Royal Ascot is one of the most famous race meetings on the planet. There are many reasons why: the Queen, and the pomp and pageantry that goes alongside her daily attendance; the history, the fashion, the names… and of course the racing itself.
This week more than a quarter of a million people will head to Ascot from around the world to see some of the best thoroughbreds compete for a place in the winner’s enclosure. Without the horses – and of course the trainers, lads and stable staff who put in the work behind the scenes – there would be no racing at all. So how does a trainer go about getting a horse to the level required to race at Ascot in the first place?
Andrew Balding’s racing yard, Park House Stables, is located just outside the village of Kingsclere, in the rolling Hampshire Downs. The trainer – who at the moment has 17 horses entered over the five days of racing at Royal Ascot – grew up at Park House with his sister, TV presenter Clare, since his father Ian trained out of the very same place.
There has been a racing yard at Kingsclere since 1867, when Sir Joseph Hawley first built a racing yard at Park House. Within two years the yard had its first Derby winner and – timely for the week ahead – an Ascot Gold Cup winner, with Blue Gown.
Parts of the beautiful, brick-built yard that Balding now trains out of date back to 1889, but there are also more modern, American-style barns. It’s an interesting contrast; although at first glance the training of racehorses might not appear to have changed much in the last century or so, science and research have certainly made their mark. These days as well as grass gallops, synthetic ‘polytrack’ gallops are also used for daily training, while Balding also has three mechanised horse walkers, an equine swimming pool and a treadmill.
And what of the people who look after the horses? While the horses are housed in one of Kingsclere’s 199 stables, many of the lads who care for and exercise the horses on a daily basis are housed in the hostel, or the ‘lodge’. There are 84 full time staff at Kingsclere, including a resident farrier, and because many of the ‘lads’, as the stable staff are known, are young or fresh out of racing school (there are two in the UK – the British Racing School in Newmarket, and the Northern Racing College, in Doncaster), pastoral care is important. Many of them haven’t lived away from home before, so need to learn about things like booking a dentist’s appointment or how to polish their boots. And as Anna Lisa Balding, Andrew’s wife, puts it, ‘One bad egg can poison the whole yard – but you do know when bad things are going on’. Fortunately though, bad eggs are few and far between.
The likes of William Buick, who won the Epsom Derby two weeks ago, and Oisin Murphy, who is the retained jockey at Qatar Racing, have both been residents at Kingsclere’s lodge, and both are booked to ride every day at this year’s Royal Ascot meeting.
Of course, Balding is only one trainer out of hundreds. Many of the horses at Ascot will have travelled from Newmarket in Suffolk, where many of the top trainers such as John Gosden, Sir Michael Stoute and Sir Mark Prescott, to name just a few, are based. There, trainers have shared use of the gallops, which are owned and maintained by the Jockey Club – as they are in Epsom. But the process is the same. With racing, timing is of course of the utmost importance, and in line with its passion for horses and expertise in timekeeping, Longines has developed an ultra-precise, world-class timing and positioning system, which is currently in testing at Ascot, with hopes that it will be launched shortly.
From birth early in the year (a thoroughbred has its birthday on January 1, so you want your foals born as close to that date as possible – but not before!), to being ‘backed’ as a yearling and then starting training as a two year old, it’s a long old process getting a horse to any racetrack, let alone Ascot. But for the trainers, jockeys, stable staff and of course the owners, the end result – and hopefully a winner – is worth the wait.
Longines is the official time keeper and partner of Royal Ascot