Racing: Balding nurtures Derby dream on Watership Down

For Ian Balding there will never be another Mill Reef but in the serenity of his historic stables he is preparing a horse that could bring a second Derby before retirement beckons. Greg Wood reports
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The Independent Online
THE rejuvenating properties of Watership Down are not, it seems, restricted to rabbits. Ian Balding will be 60 years old in November, and took out his first trainers' licence when the Beatles still had short hair, but you could never guess it from the bounce in his stride at evening stables. In fact, there is something almost childlike about the excitement and pleasure with which he greets his horses, with a pet-name and a Polo mint for each. But then, as he points out several times, Kingsclere, his stable at the bottom of Watership Down, is "a very special place".

On the telephone, it might sound a little starry-eyed. When you are there, even on an overcast spring evening, Balding is simply stating the obvious. When John Porter, one of the finest trainers of any generation, built Park House Stables more than a century ago, he did so with the same care, patience and attention to detail that he later showed to the six Derby winners he prepared on its gallops. The red-brick buildings seem to glow with health and history. Such is the sense of heritage that, as Balding admits, its freehold almost comes with a responsibility to succeed.

"The beauty of Kingsclere has been one of the driving forces of my life," he says. He arrived in 1964, as assistant trainer to Peter Hastings-Bass, whose daughter, Emma, was to become Mrs Balding five years later. Barely three months into his apprenticeship at Kingsclere, Hastings-Bass died suddenly, and at just 25 years of age, Balding took over as the master of Park House.

"I felt at the time that I was too young, and I was a jockey at heart. I hadn't ridden in the Grand National and there were all sorts of things I wanted to do, but in those days the Jockey Club wouldn't let you train as a professional and ride as an amateur. Luckily I inherited a lot of good owners and horses and the following year, which was my first full season, I think I was the leading English trainer, behind [Ireland's] Paddy Prendergast, who won the title."

Five years later, a juvenile colt arrived at Kingsclere who would take Balding that vital step further. He worked like a champion but at first seemed sure to be only a sprinter. Instead, he was a phenomenon called Mill Reef, and the further he went, the faster he went. He won the Derby, Arc, Eclipse and King George, and would probably have won any 2,000 Guineas since the war except the one he contested, which included another great champion, Brigadier Gerard. John Porter would certainly have approved.

The 2,000 Guineas, as it happens, has eluded Balding ever since, but what with the subsequent efforts of Lochsong at sprint distances and Selkirk over a mile, it is one of the few major events that has.

And now there may be a red-brick box at Park House with another Derby winner inside. Border Arrow, a son of Selkirk whose liver-chestnut complexion is a perfect match for his surroundings, finished third behind King Of Kings in the 2,000 Guineas last Saturday, and is Balding's most serious contender for the ultimate Classic since Mill Reef himself was working up on Watership Down.

"Mill Reef was a horse in a lifetime, probably the best to have raced in this country since the war," he says. "They don't come along very often, even to the Vincent O'Briens, but you'd like to think that if you train decent horses for good owners for this length of time, you might have two in that span that would win the Derby. When you've done it once, you live to try and do it again."

Not that even his trainer suspected that Border Arrow might bring another Classic back to Kingsclere, until his first race, a maiden at Newmarket last October, which the colt won snugly in a useful time. His starting price of 33-1 was a measure of the surprise at the yard.

"We had no idea that he was any good at all until the last furlong of his first race," Balding says. "He's looks very like Selkirk, and he's not unlike him in temperament, the main thing being that he's incredibly lazy at home. When Selkirk won first time as a two-year-old I hadn't given him a single good entry, so obviously I hadn't thought he was any good either."

Third place in the Guineas might make Border Arrow the form horse at Epsom anyway, but punters may get another look at him in the Dante Stakes at York on Wednesday. "It's a difficult decision," Balding says, "because in the last 20 years I think only The Minstrel has run in the Guineas, run again and then won the Derby. But I suspect that if we want the optimum chance in the Derby, he'll need to be a bit more experienced and battle- hardened. He's had just three runs, all down the straight mile at Newmarket, and the Dante will give us three and a half weeks to give him a bit of a let-off and freshen him up."

There are questions about Border Arrow, such as his stamina and his ability to act on fast ground, which will be answered only on Derby Day itself, yet there is a distinct air of optimism radiating from his box in the corner of the yard where all the best horses live.

Balding sees him every day, but the pleasure clearly does not diminish. "What a wonderful colour," he murmurs, lost in contemplation as Border Arrow stands to attention for his evening inspection. "What a lovely horse."

He is Balding's best chance of saddling another Derby winner, and also probably his last. Andrew, his son, has spent the last two years with Lynda and Jack Ramsden, and will soon return as his father's assistant. He is "mad keen" to take over the yard which his father has managed to buy outright over the course of the last 30 years, and will do so "sooner rather than later", probably at the start of the new millennium.

"It's a wonderful life and I love it," Balding says, "but it's also very demanding. It's akin to being a football manager, a very mercurial existence when the relatively few high points happily outweigh the many low points. I shall be happy to play a bit more golf and tennis."

The lowest point of all came in 1972, when Mill Reef broke his leg on the gallops. "The vet knelt down and felt it and said, 'It feels like a bag of marbles', and my heart just sank." But one of the Park House outbuildings, which in Porter's day was a Catholic chapel, made an ideal makeshift operating theatre, and a few days later, surgeons saved Mill Reef for what turned out to be one of the great stud careers.

The old chapel is now the "colours room", where tack and silks hang on the wall as if in a museum, along with trophies, winners' blankets and photographs of triumphs past. It is another source of pride for Balding, and you would not bet against him adding to the collection even when his son's name is on the licence.

For he is at least half-serious when he says that an ambition for his retirement is to "lose some weight and ride in a few point-to-points. My family and friends might be a bit disturbed, but I feel young enough and fit enough to want to do it". Given the obvious benefits of a life at Kingsclere, you would not want to bet against it - or, for that matter, Border Arrow.