My sausage shot across the table at the Queen. Her Majesty raised an eyebrow: Clare Balding on her eccentric childhood as daughter of Elizabeth II's racehorse trainer
22:05 GMT, 31 August 2012
A tourist once stopped me on London’s Oxford Street and asked the way to Selfridges. I pointed him in the right direction and then found myself adding helpfully that it was two furlongs away.
Well, it made sense to me, growing up as I did as the daughter of a champion racehorse trainer. At our home in Hampshire, no one read a proper newspaper or watched the news.
Nuclear war could have broken out and it would have gone unnoticed — unless it meant that Royal Ascot was cancelled.
Animal crackers: A young Clare Balding, the daughter of the Queen's racehorse trainer, cuddles up to her best friend Flossy
My father Ian was particularly blinkered. He trained several of the Queen’s horses, and one Sunday in May 1979 he telephoned Buckingham Palace to give Her Majesty his regular weekly update on their progress.
He was put straight through as usual and, after he had finished his briefing, the Queen asked what he thought of Margaret Thatcher being elected as the country’s first female prime minister earlier that week.
Dad was only aware that the election had taken place because betting on the outcome had been covered in Sporting Life, and he had given it little thought — as was clear from his reply.
‘Well, it’s going to take a while to get used to a woman running the country.’
Honestly, that’s what he said. To the Queen.
If she thought my father was a loose cannon, heaven knows what she made of my own behaviour one April morning in the early Eighties when I was 12 years old.
‘Wotcha!’ I shouted as I charged in from riding my horse Hattie. Tugging off my boots in the dogs’ room I skidded along the cork floor into the kitchen where our daily Mrs Jessop was carefully placing bacon and sausages on to my mother’s smartest china dishes.
Riding high from an early age: Toddler Clare on a horse with her father Ian
Sitting at the table were two men in suits. I thought perhaps someone had been murdered and that these two were in charge of the investigation. I had been watching Bergerac and that was just the sort of thing that was always happening in Jersey, so why not at our stables in Hampshire
I flung open the dining-room door and, in my haste, fell into the room. I was wearing my green-cord riding jodhpurs, with stains from two weeks of wear, one red sock and one blue, my favourite rugby shirt and a spotted handkerchief around my neck. The Queen was sitting at the head of our dining-room table, dressed rather more soberly in a navy-blue dress coat.
My father had omitted to tell my younger brother Andrew and me that Her Majesty was making one of her twice-yearly visits to our yard, and my entrance had caused a break in the conversation — one of those uncomfortable silences you always hope will not happen because of you.
And then it does, and there’s not a lot you can do except say: ‘Sausages! Yummy!’
I had rather missed my moment to curtsey so I sat down at the table and carried on as if nothing was any different. My father glared at me as I smothered my toast with marmalade and topped it with sausages cut long-ways, a delicacy I’d discovered on a family trip to America.
The trouble with cutting a sausage long-ways is that if you press too hard, it’s a bit like squeezing a bar of soap. The sausage can shoot out of your grasp. I know this. I know this only too well.
I can still recall in slow motion the way my sausage shot across the table towards the Queen as she sipped her tea. Quick as a flash, I tried to grab it. I knocked over the milk jug. My mother yelped. My father growled. The Queen glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
I froze, wishing I could crawl under the table. My brother seized the sausage and shoved it back on my plate. My mother mopped up the milk with that look in her eye that said: ‘You are in so much trouble.’
Our home at Park House Stables, near the village of Kingsclere, was originally bought by my maternal grandparents in 1953. Their 1,500 acres of land adjoined Watership Down and included the lush green gallops on which horses had been exercised since Victorian times — among them the seven Derby winners who had put Park House on the racing map.
My father joined the business as my grandfather’s assistant but took over following his death in 1964. He married his late boss’s daughter, my mother, five years later.
They moved into a modern house about half a mile up the hill, while Park House, the magnificent building at the heart of the estate, continued to be occupied by my grandmother.
