Racing: Interview- Balding is larger than her gilded life

`I used to hide because I was never sure how to curtsy. We'd walk into the kitchen and the Queen would be there'
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IN THE annus mirabilis of 1971, the remarkable Mill Reef won the Derby, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - a treble beyond the wildest dreams even of that well-known racehorse-owner Sir Alex Ferguson. For Mill Reef's redoubtable trainer Ian Balding, 1971 was as mirabilis as an annus gets. Because not only was a legend born. So was his daughter Clare.

Clare Balding is 28 now and a broadcaster of increasing assuredness, wit and charm, a Desdemona Lynam in the making. At BBC Sport, she is a rapidly appreciating asset in asset-stripping times. She doesn't just turn up, do her bit and go home, but thinks deeply about ways in which the BBC's racing coverage could be improved. Indeed, her outspoken criticism has once or twice landed her in fairly serious shtuck with the Powers That Beeb. But they know now, if they didn't before, that fillies can't be gelded. And besides, Balding's criticism is usually constructive. She dreamed up a jolly feature to run during Royal Ascot, for example, called Tails Of The Unexpected.

"I think it is good to keep things light-hearted," she says. "And Willie Carson helps a hell of a lot with that. A light-hearted touch would have been hard with Julian [Wilson]. Julian knows more about racing than I ever will. He keeps his own private handicap, knows all the stats, all the form.

"I don't pretend to, and I don't want to. My job is to sell racing to those who don't know the form. We've got to keep them watching because there are big gaps between races, and it can get awfully boring if all you talk about is the running and the form." That said, Balding - whose close friend and betting associate is the celebrated punter Angus Loughran - gives me a hot each-way tip for today's Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot. Her father's horse Pantar stands an excellent chance, she says. "It's a straight mile which will suit him, he ran very well at Ascot last year, he's a lovely horse and Kieren Fallon is riding him."

Fallon, she reckons, is already one of the all-time greats. "He's amazing. He was still riding at Newmarket at nine o'clock the evening after he won the Derby. You know, there have been four Classics this year and he's won three of them and come second in the other. Yet which is the one he wants to talk about? The one he didn't win. Amazing. He has a very low opinion of himself. He's always trying to better himself." Balding was no mean jockey herself on the Flat. She rode 17 winners, was leading amateur in 1989, and both leading amateur and champion lady in 1990.

Was there anyone she tried to emulate in the saddle? "The ones with big arses were the only ones I could emulate. No, I always thought that Steve Cauthen was a great judge of a race. Actually, he and I used to share a lovely horse called Song Of Sixpence. I'd ride him one Saturday and Steve would ride him the next." We are talking at Queen's Club during the Stella Artois tennis tournament, which Balding is covering for Radio Five Live. She is a versatile presenter, but horses are her thing, and rarely has anyone had stronger credentials to become television's Ms Racing. Her father, her father's brother Toby, and her mother's brother Lord Huntingdon are all successful trainers. Both her grandfathers were trainers, too, and her paternal grandfather, Gerald Balding, was also a 10-goal polo player, i.e. as good as they come. "In fact he was the last English 10- goal player. Howard Hipwood got up to nine, Julian to eight. There's a 10-goal player in that ridiculous book by Jilly Cooper, and I remember thinking, `not if he's English he's not'. It's only the Argentinians and Chileans who are that good now." Grandpa Balding, whom she never knew, used to run a polo team for the American zillionaire Jock Whitney, who showed his gratitude by funding the education of Ian and Toby Balding. Later, another rich benefactor did the same for Clare and her brother Andrew. When Mill Reef won the Derby, his delighted owner Paul Mellon established a trust fund in Ian Balding's name.

It paid for Clare to go to boarding school, not that she arrived quite as grandly as some of her fellow pupils. "I was once dropped off in the horsebox, with the horse in it. God, it was embarrassing." Not surprisingly, she could ride almost as soon as she could walk. "My brother and I were so spoilt. We had Shetland ponies from a very early age, and we heard my father say that you have to fall off 100 times before you can be considered a proper jockey, so we kept falling off on purpose until we got up to 100." Her first Shetland pony was called Valkyrie - previous riders, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. Valkyrie was a gift from the Queen, some of whose horses Ian Balding still trains - indeed Balding offers me another tip for Royal Ascot, the Henry Cecil-trained Enrique in today's Jersey Stakes.

