Passed/Failed: 'An education in the life of Clare Balding, BBC sports presenter

'I got suspended for four days for shoplifting'

Clare Balding, 39, was a leading amateur jockey and now covers all live racing for the BBC. Other sports she has presented include swimming, rugby league, golf, bowls and darts. She has reported on four summer Olympic Games and three winter Olympic Games. She presents Ramblings on Radio 4, and her new series Britain By Bike starts soon on BBC Four.

I don't think I got expelled, but they weren't overly keen to hang on to me at the fee-paying school in Inhurst, which is near Basingstoke and the next village to ours. I got into quite a lot of trouble. I was very enthusiastic and inquisitive, and rather questioning of the teachers.

At seven or eight, I went to Kingsclere state primary near Newbury, and I credit them with my high marks in my English in the 11-plus, but I was hopeless at maths – 13 per cent. I got into Downe House, a private girls boarding school near Thatcham, Berkshire.

I got suspended for shoplifting from the local village shop. There was a lot of it going on and I was trying to keep in with the in-crowd and prove my hardness. Luckily, it was just before the end of term and I was only suspended for four days. It was awful at the time but, long-term, had a good effect. I went back into a different house and had a different set of friends. I ended up as head of the house and head girl.

It's so extraordinary that I got into Cambridge. I got an A in my English A-level, but my grades in history and Latin were poor. I applied to Christ's College and was turned down. My father [Ian Balding, the Queen's former racehorse trainer] was very disappointed: he had got in with only O-levels!

I had two years out. I took history again and started riding in races. I rode eight winners in one season and nine in the other. Then I had tuition in interview technique at Radley College, where my brother [the present trainer for the Queen, Andrew Balding] went to school. I felt terribly comfortable at the Newnham interview and got in to read English. During my first week, I asked Jean Gooder, my director of studies, if I could have the following Tuesday off for a race, saying: "If I win the Lady Riders Championship, I would receive my weight in champagne, and bring reflected glory on to the college." She said I could, provided that I explained to her the racing page of her newspaper.

I really did enjoy English. We read a lot of Shakespeare, and, for this, Germaine Greer was one of my supervisors. She could not abide ignorant people, but in your first year you're bound to be ignorant. We got on, after a few occasions when I disagreed with her.

Jean told me that her husband had marked one of my finals papers. The names were not given to the examiners, but he read out to her part of an essay from one of the candidates and was very complimentary about it – and she knew it was me. My degree was a 2:1, but he gave me a first on that paper.

I was president of the Cambridge Union in my second year. There was a good turn-out for the Dalai Lama, who came to speak. He was a funny man, a real giggler and an very engaging orator.

Reading English probably helped me in my job, but so did the Union. Debating is the greatest training for when they tell me: "Stand up and talk: the VT [videotape] machine's broken down." At one Olympics, they mistimed the event and asked me: "Can you talk for seven minutes?" Believe me, that's a long time.

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