There will be letters and emails. They will be from aspiring jockeys to Andrew Balding, and those will be outweighed by missives from men to Anna Lisa Balding pleading that if she ever leaves her husband she should contact Lovelorn of Milton Keynes. Others to Anna Lisa will be from company chairmen seeking a CEO, and yet more from women asking her to write a book on how she manages so many aspects of life with such apparent ease and a sunny smile.
Mrs Balding is the star of Horsepower, a new Amazon Prime series in four parts, launched on September 23rd. It is close to perfect, in setting, in cinematography, in editing, in gentle narration and in music.
The series follows the ups and downs of Andrew Balding’s racing stable through winter to the summer of Royal Ascot 2021. If the producers lamented the long season of covid that engulfed the yard, they must have cheered the storylines produced by fate: jockey Oisin Murphy’s battle to clear his name after traces of cocaine were found in his drug sample by the French racing authorities: young Abdul, a refugee from the war in Sudan who arrived without a word of English, nor the ability to read or write, but with a transfixing desire to return to Africa some day to find his young brother in the sprawling tented camps of Chad: Geoff the groom whose sadness over a family tragedy seemed mitigated only by his daily contact with these beautiful thoroughbreds: the staff who seem as absorbed as lovers with their horses.
In episode 3 there is the most touching cameo with Andrew’s father, Ian, trainer of the magnificent Mill Reef. Five years after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Ian is seen alone on a horse, like some aged latter day cowboy moseying in off the prairie after a night in a bedroll with his saddle for a pillow. He eases into shot to be met by his son. In the couple of minutes we see, Ian’s memory loss is only too apparent, but so too is that element which burns between so many fathers and sons (tragically and publicly played out on a global stage by the second invasion of Iraq by George W Bush) - competition.
Andrew: ‘Do you remember what you were doing fifty years ago?’
Ian: ’Training Mill Reef.’ (A Derby winner).
A minute later, Ian says, ‘Have you trained a Derby winner yet?’
Andrew, laughing, ‘No, not yet! How would you feel if I did?’
‘I’d be surprised.’
It was good natured; Ian went on to say he would be proud if Andrew did, but there was no doubt that big achievements mattered, the pulses in the deep veins of these Balding blood ties.
This exchange was the standout for me in the four episodes. Mill Reef was among the greatest of racehorses and he was at his best when I was probably at my best in life, and Ian Balding was too. This scene in Horsepower is a Greek tragedy in miniature.
Aside from the people, the setting of Kingsclere is exquisite, a beyond picturesque racing stable set in the Hampshire Downs, just south of the village of Kingsclere. The yard is the village’s top employer. Cinematographer (and co-director) Dave James makes a wonderful job of filming landscape and weather, and, of course, the horses. Some of the shots of trained to the minute thoroughbreds in summer are revealing as well as beautiful, for we see that good trainers are sculptors as much as they are sportsmen.
Andrew Balding came across to me as thoroughly decent, measured, respectful of staff as well as owners, and ultra confident in himself as a human being as well as a racehorse trainer. The unruffled way he calls Buckingham Palace and speaks to the Queen, well, you’d have thought he was placing a feed order. He is exactly what he seems, and there aren’t too many in this business you can say that about.
If there’s a price to pay for his success and his ambition, it is common to many who excel at their trade - an unsated hunger. Andrew could celebrate with anyone as his winner passed the post (though, I found it interesting that he seemed always to watch alone at the track; a superstition, perhaps). Yet, within a minute his visage returns to his normal - a slight frown, a coldish stare into the future, thinking about the next winner before this one had even been unsaddled.
Oisin Murphy, maybe not yet be a genius in the saddle, but showing in his addiction problems and his moodiness that he has already acquired the ‘troubled’ prefix. For one renowned for his media friendliness, he comes across here as a wee bit cold and entitled, but perhaps I do not make sufficient allowance for his age and the depth of his problems.
I return to Anna Lisa in no doubt that she is the engine room of this racing yard. Her personality seems perfect for handling anything that is thrown at her. She mothers not only her own three children, but whichever members of staff need a reassuring word or a hug. She’s brilliant with owners too, and, like her husband, there is no public face versus private face, no bias, no sense of treating anyone she meets as anything but equal. A fine human being in any walk of life.
Narration by Chloe Byatt is well measured, unobtrusive and limited to only the necessary. The same goes for the music in all but episode 4 where I found it a wee bit overpowering at times.
The editing by Liam J Dowler is superb, and a lot of thought must have gone into getting the right team together for this. In the end, the production crew seems as skilful and efficient as Balding’s yard staff. At least two of the production guys - John Maxse and Nathan Horrocks - are racing men to their cores and I’ve no doubt that such deep knowledge added substantially to the final film. You could have the best in the movie business in a project like this and I suspect, without racing know-how, it would have clanged in several places, whereas I spotted just one tiny false note here, when a 5-y-o was referred to as a colt.
I would love to see another series, but it would be even more satisfying with a second yard involved, perhaps a small, constantly struggling one. Maybe one much farther north. By the way, when Andrew complained how cold and nasty it was on the gallops in February I smiled and pictured Scu and Lucinda Russell in Perth saying ‘Hold my beer, Andrew.’
Just as a footnote, I listened to Nick Luck’s interview with Andrew about the series. Nick asked if Andrew’s father Ian had ever allowed a film crew in and Andrew didn’t think he had. Yet I remember a fine documentary from 50 years ago about Mill Reef called Something To Brighten The Morning narrated by Albert Finney.
Horsepower has a good chance of widening racing’s appeal, at least a little, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll bring pleasure to many, and could well end up a classic.