The Big Interview: Clare Balding

Clare Balding and below with Princess Anne
Clare Balding and below with Princess Anne
Have your say

CLARE Balding is the first 
to balk at the suggestion that she is now a 
“national treasure” 
after becoming broadcasting’s undeniable gold medal winner at the Olympics and Paralympics.

“Oh my God. No,” she shrieks when it is put to her that she won over Britain with her easy-going nature and diligence that put more high-profile TV presenters – certainly many of those with higher salaries – to shame.

“Gosh, no. I don’t think so. I’m just doing a job that I love. National treasure. Aren’t they people who’re very important? My sister-in-law for one says she is getting very bored of everyone talking about me and nothing else. They are aware, as I am, that it will not last.”

There’s another reason to Balding’s reticence, one which has only become public knowledge following publication of her acclaimed childhood memoir My Animals and Other Family.

The book charts her life growing up in one of Britain’s racing dynasties, where childhood scrapes on horses would be interspersed with the chance to ride Mill Reef, an equine giant who bestrode 20th century Flat racing history, and visits by the Queen – when the future presenter was not always on her most immaculate behaviour.

She was suspended from her private boarding school for shoplifting – peer pressure was to blame – and the sense of shame still lives with the sports presenter whose broadcasting career only began in 1994 when she persuaded Cornelius Lysaght, BBC radio’s racing editor, to allow her to help out with coverage at the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival.

“School was difficult and I think school is difficult for a lot of people. If you do things you shouldn’t do, you need to learn from that. Although mine wasn’t perhaps extreme, I got caught and it is something that I am ashamed about. I think it is important to write about it.”

It was a challenging time, a rite of passage, that certainly could not have been foreseen when Clare Balding was growing up at the iconic Kingsclere Stables in deepest Berkshire.

Her father, Ian, was the Queen’s trainer and the man who guided Paul Mellon’s Mill Reef to success in the 1971 Derby, the Eclipse, the King George and the Arc – four of racing’s foremost contests.

The book’s timeline is provided by great moments in racing history, and understandably so given that an 18-month-old Balding can recall sitting on the champion with absolute clarity. The detail, like her Olympic broadcasts, is precise. “There I am, I’m leaning forward like a jockey but there’s no saddle. I’m turning to the camera and smiling. I have a grip on the reins and no-one is holding me.

“Hang on a minute – no-one is holding him and no-one is holding on to me.”

“He could have bolted, I could have lost my balance and smashed my skull on the floor. Just one step sideways and I’d have been a mess. Clearly, that mattered little to the people around the great horse – that is my parents.” Both survived, though Mill Reef’s racing career was soon to come to a shattering end on the gallops with a serious, and near fatal, leg injury.

Balding accepts that she grew up in a life of privilege but that she had to fend for herself. The trip to A&E was a frequent one. Her first pony, which she started riding as she learned to walk, was a Shetland called for Valkyrie who was a gift from the Queen after being outgrown by Princes Andrew and Edward.

“A sweet-natured old girl,” says Balding of Valkyrie before hastily pointing out that she has still to master the art of curtseying to Her Majesty. “Is it left leg behind right or the other way round?”

That was nothing to her humiliation when she was suspended from Downe House school in the leafy Home Counties for being part of a gang caught stealing from a nearby shop. Her mother Emma drove her to the shop to pay for the stolen items and to apologise.

Yet what happened next was to have a lasting effect – she was banned, over the Christmas period, from riding her beloved horses. “It made one appreciate the importance and value of honesty. It is a lesson that I have never forgotten,” Balding says. “I felt like the oxygen had been turned off at a valve. Seriously. I was plodding through each day. No joy, No comfort. Mum made me work every day in the dining room, as if I was at school.”

Animals, and a horse called Ellie May, were to provide Balding with her salvation.

“I had lost my respect for honesty, for kindness and for hard work. Ellie May was proof that you shouldn’t judge anyone on looks alone. Animals do that too.”

She goes on: “I wonder if that’s why some of the most famous and powerful people in the world – the Queen, the Aga Khan, Sheikh Mohammed, Madonna – develop strong relationships with horses. Perhaps, surrounded by those who flatter, it’s the only way they get a true reflection of themselves. The horse will be their honest mirror.”

