Racing: Balding aims to keep the fun rolling into retirement

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The Independent Online

Toby Balding seems to have been around for ever, but tomorrow the final grain of sand falls through his training timer. Turbo runs in the November Handicap, Desailly at Sandown and then it will be over.

Balding falls three seasons short of completing a half century as a trainer, and goes as one of the few to have completed National Hunt racing's holy trinity of Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National. It will not be easy to get the lid down on his trove of great memories. "I haven't regretted a single day I've trained," he said. "It's been a magic way of life."

Gerald Barnard Balding is 68, and while longevity is all well and good, it does bring a problem for trainers. Balding has noted that his client base is dying, because that is what is happening to his owner contemporaries.

"I've either skinted or killed my client list," he said merrily. "I've only got two owners left of my vintage in Bridget Swire and Christopher Wates. Poor old Michael Jackson [Morley Street, Forest Sun] has died. So did Ian Atholl [Boraceva, Far Bridge]."

Balding himself, though, survives in a racing role. He will not disappear in a puff of smoke from Kimpton Down Stables in Hampshire, where his son-in-law, Jonathan Geake, will hold the licence. He also promises that nobody will spot him wandering in a dressing gown during the late morning. "I'll still be first in," he said. "It's still the family business. Jonathan is going to have to get out and attract his own age group, otherwise he'll outgrow his client list.

"Having a horse is still one of the most attractive forms of leisure expenditure if you can afford it and I will end up being an owner with Jonathan. I'm probably my biggest owner anyway, perhaps not by design.

"I'm not moving out or moving away. Peter Easterby's done it pretty well and Ian [his brother] has had no problems with it. We're describing it here as evolution rather than revolution.

"I don't look back," he said. "What's happened has happened. You're always looking forward. It's essentially a young persons' industry. That keeps you alert. I haven't had time to get old. And I'm not planning to.

"I'm a racing bore. We all are. It becomes totally a way of life, an obsession. Training is a very privileged business. I have spent my whole adult life playing with someone else's toys at their expense. We're certainly idolised way beyond our talent.

"Racing has taught me how extremely lucky I have been throughout my life. It gives you a level view of life, as it encompasses every sort of emotion.

"As well as all that I've been extremely spoiled in that I've been able to train for people I wanted to rather than had to. I haven't ever had to prostitute myself to fill the yard up.

"The bad days have been the injury days and worse. We've lost horses like Brave Tornado, Neblin, who killed himself at Wincanton, and a mare we were very fond of called Little Pippin, who died at Fontwell. We remember them but, at the same time, if you can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen. Horses are like us, you lose friends and lose horses. Sometimes they're one and the same."

There have been neon horses - the likes of Highland Wedding, Little Polveir and Kildimo - but Balding remembers them all. "If I see a horse I can remember it, much better than I can people. I can remember what won the members at Larkhill, but I could forget your name, Rodney [and he wasn't joking].

"There are horses who people have never even heard of which hold particular significance for me. Green Light was my first proper runner. He was fifth in the Champion Hurdle and probably should have been third. I brought him out the following Thursday to win at Taunton. Pissed up. Then there was Belgrano, my first ever winner at Cheltenham. We seriously fancied him and someone else obviously got in the plot because after that I used to pass a house called Belgrano, whose owner I assume punted the horse."

Toby Balding will spend his last day as a trainer supervising Desailly at Sandown because he does not want to travel too far away from Carolyn, his wife of 44 years, who undergoes hip-replacement surgery today.

"Caro has got a bit unwell on me," he said. "She's always been the No1 person round here, albeit second to the horses, and deserves a bit more of me now."

The rest will be spread around Balding's commitment to the National Trainers' Federation and his new-found leisure time. The trainer's listed hobbies are tennis, eating and drinking, the second and third necessitating that he does plenty of the first. He still plays once a week. In addition, he has just taken up golf, just started to manipulate a different sort of handicap.

Then there will be more regular visits to Larkhill point-to-point, to which Balding will take his wits and £250 and test his judgement against the bookmakers. It will be, it has been, all rather fun. For him and us.