Obituary: Toby Balding OBE, racehorse trainer

Horseracing legend who excelled on the flat and jumps. Picture: PA
Horseracing legend who excelled on the flat and jumps. Picture: PA
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BORN: Gerald Barnard Balding, Jnr, 23 September, 1936, in New York. Died: 25 September, 2014, in Hampshire, aged 78.

The death of Toby Balding just two days after his 78th birthday has rightly caused an outpouring of grief across the racing world. The many fulsome tributes paid to Balding since he passed away on Thursday displayed the immense respect in which this most likeable and hard-working man was held. That he was the only trainer to win National Hunt’s “triple crown” of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National and also have an Ayr Gold Cup and Royal Ascot winner on the flat shows just what a versatile handler he was.

His success helped cement the name of the Balding family into British racing’s history, with his brother Ian going on to train the legendary Mill Reef, and his nephew Andrew being one of today’s top trainers while niece Clare is now correctly recognised as one of Britain’s top broadcasters after years of being the face of BBC racing.

Gerald Barnard Balding, known as Toby from childhood, was born in the USA where his father of the same name was then in charge of the polo team of millionaire Jock Whitney.

Returning to Britain, Balding senior trained horses at Fyfield House, Weyhill in Hampshire, the county to which Toby Balding remained devoted all his life.

Educated at Marlborough College – Whitney paid his fees out of gratitude to his father – Balding was a successful point-to-point rider in his teens, riding horses for the Queen Mother, no less, but the death of his father at the age of just 54 in 1957 catapulted Balding into the trainer’s position when he was just 20.

As the youngest trainer in Britain, Balding enjoyed almost immediate success, Bower Chalk being his first winner on the Flat at Ascot in the 1957 Buckingham Palace handicap, followed a week later by his first winner over jumps, The Quiet Man at Wincanton.

His breakthrough win came with the valuable Portland Handicap in 1959 won by New World. He landed a spectacular gamble that day which helped him finance his wedding to Carolyn Anne Barclay. Theirs was to be a long and happy marriage, with Caro, as she was known, becoming what Balding himself described as the “lynchpin” of his extensive training operation which he set up at Fyfield.

Balding soon made a name for himself as a trainer to watch on the flat but especially over the jumps. His first big winner in that sphere was Green Light who won the 1958 Coronation Hurdle.

He also developed a reputation for spotting jockeyship talent, and a long list of excellent riders passed through Fyfield where Balding and his wife mentored and tutored them.

Perennial champion AP McCoy, Bob Champion, Jimmy Frost, Richard Linley, Richard Guest, and many more jockeys joined the Balding crew down the decades, though it was Irishman Eddie Harty, substituting for regular rider Owen McNally, who was aboard Highland Wedding in 1969 when the 12-year-old gelding won Balding his first Grand National.

Highland Wedding won the great race at the odds of 100-9, and bookmakers across Scotland went into mourning due to the patriotic punt on the horse who was bred and named in Ayrshire by Jimmy Caldwell.

His second Grand National victory with Little Polveir 20 years later owed much to the 1987 running of the Scottish Grand National, a race he never won. Trained by John Edwards, who had been assistant to Balding, Little Polveir won at Ayr to signal that he could be a real contender over the much bigger fences at Aintree. Six weeks before the 1989 running of the world’s most famous steeplechase, Balding bought Little Polveir, then a 12-year-old, for 15,000 guineas. When heavy rain brought the soft ground that the horse flourished on, the second National was duly bagged at the rewarding odds of 28-1.

Balding won seven races at the Cheltenham Festival, the Olympics of National Hunt racing.

They included Cool Ground, winner of the Gold Cup in 1992, and Beech Road and Morley Street, Champion Hurdlers of 1989 and 1991 respectively. Other feats over the jumps included training the remarkably tough Bybrook to win no fewer than 11 races in season 1975-76.

Always a “dual purpose” trainer, Balding enjoyed notable success with sprinter Green Ruby, winner of the Goodwood Stewards Cup and the Ayr Gold Cup in 1986. Other big Flat wins came with Decent Fellow, the 1977 John Porter Stakes winner, and Sea Freedom, winner of the Ascot Stakes in 1997.

The very nature of the all-the-year-round approach to racing was probably the main reason why Balding never became champion trainer – he once said he was too busy enjoying racing to worry about winning all the time.

Balding was as busy off the track as he was on it, helping to establish the National Trainers Federation in the 1960s and going on to chair various racing committees and latterly becoming a director of the British Horseracing Authority as it then was.

Apart from two years as a private trainer in Dorset, Balding spent his career near Andover in Hampshire, latterly moving from Fyfield to the purpose-built Kimpton Stables. It was from there that he sent out his last big winner, Turbo, who clinched the 2003 November Handicap.

The following year Caro was diagnosed with cancer and Balding retired from training to look after her, though he kept his involvement in the organisational side of racing. Caro died in December, 2004, at the age of 68, and in truth Balding was never the same man again.

He was honoured with membership of the Jockey Club and was awarded the OBE for services to racing in 2011. He suffered a stroke which affected his sight just weeks before receiving that accolade.

His son-in-law Jonathan Geake had taken over Kimpton Stables but they were later sold, Geake continuing to train these days at East Kennett while Balding’s son Gerald became a leading circus owner.

In retirement, Balding still enjoyed his racing, and his company was always much sought after, as he was both a warm personality and plain speaker with a great love of his sport and of life in general. He will be much missed as one of the larger-than-life characters in racing who also astutely guided his fellows in the sport of kings.

Toby Balding’s survivors include son Gerald, daughters Camilla and Serena, his grandchildren and his niece, the broadcaster Clare.