The Spirit of Aintree is willing

Sue Montgomery studies the grand design of one of racing's most venerable partnerships
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MENTION the names of Ian Balding and Paul Mellon, and most racing people will think of the Derby and that wonderful little champion Mill Reef. But although the heads of the English trainer and the millionaire American owner are set on the business of Flat racing, their hearts are firmly with the sport of jumping. And next Saturday a horse called Crystal Spirit will carry their hopes at Aintree in steeplechasing's ultimate challenge.

The irony is that the handsome eight-year-old was bred with the Derby in mind, not the Grand National. His two older half-brothers Glint of Gold and Diamond Shoal - both sired by Mill Reef - were high-class middle- distance runners on the Flat, his dam Crown Treasure was a good five-furlong winner in the States and his sire Kris was a champion miler. Balding said: "Crown Treasure was sent to Kris to inject a bit of speed into the line. Plan A was not to produce a staying chaser."

On the Flat, Crystal Spirit seemed to have little of the talent of his older siblings, so plans B and C - gelding and hurdling - were adopted. And the young horse made an immediate impact with four wins from six races in his first season, including a splendid victory in the 1991 Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham.

That was Balding's first Festival win - with his first runner - but it was not the first time Mellon's black-and-gold colours had been led into that hallowed winner's enclosure, for he owned the crack two-mile chaser Drinny's Double, winner of the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 1967 and 1968.

Pittsburgh-born Mellon, 87, a banker by profession and a horseman and art connoisseur by inclination, is one of the sports most knowledgeable, respected and generous patrons. In America he has raced champions like Quadrangle, Run the Gantlet, Arts and Letters and Fort Marcy and breeds horses on his 6,000-acre Rokeby estate in Virginia. But he has always been a great Anglophile (his mother was English), and after he graduated from Yale he read history at Cambridge, rowed for Clare College and developed a passion for foxhunting.

His first racehorse was Drinmore Lad, successful over timber in Virginia, and it was through that horse that the first steps along the road to Aintree were taken. Another wealthy young American, Ambrose Clark, won the Grand National of 1933 with Kellsboro' Jack, and badgered his compatriot to bring Drinmore Lad over to England. Mellon did so, and not only did Drinmore Lad (after whom Drinny's Double was named) win the Valentine Chase over one circuit of the National course, but his coming forged a friendship that has lasted nearly 60 years.

Mellon sent Drinmore Lad to Clark's trainer, Ivor Anthony, at Wroughton in Wiltshire. Anthony had taken over the yard on the death of Aubrey Hastings, whose son Peter Hastings-Bass eventually took over the business and transferred it to Kingsclere, in Berkshire. Hastings-Bass provided Mellon's first Flat winner in England, Lonely Hills in 1954, and when he died young 10 years later his assistant of a few months had the reins of a thriving yard thrust into his hands. That assistant, Ian Balding, later completed the circle by marrying Hastings- Bass's daughter, Emma.

Balding, a young-looking 56, was not even a twinkle in his father's eye when Drinmore Lad was strutting his stuff at Liverpool, but though he and Mellon are a generation apart they are of one blood where sport is concerned. The trainer is also a Cantabrigian; he excelled at rugby, boxing and cricket at university, and lists his recreations as tennis, golf and skiing. He is on the board of Southampton FC, is master of the local drag-hunt, and has ridden more than 70 winners over jumps. One of his great regrets is that one of them, despite several attempts, was not over the National obstacles.

Although most immediately identified with Flat stars like Mill Reef, Forest Flower, Selkirk and, of course, the flying Lochsong, Balding is happiest when there are fences to jump. He said: "If I didn't have a runner, I would always chose to go jump racing rather than Flat racing. I prefer the atmosphere and I think by and large the people involved are more genuine.

"Sometimes the smiles and congratulations after a Flat winner seem a little strained. I know Lochsong always got a great reception, but you get one like her, a public darling, only once every 10 years. But at a jump meeting, the cheers seem to come from the heart every time. No matter who you are, people are happy that you have won."

The family name is already on the Grand National roll of honour through his older brother Toby, who won the race with Highland Wedding and Little Polveir, while Ian sent out another of Mellon's converted Flat racers, Spinning, to win over hurdles at the National meeting two years ago.

He is really quite keen on the chances of Crystal Spirit, a notably classy- looking bay who has won a clutch of best-turned-out prizes for his lad of many years, Danny Clayton. The gelding is relatively inexperienced over fences; he had nine runs as a novice last year, when he was not far behind the best in the division and ran second to Monsieur le Cur over the Mildmay course at Liverpool, and has had five this term. He has never fallen, and Balding says: "He is a safe jumper, without being over-bold, which is what you want for Aintree. And he has a touch of class.We have always considered him a Gold Cup horse."

Crystal Spirit, who will be ridden by Jamie Osborne, comes to the National fresh, having bypassed the risks of a race at Ascot yesterday. A slight leg problem kept him away from Cheltenham, and he was last seen in action when he beat Southolt at Ascot in January. However, Balding reports that he is in tremendous form. "He's only eight, and perhaps he'd want another year before tackling the National, but he'll never be so well handicapped again. With 10st 4lb, he's got a real racing weight."

Mellon's age is doubtless another reason to grasp the chance now, and it would please the Virginian sportsman mightily to emulate another of racing's elder statesmen. Jim Joel was 92 when his Maori Venture followed up at Aintree his triumph at Epsom with Royal Palace. The last of the five trainers to have won both big races was Willie Stephenson, who sent out Arctic Prince to win the 1951 Derby and Oxo to take the National eight years later. Fittingly, Balding used to ride out for Stephenson when he was up at Cambridge.

Crystal Spirit will be Mellon's second National runner; his first, Red Tide, fell at the fourth fence behind Jay Trump 30 years ago. This time around, he will not be at Aintree to watch his horse, but will see the spectacle live on television in the United States. Balding said: "He is getting quite excited about the race, but does not really enjoy travelling any more." The flesh may now be getting weak, but if the Spirit is willing . . .