How to train a champion racehorse
What does it take to train a champion racehorse? Ben Winstanley heads to the depths of Hampshire and one of the UK’s foremost stables to get the inside track on creating a winner
Kingsclere is just like any other sleepy English village. There are the thatched roofs and hotchpotch of buildings, the pub and the local post office, but look close enough and you’ll find one subtle difference. “Caution: Race Horses” the signposts warn in the rolling countryside to the south, but it’s only when you turn into the unassuming driveway of Park House Stables that you realise why. You see, Kingsclere is no normal village, and this is no ordinary stable: it’s the home of champions.
It was the Balding family who first put this small corner of Hampshire on the map in 1971 when Ian Balding trained Mill Reef to victory at the Epsom Derby, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in France. Winners aplenty have been and gone since then, but with son Andrew Balding now the head trainer at Park House, the iconic stables retains its seat at the high table of elite racing.
Walking around the jumble of Victorian red brick buildings and modern American barns, it’s worth remembering that you are among the most expensive animals on the planet. On my visit, King Power, all £2.5m of her, ambles by on her way to the gallops. Bought by Leicester City owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, she is the two-year-old filly of legendary flat racer Frankel – perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time – and well fancied to follow in his lightning-fast hooves. Next comes a little filly of Dubawi breeding, Tuk Power, with her gangly legs, pricked ears and £1.2m price tag.
Whatever way you slice it, there’s a lot more riding on these magnificent thoroughbreds than an eight-stone jockey in the saddle. For now, though, there’s still plenty to learn – and that means it’s off to school.
“We like to think of Park House as a boarding school for horses. We basically have 195 pupils, 80 teachers in the form of our staff and not too much ‘parental’ input from their respective owners – they drop their kids off, and then turn up to watch them play in their matches,” explains Anna-Lisa Balding, owner and staff liason of the stables.
“It’s about jumping out the stalls, travelling the distance, and going through the gears at the end
“Young horses have that look of 14-year-old boys about them, tall and skinny, skittish, wet behind the ears and just a little bit hormonal.” It’s then the job of trainer Andrew (brother of a certain Clare, herself racing royalty) to get these boys and girls ready for exam time in the form of the biggest races on the planet.
“When the horses get here they only know how to go from 0-60 in two minutes as fast as possible. You’ve then got to train them based on their pedigree – if mum and dad won over a mile and half, you train the horse to go the same distance.” And that’s when the hours on the three-furlong polytrack and grass gallops of Watership Down (the inspiration behind Richard Adams’ novel of the same name) come into play.
“It’s about jumping out the stalls, travelling the distance, and going through the gears at the end. That takes a while to develop.”
Kingsclere, as PHS is commonly known, is a heck of a facility if you’re in the business of horses. On site, you’ll find seven yards, an equine swimming pool, horse walkers and treadmills (costing as much as £42k each), and an in-house farrier taking care of the not-so insubstantial task of maintaining 780 individual horseshoes at any one time. That would also explain why none other than Her Majesty herself chooses Kingsclere to be the home of her stock of thoroughbreds. She’s as hands-on as one can expect an enthusiastic horse owner to be when it comes to the management of her finest creatures, making frequent visits to the 19th-century manor that sits at the foot of the Park House estate.
“The last time the Queen popped round for tea,” Anna-Lisa explains as if that’s a perfectly normal thing to say, “It had been raining, and I was mortified that I hadn’t been able to cut the lawn. As soon as Her Majesty walked through the door I made a point of saying, ‘I’m so sorry, ma’am, I haven’t been able to do the grass because the ground’s so wet.’ Without blinking an eye she turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I haven’t done mine either.’”
In 2015 Longines upped the stakes when it introduced the first tracking technology in horse racing
Whip-smart humour aside, the Queen isn’t messing around when it comes to racing, and is hopeful of once again witnessing victories in the big stakes this season. Keep an eye out for one Natural History: sired by the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Nathaniel, big things are expected in this colt’s future.
If the making of a racehorse starts with the world’s best facilities, timing would be the all-important final ingredient. From the careful monitoring of each horse’s speed and heart rate on the gallops (handled by GPS technology) to the finite precision of when a jockey should attack the finish line, there is no escaping the tick of the clock – which makes it no surprise that Swiss watch brand Longines has aligned itself with the sport for so many years.
Horse racing and horology mightn’t be the chronograph-bound world of Formula One we are more familiar with, but Longines (the “patron saint of equestrian,” as Anna-Lisa remarks) has a deep-seated heritage within the sport that dates as far back as 1878. In that year, the brand developed the Silver Lépine – its first chronograph movement in a pocket watch, as well as the first to feature an engraved horse and jockey on the caseback.
Longines has partnered with international equestrian events since 1912, but in 2015 it upped the stakes when it introduced the first tracking technology in horse racing in the form of the Longines Positioning System. Fitted to the racehorse’s saddle cloth, the tracker (first used in the UK in 2017) provides instant data on the exact position of horses during a race, race rankings, the distance between horses and speed, while boasting accuracy down to five centimetres and up to 1,000 measurements per second. It’s a gamechanger.
Sadly, there’s no technology sophisticated enough to calculate when your each-way bet is likely to come in or when the odds-on favourite is going to have an off day (here’s hoping…), but a day at Kingsclere is proof that horse racing is more than simply racing horses. It’s the trainers, the groomers, the farriers and jockeys that make a champion – and that’s before you get to sponsors like Longines without whom the sport may have slipped from public consciousness.
Back in the Hampshire countryside, Anna-Lisa eyes a group of two-year-old thoroughbreds striding out across the gallops at 30mph. Is she staring at another successful pack of horses? Well, only time will tell.
For more information on Longines’ relationship with equestrian sports, see longines.co.uk