won, word soon spread among the palace staff. Balding describes calling the switchboard after bringing home a winner at Royal Ascot, “I said, ‘Hello. Is it possible to speak to Her Majesty’ and [the person on the line] said, ‘For you Sir, I think anything’s possible.’”

Andrew Balding, Queen Elizabeth II and John Warren stand in the parade ring on day five of Royal Ascot in June 2021 – Getty

Since the death of Queen Elizabeth, the new King and Queen have “scaled down” the late Queen’s horse-racing interests, Balding says, “probably rightly. They’ve refined it. Queen Elizabeth wanted to have runners at nine o’clock at night at Wolverhampton” – he’s referring to the sort of smaller evening race meeting that some high-profile owners might not concern themselves with – “because that was her thing, you know, that’s what her genuine interest was. And probably every day without a runner was a missed opportunity in some ways.”

“So I think when the King and Queen took over, they wanted to make it more manageable, financially as well.” It costs upwards of £10,000 per year to keep and train a horse. Queen Elizabeth owned more than 100 at her death in 2022, looked after by a number of top trainers. Careful purchases with regard to pedigree then mean that horses can earn money back in stud fees when they retire and, if they’re lucky, win decent prize money. “I think the aim is that it’ll become self-funding,” Balding says. “And they can still have huge satisfaction knowing that these horses were essentially bred, for the last few generations at least, by the late Queen. A lot of thought has gone into the matings [to ensure the best pedigrees]. And hopefully, if they have a great horse, it’s going to be a testament to her vision.

The Queen chats with John Warren and Andrew Balding in the parade ring at Ascot Racecourse – Getty

The yard on the outskirts of the small town of Kingsclere is almost a village in itself, with up to 95 employees and 250 horses. Balding has won 78 races this year, more than any other trainer, and his horses have earned £1.8m in prize money, putting him third in the trainer’s championship behind two of the sport’s giants, Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien and the father and son team John and Thady Gosden.

Balding also trains horses belonging to Qatar Racing, and the King Power organisation behind Leicester City FC, as well as the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Footballers Michael Owen, Harry Redknapp and Wayne Rooney have all owned horses, too, while the former Southampton and England striker Mick Channon actually became a successful trainer. What is it that draws football folk to horse-racing? “I think they’re probably all thrill seekers,” Balding says, “you know, the adrenaline of the game and the adrenaline of racing.” Ferguson, he notes, is one of the great storytellers.

The documentary captures dramatic highs and lows, international races in Kentucky, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and off-course scandal as champion jockey Oisin Murphy, who arrived at Kingsclere from Ireland as a teenager, tests positive for cocaine in France in July 2020 and faces a temporary ban. Murphy denies that he has ever taken cocaine but admits to having sex with someone who had taken the drug the night before the test. (The French racing authorities banned him for three months, less than the six-month ban they’d handed-out to jockey Frankie Dettori for cocaine use in 2012.)

“Oisin puts himself under a lot of pressure,” Andrew says. “And actually what was going on [while the series was being filmed] was he was slipping deeper and deeper into trouble.” The trouble was alcoholism, which Murphy later told reporters had led to blackouts and was a key factor in him later being given a 14-month ban by the British racing authorities. He was also punished for lockdown breaches. “It was stupid and unforgivable, and the reason he got such a long punishment was he tried to cover his back,” Andrew says.

Andrew Balding and his wife Anna Lisa photographed at their stables near Kingsclere

The couple have differing relationships with Murphy. “I do care very much about him,” Andrew says. (“He’s exceptional,” he also tells me.) “And I’m so glad he’s got back on track, because he’s an asset to us… to the whole sport. But I wouldn’t have that conversation [about his private issues] with him. Anna Lisa does, though, and right through all of the dark days, she was committed to helping him get back on the straight and narrow.” Anna Lisa, who describes in the series how homesick and vulnerable the young Irishman seemed when he first arrived at Kingsclere in 2012, is closer to the emotional lives of all the staff and the jockeys.

“I’ve been quite involved in the mental health side of jockeys – they are actually on their own a lot of the time. You know, a jockey gets beaten on an odds-on favourite [at an evening meeting], gets in his car, drives two hours home, beating himself up, starving hungry, absolutely knackered, in the dark…”

“Getting a b—-cking from the trainer,” chips in Andrew.

Pressure has always been part of the sport. Andrew talks about Fred Archer, the 19th century champion jockey, who would have ridden at Kingsclere in Victorian times. “He shot himself because of the deprivation of food and the pressure he was putting himself under,” he says. Lester Piggott famously had “a cigar and a cough” for breakfast.

Is cocaine an occupational hazard for jockeys? “It’s not just the racing industry. I think it’s widespread,” Andrew says. “If you’ve got kids the age of 18 or more, there’s every chance they’re going to be offered it or have access to it. But I think with the jockeys, because of the deprivation of fluid intake, it was possibly there as an alternative, to have a good night without waking up and being six pounds heavier in the morning.”