The Queen has long been a regular visitor to the Balding stables at Kingsclere in Hampshire, and Ian Balding would occasionally forget to warn his children about an impending Royal arrival. "I used to hide because I was never sure how to curtsy. But sometimes we'd walk into the kitchen and she'd be sitting there having breakfast. One morning I walked in and didn't know whether to interrupt what she was saying to say `hello,' or just to sit down. So I just got my breakfast and sat down. And I had this habit of putting a sausage on a piece of toast with marmalade on it, for which the sausage had to be cut longways. On that particular morning the sausage went shooting across the table. My father was livid."

A telling-off for firing sausages at the monarch is one thing, but her father has sometimes been a stern critic even when, in her view, she has done something well. When she was 17, and already experienced at riding in point-to-points, he asked if she wanted to ride a horse called Mail Man in a race at Salisbury. "He said I had to do 10 stone two, which was a challenge, because I am quite heavy and always was, but I went off running and did it.

"It was very wet at Salisbury, and I got covered in mud. I came from absolute last and just got pipped, and when I came in I was grinning all over my face, until Dad said `What the bloody hell do you think you were doing? You should have won'." Two weeks later she rode Mail Man to victory at Ayr, and with the points gained in an ongoing riders' competition from that, plus her second place at Salisbury and another fourth place, she won a Mini. "I won it at Haydock on the Saturday and was taking my driving test on the Monday. I passed, went to pick up the car in Newbury, and drove it home in first and second gears because I couldn't find third, let alone fourth." On horseback, she was more competent. And her favourite mount was Knock Knock. "He hadn't won a race when dad got him, and I rode him in an evening meeting at Kempton. He was 25-1 and Dad said: `You've got absolutely no chance so just enjoy it'." It doesn't take Ally McCoist or John Parrott to know what happened next. Balding won, and three weeks later the same combination won a more significant race at Sandown.

"On that occasion I did exactly what Dad told me to, which was very rare. I hit the front when I was supposed to and won by two lengths. He was a star, that horse. I won at Beverly and Salisbury on him, and he also won the Chesterfield Cup at Goodwood and was fantastic with all sorts of jockeys.

"Eventually he died on the racecourse. He broke a leg in what was meant to be his last race. I was away on holiday and Mum didn't tell me until I got back, thank God."

Balding takes a rare pause. She is talkative, articulate, formidably self-possessed, but also great fun, one of those faintly annoying people who was bound to succeed at whatever she attempted and who, moreover, seems to have led a completely gilded life. In the week she arrived at Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English, she needed to win at either Chepstow or Folkestone to clinch the ladies championship. Her director of studies allowed her to skip lectures while this was achieved, saying: "If you teach me how to read form you can do what you like." Surprising nobody, Balding later became President of the Cambridge Union. And the director of studies became a fluent reader of form.

In due course, Balding's mother introduced her - at an evening meeting at Windsor - to BBC radio's racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght. He suggested she did a voice test, which went well, and she started off on radio reading racing bulletins on Danny Baker's programme, two mornings a week. Then she became a trainee sports presenter. Then, Julian Wilson - who had known her since she was a toddler falling off Shetland ponies - suggested a screen test. She made her telly debut at Royal Ascot, of all places. "I spent a fortune on clothes, at places like Jigsaw and Warehouse.

"Since then I have been able to borrow clothes for Ascot from various designers. Otherwise it would cost a fortune. You could easily spend four grand." She doesn't ride competitively any more, although she did beat John Francome and Peter Scudamore in a celebrity race at Wincanton last year. But the weight issue did for her career as a jockey. "I thought it was the best game ever," she says, " but I did have a serious problem with my weight. Through the winter I'd put on a stone and then I'd have to run with a bin liner on, sweat in saunas, eat salads and all that. My target was the Diamond race at Ascot on King George day. That was always when I was at my thinnest, when I'd have all my photos done."

Balding gives a merry chuckle, shakes my hand and is off, back to the microphone. Not quite as svelte as when she was riding, but every bit as contented.