Whoops! I just nearly killed Princess Anne… and got a right earbashing in return! Champion jockey Clare Balding on the moment she narrowly avoided knocking her royal rival off her horse
23:49 GMT, 2 September 2012
Relations between me and Princess Anne had got off to an unfortunate start even before we rode against each other on that mortifying August afternoon in 1989.
Then 18, I was competing in only my second season as an amateur jockey and we were about to take part in a Ladies Handicap race at Beverley in East Yorkshire.
As was usual whenever the Princess was present, the ladies’ changing rooms had received a hasty makeover, but she changed alongside us and did not expect any special treatment.
Building bridges: Jockey Clare Balding and Princess Anne were racing rivals
I found this rather confusing. Although my father trained horses for the Queen I had never quite developed the knack of saying the right thing in royal presence. I found myself curtseying and addressing the Princess as Your Royal Highness.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said and I suppose it was rather inappropriate given that we were in the changing rooms at the time.
She was equally forbidding when I pointed out the similarity between my turquoise and brown racing colours and hers, which were turquoise and chocolate.
‘I hope the punters don’t get us mixed up,’ I said as we circled at the start.
‘Unlikely,’ she replied, and worse was to come.
During the race my horse Waterlow Park jumped over a path worn by pedestrians crossing the racecourse, propelling us unexpectedly towards the inside rail. As we veered across the course, I heard a voice yelling furiously behind me.
‘What the hell are you doing Watch out! Watch out!’ Other words were also shouted. Naughty words that I need not repeat here. Oh God, I thought. I’ve carved someone up. At least it wasn’t the Princess Royal. She’d never swear like that.
Royal guest: The Queen Mother visits Clare (right) and her family for lunch
As we flashed past the line, the Princess and I were caught in a photo-finish. I took a while pulling up, partly to allow time for the result to be called, and partly because I was scared. Whether I had lost or won I knew that I was in trouble, as my mother made clear in the paddock.
‘What the hell were you doing’ she asked in an urgent whisper. ‘You nearly brought down Princess Anne.’
In the distance I could see David Nicholson, the Princess Royal’s racing adviser, giving her the full force of his opinion. She had been robbed. Robbed and mugged by a highwayman. Me.
When the judges finally announced that Waterlow Park had beaten Tender Type and another horse into joint second place, I poked my head round the door of the stewards’ room and made history as the only winning jockey who has ever said the following: ‘Could I just check, are you having a stewards’ enquiry’
''I found myself curtseying and addressing the Princess as Your Royal Highness. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said and I suppose it was rather inappropriate given that we were in the changing rooms at the time.'
Plenty of beaten jockeys have asked, but if you’re declared the winner it’s usually a good idea to thank your lucky stars and move on.
They had decided that the result should stand, so I steeled myself for re-entry into the war zone and opened the door to the ladies’ changing room. The Princess Royal was standing with her back to me.
As she spun round, my world stopped turning and I stood there, not knowing what to say. I looked her in the eye, mainly because she was not dressed and I was embarrassed to look anywhere else.
‘So,’ she said, ‘are they having a stewards’ enquiry’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I did ask but, no, they’re not. They say that it happened too early on to make any difference.’ ‘Really’ The air had grown chilly. ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am,’ I said. ‘Most genuinely sorry. But I was not about to pull up in the straight and let you win.’
In the film version of this moment, I will be Spartacus and my fellow amateur riders will one by one start clapping. In the real version, they sucked in their breath. This was a dangerous move. The Princess Royal fixed me with a steely glare.
‘Well, maybe you should have done,’ she said, and turned back to continue dressing.
Parental influence: Clare followed in her father's footsteps by becoming a jockey
For the rest of that year, the Princess and I rode against each other in the odd race. We successfully avoided getting too close — either on the course or off it — but in 1991 we were back at Beverley in a one-mile race with only seven runners. The Princess was on a horse called Croft Valley which beat my mount Knock Knock by a neck.
As we pulled up, I spoke to her for the first time in two years.
‘Well done, Ma’am,’ I said. ‘Happy now’
I know. I know. I should have just shut up after the ‘Well done’, but I am me and I don’t always know when to stop talking.
I’ve always seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble. I grew up in idyllic surroundings — my father’s yard was set among 1,500 acres of farmland near the Hampshire village of Kingsclere — but I somehow became what my grandmother called ‘a proper little urchin’.
When I was eight, the local school for ‘nice children’ decided that I didn’t fit in any more. I was a bit rough around the edges, a bit loud and too inclined to get into a fight.
'”I'm sorry, Ma’am,” I said. “Most genuinely sorry. But I was not about to pull up in the straight and let you win.”…The Princess Royal
fixed me with a steely glare. “Well, maybe you should have done,” she said, and turned back to continue dressing.'
My parents weren’t at all sure that any other good school would take me either so, while my younger brother Andrew was sent off to boarding school, I was dispatched to the local primary school, a move applauded by Grandma.
‘They’ll sort her out,’ she sniffed. ‘Make or break I’d say and at least it’s not costing you anything.’
My first day at Kingsclere was halfway through the school term and everyone stared at me as I entered the playground. My mother had always taught me that good manners would get you out of a sticky situation so I smiled brightly at no one in particular.
‘Good morning,’ I said. ‘How are you’
There were titters. Snorts of derision. A girl with earrings bumped into me deliberately. ‘Think you’re better ’n us’ A big boy was cracking his knuckles. ‘Not at all,’ I said, in my politest voice. ‘I am delighted to make your acquaintance.