A formidable presence throughout my childhood, she came from a family of statesmen, prime ministers and patriarchs, and was the granddaughter of the 17th Earl of Derby. Robust and 6ft tall, she wore no make-up, believing it to be ‘for tarts and prostitutes’.
She had once been a competent horse-woman but gave up when the side-saddle was discarded, refusing to countenance the idea of riding ‘astride’, or of women wearing jodhpurs. She didn’t much approve of women full stop, hence her reaction when I arrived in the world in January 1971. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s a girl. Never mind, you’ll just have to keep trying.’
Horseplay: Clare, who became the face of the London Olympics, with her parents, brother Andrew and their Shetland pony Valkyrie
As for my parents, the pecking order in their eyes was clear. Dad was always too busy working to take much notice of me or my younger brother Andrew, who came along the following year. And in terms of affection and attention, my mother’s boxer dog Candy came first — and anyone else, new baby included, came second.
Candy was the only one who seemed pleased to see me. The day when I first came back from hospital, Mum put the basket down on the floor and left me there. Bertie, my father’s lurcher, aloof and with pretensions to grandeur, had a quick sniff and demonstrated exactly what he thought of it all by cocking his leg on the side of it.
He then walked off with his head stuck in the air, never to give me a second glance.
Candy, on the other hand, planted herself next to me and there she stayed, a strong, snuffling, steady presence who became my nanny and my friend.
She lay by my side, moved only if I moved and allowed herself to be a living, breathing baby-walker. I used her to climb to my feet, wobbling on my plump, short legs as she pulled me gently forward.
When the strain got too much and I collapsed on to a nappy-cushioned backside, she would sit and wait for me to get going again. Although Candy was my protector, she was not my dog. She belonged to my mother, and my mother belonged to her. So when she had her first litter of puppies, I attached myself to the one who attached herself most strongly to me.
'I can still recall in slow motion the way my sausage shot across the table towards the Queen as she sipped her tea'
We named this puppy Flossy. She liked to suck on my chin and my earlobes as I held her up to my face. Sometimes we would just fall asleep together in the corner of the puppies’ pen.
Spotting early on that animals got all the attention in our family, I worked out that it would be best to be a dog. A photograph of me as a toddler shows me wearing a studded leather dog collar, my homage to Flossy. I saw myself as part of Flossy’s pack, curling up with her in her bed and drinking out of her water bowl.
I tried sucking on the odd Bonio biscuit too, but they weren’t quite sweet enough for my taste.
I started to ride at roughly the same time that Candy taught me to walk. My first mount was Valkyrie, a sweet-natured old Shetland pony given to my parents by the Queen shortly after my birth. Valkyrie was round and fluffy with a tail that trailed the ground and a long dark-brown mane.
When my parents placed me in a soft, red, leather saddle on her back, I knew that this was where I belonged. I was born to ride.
This confidence persisted even after my mother made the mistake of entrusting me to my father’s care one day when I was two and a half.
He put me on Valkyrie then handed her over to Billy, one of the young boys working in the yard, smacking her on the backside as we trotted off. Billy didn’t much care for the task of childminding and did not look back to see that I was bumping along, hanging on for dear life.
As we gathered speed, I couldn’t keep it up. I fell off and lay in a crumpled heap in the middle of the field. I cried all the way home as Billy held me back in place on Valkyrie. My mother took one look at my face, which had turned quite pale, and knew it must be serious.