It is this empathy – Balding would later become head girl and a Cambridge University graduate – that enabled the future broadcaster to make a name for herself in the male-dominated world of horse racing.

Riding was never a serious option – there was a less than successful stint assisting Three Day Event champion Lucinda Green before a rare victory in a Flat race at Beverley that is still remembered for her mount cutting up one Princess Anne, who was not amused.

“I wanted to have an identity that was not linked to my surname, or to the achievements of my family. Perhaps that is why I was reluctant to embrace racing. I would be condemned to the title ‘Ian Balding’s daughter’.”

Instead, her lifelong understanding of the racing world has helped make her such a perceptive and successful broadcaster across all sports.

This was certainly seen at the Olympics and Paralympics. At the former, Balding was the BBC’s main swimming presenter.

The work ethic had to kick in. “For the early morning heats, I had a very, very good researcher called Jonathan who deserves the credit,” she says.

“After them, I had four or five hours to do my homework for the evening. You learn how to do things on the hoof.”

On the hoof is an apt phrase – and encapsulates her favourite moment of the entire summer.

It’s after the men’s 200m butterfly. The unheralded Chad Le Clos from South Africa has just beaten his great hero, Michael Phelps, in the final stroke to 
land gold by 0.05 seconds – but the 
result still sees the great American become the most decorated Olympian 
in history.

The victor’s father, Bert, is soon spotted by former swimmer Mark Foster, Balding’s fellow pundit, and is brought to the camera position for a hasty interview.

There’s no chance to prepare for what is to become an unforgettable moment – Le Clos senior weeping tears of joy as he repeats “look at him, he’s beautiful” as cameras pan on his son receiving his gold medal.

“It was a hugely dramatic sporting moment,” says Balding. “And it changed my opinion of Michael Phelps. He had expected to win and lost his race. Yet he was so dignified, smiling in every photo and making sure nothing would deflect from Chad’s finest moment. I’ll never forget it. So classy, but why the Olympics matter.

“I could understand Bert more, I think, having grown up in a sporting family and understanding what is involved. Five hundredths of a second, that’s a short head in a Classic.”

Combining the Olympics and Paralympics, she says, was easy. She could have five days off and sleep in her own bed for the Olympics, and walk her Tibetan Terrier, Archie, without having to catch long-haul planes to Sydney or Beijing.

As to the Olympic legacy, the response is succinct and to the point: “I thought the performance of women across the Games was a real highlight, and I think the media have a very important job in keeping up the momentum.

“It is not about the even years when you have the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, it is making sure that the likes of Jess Ennis, Nicola Adams and Hannah Cockroft get the coverage that they deserve in the odd years when there tends to be a greater focus on football, cricket and so on.”

Balding, 41, hopes this change in attitude will be as great as those witnessed in wider society and which have allowed her to enter into a civil partnership with Alice Arnold, the Radio Four newsreader.

“I do think attitudes are changing. I love the fact that Alice and I get invited to everything together by name. Not just Clare plus One: always Clare and Alice,” she says. “My parents adore Alice. My father even accepts that she is better than he is at golf.” Praise indeed.

As for the future, Clare Balding’s career is only gathering pace – just like the training career of her quietly modest but highly successful brother Andrew.

From New Year’s Day, she will be the face of racing on Channel Four after the BBC, the national broadcaster, chose to cut its remaining links to the sport of kings. She says she is already excited at the prospect of presenting from York for the first time. “One of the most beautiful racecourses,” she adds.

Yet she will still appear on the BBC for a list of signature events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, the Boat Race and Wimbledon.

Her one plea is for the RFL to take heed of the dates of her racing commitments so she can continue to present rugby league’s Challenge Cup. Is there a sporting event that Clare Balding does not like? No. “If you are interested in people, then you are interested in all sport.”

It is an answer that explains her success and why doing the job to the best of her ability means far more than being labelled as a “national treasure” – even though the praise is totally deserved at the end of Britain’s greatest ever summer of sport.