Most certainly I am.’ At that, they surrounded me and began pulling at my jumper, ruffling my hair and spitting at my shoes. When the girl with the earrings tried to grab my satchel it was as if the pin had been pulled out of my hand grenade.
I kicked, I hit, I bit and I took the storm of punches coming my way without a whimper. Our teacher Mrs Cook arrived a few minutes later to find a boy with a bleeding nose complaining that I had punched him.
Meanwhile, the girl with earrings was lying on her back on the concrete playground and I was sitting astride her with my left hand around her throat.
Open about her sexuality: Balding and partner Alice Arnold became civil partners in 2006 and she is open to talking about her sexuality and role models which include Ellen De Generes
Taking me to the headmistress’s office and calming me down with a glass of water, Mrs Cook explained kindly that fighting was not the way to get accepted by the other children and she was right. Standing up for myself made the others wary of me, and I found myself isolated and lonely at school.
Evenings and weekends were hard, too. I got back from school and Andrew wasn’t there. We may have had our fights, but he was my partner in crime, the only person with whom I didn’t feel the need for a disguise.
Our life wasn’t odd to him, because he’d lived it alongside me, but now I was having a very different set of experiences, from which he could not save me.
Without Andrew around, I relied increasingly on our lurcher puppy Barney for company. Some dogs are far more sensitive to human moods — I wonder if they can smell sadness — and Barney seemed to know that I needed him.
Whenever I came home he was the one who came running to greet me and I’d curl up with him in his bed to watch TV or read a book.
Barney was a wonderful companion but I knew that I needed human friends, too, and I eventually decided that the answer lay in the bartering that went on at school.
The other children all brought in pencils, pens, sweets and badges to swap and all I needed was some money and I could join in, too.
I wasn’t sure that my 1-a-week pocket money would be enough to buy me friendship in this way so I started sneaking into my father’s dressing room at night. On a tray with cufflinks and a few watches were lots of notes and coins.
At first I took just a few pounds in 50p pieces, but after a few weeks it seemed sensible to go in there less often but take a bit more — maybe a 5 note to see me through the week.
After a few days I began worrying that Dad might notice his sterling deposits disappearing. So I hit on what I thought was a clever idea, taking the dollars and francs that he used only abroad and was unlikely to miss. It was this that led to my eventual downfall.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ said Mrs Carpenter from behind the counter at the village sweet shop. ‘We don’t accept foreign notes.’
‘Really’ I replied. ‘But two dollars are equal to one pound, and I’m giving you five dollars there instead of two pounds. You’re doing well out of it.’
Animal lover: A young Clare Balding with Flossy, one of her many pets
‘It’s no good to me, love,’ responded Mrs Carpenter. ‘I can’t spend it, can I When am I going to be going to America’
‘Right, not a problem,’ I said efficiently, pointing at the paper bag of toffee bonbons on the scales. ‘Just hold those for me, will you I’ll be back in a tick.’
Norton, Grandma’s chauffeur, was spending his retirement taking me to school. He had got used to the daily detour to the sweet shop and was waiting for me outside so I dashed out, signalled to him that I’d just be a few minutes, and ran next door, to the Kingsclere branch of Lloyds Bank. I had to stand on tiptoes to see over the counter.
‘Can I change these into pounds, please’ I asked.
‘Minimum transaction 50 dollars,’ came the clipped reply. ‘And you’ll need your passport.’
Damn and blast. As if my money wasn’t as good as anyone else’s. Technically, of course, it wasn’t my money, but that’s not the point. I stomped out and Norton drove me to school. I was still fuming when he picked me up that evening.
‘Clare, a word,’ said my mother as I walked into the kitchen. ‘Mrs Jessop tells me she saw you in the bank this morning.’
I loved our daily Mrs Jessop, a sweet, kind lady who reminded me of Madame Cholet from the Wombles, and I couldn’t bear that she’d seen me. This was terrible, but Mum hadn’t even started yet. Soon she was rummaging through my satchel and had found the dollars.
‘This is why you were in the bank,
is it You were trying to change these You little thief!’
I had my head in my hands, rocking back and forth. There was so much I wanted to explain. How money was the only way I could have any status at school, how I hated being taunted for being posh. But instead I just bit my bottom lip so hard it bled.
‘I’ll tell your father,’ my mother was saying. A chill went through me, and it wasn’t just because of the threat of my father finding out. Something awful had happened. I could feel it.
I ran out of the kitchen and locked myself in my room. Half an hour later, I heard my father’s truck pulling up outside the back door and voices in the kitchen, so I snuck downstairs.
The back flap of the truck was down, and I could see a black head, the mouth slightly open and the tongue lolling out. It was Barney.
I ran towards him and cradled his head in my arms. He had been coursing a hare and cracked his skull on a fence post. He was unconscious.
I buried my face into his neck and started crying, my whole body heaving and my throat burning. This was all my fault. This was my punishment because I was a thief.
‘I’m so sorry, please don’t die. I won’t do it again, I promise. Oh God, don’t let him die.’
Dad put one hand on my shoulder and with the other closed Barney’s eyes. ‘He’s gone,’ he said.
‘He wouldn’t have felt a thing. I promise you.’
There was no consoling me, however. I knew that Barney had died because I had done a bad thing. We buried him in the orchard, with a cross and flowers. Andrew came back from prep school and we stood by the grave together, holding hands and crying.
As we did so, I vowed silently that I would never go into my father’s dressing room again.
It was a promise I would keep, but unfortunately, as I will explain in tomorrow’s Mail, my involvement with petty crime was far from at an end.
Extracted from My Animals And Other Family by Clare Balding, to be published by Penguin on September 13 at 20. 2012 Clare Balding. To order a copy for 15.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.