For some, the image of the racing world and the horsey people within it has been shaped by Jilly Cooper’s novel Mount!, in which her hero Rupert Campbell-Black throws everything at trying to produce a champion stallion in flat-racing. So how close is Cooper’s depiction of intense rivalries, big egos and bed-hopping to the reality? “Well it’s not dull by any stretch,” Andrew says. “I think employing 90-odd people, you’re gonna get a lot of happenings here, there and everywhere,” Anna Lisa adds. “But I think the less Andrew knows about it, the better.”

Kingsclere boasts multiple all-weather gallops as well as a four and a half furlong polytrack straight gallop – Alamy

Balding’s uncle is the present Earl of Huntingdon and the family can also be traced back to the Earls of Derby and the Plantagenet Kings. Racing is in his blood. His great grandfather Aubrey Hastings trained three Grand National winners, uncles on both sides of the family were trainers and his father Ian Balding, who was born in America, won the Epsom Derby and France’s prestigious Arc de Triomphe in 1971 with one of the greatest racehorses of all time, Mill Reef. Balding knows the chances of finding another horse like the small but stunningly quick stallion are remote.

“Great horses come around once every 10 years, and a horse like Mill Reef probably once in 50 years. So the idea of lightning striking twice and a Mill Reef landing here again is unlikely, but we’ll keep trying.”

Clare Balding was once an amateur jockey herself. “We’re very close,” Andrew says, “she’ll come down every other weekend when the kids are home. She’ll ring after every big winner.”

The documentary includes a poignant scene of Andrew with their father, now 85, who has dementia but who, when the series was shot, still liked to ride (he is now in a nursing home). When the younger man asks the elder Balding how he’d feel if his son won the Derby with one of his own horses, he replies with a grin, “I would be very surprised,” before adding, “I’d be very proud of you.” Balding has already won two of Britain’s flat-racing classics, the Oaks and the 2000 Guineas (twice), yet Anna Lisa remarks in the series that if her husband doesn’t win a Derby, he’ll die an unhappy man. “I still feel that,” she says.

Has Andrew ever felt in his father’s shadow? “Not especially, I mean, I think he gave Clare and I, through his hard work, a huge start in life.” He also, Anna Lisa points out, handed over his racing licence to his son when he could have continued. “He probably had another five or six years in him training at a high-level, but he didn’t want to compete against me,” Andrew says.

Clare Balding interviews her brother Andrew Balding after he won with Born in Bombay in the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot – Shutterstock

The dynasty will continue. “We’ve got two boys [Jonno and Toby] who are 17 and 16, and they have got their hearts set on it,” says Anna Lisa. During the lockdown, she admits, homeschooling involved the then 12 and 13 year olds being sent out “to ride five racehorses every day”.

Balding hopes the series will give an inside view of just how many people are involved in the behind-the-scenes part of horse racing, and the many different backgrounds they come from. The individual grooms, from young Frenchwoman Marie to Abdul, from war-torn Sudan, who leaves the yard to search for his younger brother in the refugee camps of Chad, provide fascinating backstories. As for the lobby that suggests horse racing is cruel, Andrew says, “I don’t think it’s any more cruel than riding horses on a busy road, and in fact, [is] probably a lot safer.”

It’s a sport facing significant challenges, though, perhaps obscured by how popular the historic race meetings, such as Royal Ascot (and in jump-racing, Aintree and the Cheltenham Festival) have become on the social calendar. But there is a downward trend in attendances and perhaps a sense that the centre of gravity of the sport is shifting, with domestic racing unable to compete with the huge prize money on offer for races in Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the $20m Saudi Cup, which Andrew and daughter Flora, 13, watch back at home in Hampshire, winning is no longer essential. “We’ve just got to finish in the first 10 to get some good money,” he tells her. Is there a danger that like golf and football, the financial draw will change the sport? “We have owners from Bahrain, Saudi, Qatar, Dubai, and they’re all passionate about it, and have very good understanding and knowledge,” Andrew adds.

But he notes, “the thing is that no matter how much money you have here, unless you bought every single horse, you cannot guarantee success… I think that is what might made Alex Ferguson and Queen Elizabeth interested – the fact that they were competing against other people. That even though you’re the queen of England, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be queen of the racecourse.”

They have to get on. The yard will soon spring back to life after its lunchtime quiet. The Baldings have to make sure they don’t let the sport consume their every waking moment, but they voted for the election by post to save time and haven’t had a chance to watch a second of Wimbledon yet, Andrew says, before adding, “Don’t tell Clare”.

Horsepower will air on BBC Four at 10pm & 11pm, with all episodes available on iPlayer, on Tuesday 9 July. The following two episodes will air on Tuesday 16 July.

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