Parental influence: Clare followed in her father's footsteps by becoming a jockey
Clare interviews her father Ian, one of the most respected racehorse trainers in the country, responsible for training the Queen's horses after 'his beautiful boy' won in 1995
‘Make your own lunch. Gone to hospital
with Clare,’ read the note she left for my father later that day. ‘PS
You are a bloody idiot.’ My parents’ friend Dr Elvin worked in Accident
& Emergency at the nearest hospital in Basingstoke. He told Mum that
I had broken my collarbone.
take a couple of weeks to mend,’ he said. ‘Can’t do much more than try
to control the pain, and I’d advise you, Emma, not to let the children
anywhere near Ian.’
and I came to know Dr Elvin well. As he predicted, my broken
collar-bone healed quickly but we would return to Basingstoke’s A&E
several times in the coming years.
one occasion, I persuaded Andrew to climb some straw bales in the barn,
and he fell 20ft to the ground, breaking his leg. Shortly after that, I
managed to spear my foot with a pitchfork.
injury followed our move to Park House after Grandma decided to
relocate to a smaller place just across the road. Andrew and I knew this
move was in the offing because we heard our parents explaining it to
The two of us
revelled in our new surroundings but I was soon causing trouble, using
old tyres, doors and branches to set up a Grand National assault course
on the huge flat lawn. This was not for our ponies but to teach Barney,
our beloved lurcher puppy, how to jump.
'In that moment I discovered in myself the competitiveness that later drove my ambition to become a champion jockey, a dream which would one day see me incurring the wrath of none other than Princess Anne'
struggled to keep up with him as he ran from ‘Becher’s Brook’ to ‘The
Chair’, the latter a door balanced precariously on two croquet hoops.
Barney sailed over but I caught the door, breaking my big toe.
it came to the real Grand National, Andrew and I would pick two horses
each, and our mother would phone up to place bets on them for us. We
would then put on our knitted jumpers in racing colours, our hats and
We sat on each arm of the sofa, a whip in hand, and rode ‘our horse’ for the whole race. If he fell, we too had to fall to the floor, rolling around until we miraculously mounted our second-choice horse and rode to the finish on him instead.
Of course, the sofa was no substitute for the real thing and, when not being geed up by thoughtless humans, Valkyrie proved patient and wise, a proper Shetland pony schoolmistress whose first job was to teach me manners.
She had no time for tantrums, shouting or foot-stamping. If she thought I was not behaving well, she simply backed me into the wall of the stable and pinned me there until I calmed down. This could take minutes, it could take an hour, but she wouldn’t budge until I had settled down and said sorry.
Valkyrie had taught both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward how to ride, and had no doubt trodden on their toes and backed them into the corner of the stable, too. She was her own woman and would not be subject to anyone — Royal Family or commoner. I suspect this is why the Queen was so fond of her.
Whenever she came to see her racehorses, Valkyrie and I would also be presented for inspection. At the end of the line of gleaming, fit, polished blue-bloods, with their lads in spotless matching jackets and caps, would be this little hairy Shetland pony with her equally scruffy-looking rider, neither of whom ever quite got the hang of the curtsey.
Written her memoirs: The TV presenter, who has
been busy covering the Olympics, right, and now the Paralympics, left,
has written a book about her childhood with each chapter based on a
The Queen smiled, crouched down and always had a long chat with Valkyrie, who generally remained well behaved.
was more than could be said for me. One day my mother found Andrew and
me in the kitchen with Valkyrie. I was brushing her mane as she tucked
into a bowl of cereal. ‘What is going on’ my mother demanded.
‘She’s come in for some lunch,’ I
said matter-of-factly. ‘Look, Mummy, she loves Shreddies. She’s really
comfortable. She wanted to see where we live and we couldn’t stop her.’
It was bad timing. I’m
convinced my mother was coming round to the idea of Valkyrie having
lunch with us every day, but just then the pot-bellied pony lifted her
tail and dumped a steaming pile of poo on the kitchen floor.
My mother did not raise her voice very often and when she did it was scary.
‘Take her back to the stable,’ she shouted. ‘Right now.’
‘Can’t she finish her Shred –’
‘She most certainly cannot.’
I pulled Valkyrie’s head, with difficulty, out of the bowl and trudged out of the kitchen with my pony reluctantly in tow.
Clare Balding. To order a copy for 15.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.