'Oh,' she said, 'it's a girl. Never mind, you'll just have to keep trying'
Her sharp, enthusiastic coverage of the Games earned her the country's respect and adoration. Butm, as her hugely entertaining autobiography reveals, Clare Balding owes everything she knows to her dogs and horses
As a child, the first that Clare Balding and her little brother Andrew often knew about any important decisions, like moving house for instance, was when she heard their parents explaining it to the dogs. It is an image of family life that perfectly explains how this glorious creature was forged. Her upbeat, English, can-do spirit proved the perfect choice for presenting the Olympics. Who can forget the overarching enthusiasm with which 'Balders' reported? 'This has been the year of my life,' she said recently.
This was her fourth stint of presenting at the Games, and her ready powers of quick analysis have set the bar very high for those looking to follow. She has 'every girl' appeal but is nobody's fool: unsurprisingly, she was head girl at school, then president of the Cambridge Union. Comfortable in her own skin, she long ago stopped comparing her looks with some of the slinkier sofa maids. 'I just came to terms with the fact that I am not perfect-looking at that's it,' she said recently.
She is equally sanguine about her personal life, choosing never to hide the fact that she is in a civil partnership with Alice Arnold, the smart and sassy Radio 4 newsreader. In the epilogue to her hugely amusing new memoir, My Animals And Other Family, Clare plays tribute to Alice and their life together. They have been committed to each other for 10 years, and are accepted everywhere they go. More importantly, her family adores Alice. 'My father even accepts that she is better than he is at golf,' Clare says.
Like the woman herself, Clare's childhood was unconventional. Home was Park House Stables, 1,500 acres of land adjoining Watership Down, incoporating the lush green gallops on which her family have trained seven Derby winners. Her father, Ian Balding, was the Queen’s racehorse trainer, whose most famous mount, Mill Reef, won 12 of his 14 races before breaking a leg and retiring to stud. She says that her dad still breaks down when he talks about the horse.
The stables are now run by her brother, Andrew, and the siblings are very close. When he trained his first Classic winner in 2003, Clare almost had to abandon a live TV interview with him and her father because they were all crying with joy.
To say that animals were the primary concern in the Baldings’ household is an understatement. When Clare was born, her mother brought her home from hospital, put the basket down on the oor and left her there. Bertie, her father’s lurcher, had a quick sni and then demonstrated exactly what he thought of the newcomer by cocking his leg on the side of her layette. The tiny tot had better luck with her mother’s boxer, Candy, who gave her a long look and stayed, becoming her nanny, protector and best friend.
Her grandmother was less indulgent. A formidable presence throughout Clare’s childhood, she was the granddaughter of the 17th Earl of Derby and once a very competent horsewoman who gave up when the side-saddle was discarded, refusing to countenance the idea of women wearing jodhpurs. When Clare arrived in January 1971 she was singulary unimpressed. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it’s a girl. Never mind, you’ll just have to keep trying.’
Rather inevitably, the popular face of BBC’s racing coverage took easily to horses, learning to ride almost as soon as she could walk. Her first mount, Valkyrie, was a sweet-natured old Shetland pony given to her parents by the Queen shortly before Clare was born. Valkyrie had taught Princes Andrew and Edward and had no time for childish tantrums. If Valkyrie thought her young charge wasn’t behaving, she’d pin her against the wall of the stable until she had settled down and said sorry.
While Clare and the young princes might have shared a solid equine friend, there have been ups and downs between her and their sister, Princess Anne. Merely 18 years old but fuelled by her father’s expectations and her own desire to win, Clare was already in her second season as an amateur jockey when her horse inadvertently careered across the path of the Princess Royal’s. Needless to say, it didn’t make her terribly popular. ‘What the hell are you doing? Watch out! Watch out!’ came the Royal thunder.
When the judges announced that Clare had beaten the Princess Royal into second place, she made history by being the only winning jockey to go and ask if there was to be a steward’s enquiry. Mercifully for her, the positions were reversed a couple of years later when this time it was Clare’s chance to congratulate her rival with the words: ‘Well done, Ma’am. Happy now?’
It is part of her gift as a commentator that she makes no distinction between commoner and Royal. That she is truly committed to the concept that sport is a great leveller and the best should be given a chance to succeed, regardless of how they look and where they come from.
My Animals And Other Family by Clare Balding is published by Viking, priced £20.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942