Why Andrew Balding’s Title Challenge Is The Real Deal

Gavin Beech on Balding’s wealth of ammunition and why the sport is kidding itself about a new breed of punter.

Why Andrew Balding’s Title Challenge Is The Real Deal
Why Andrew Balding’s Title Challenge Is The Real Deal

It appears to have gone unnoticed across large sections of the racing media, but there is now a real possibility that we will have a new name on the Champion Flat Trainer honour’s board in 2021.

That name is Andrew Balding and, coincidentally, it is 50 years since his father Ian won his one and only trainers’ championship.

Balding currently sits atop the trainer rankings, around £280k clear of nearest pursuer Charlie Appleby and around £660k clear of Aidan O’Brien. That lead is by no means insurmountable but it is a cushion, nonetheless.

The key question is whether Balding has sufficient firepower to land at least one more big prize in the autumn.

The obvious starting point is Alcohol Free, Balding’s superstar 3-year-old filly who has already plundered over £900k in prize money this season alone, most of which has been earned with Group 1 wins in the Coronation Stakes and last week’s Sussex Stakes.

Victory for Alcohol Free in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York next week would earn her trainer north of £500k, giving him an almost unassailable lead.

There would be something quite fitting about a filly owned by Jeff Smith, who has been such a long-standing supporter of the Balding family, almost single-handedly taking her trainer to the top of the tree.

On a personal level, I can’t think of a high-profile horse that I’ve underestimated as much as Alcohol Free, both in terms of ability and her ability to see out new trips. This time last year I couldn’t even see her staying a mile for the Guineas.

Now, connections think she’s worth a shot over another two-and-a-half furlongs against some of the best horses in training.

The question isn’t will she stay, it is will she stay the new trip well enough to throw down a challenge?

It looks unlikely but one thing is for sure, I wouldn’t even dream of laying her at double figure odds given the way she has already made a complete mug of yours truly.

Despite the trip reservations, it’s easy enough to see why connections think the Juddmonte is worth a shot.

It’s a million-pound race worth over £200k to the runner-up, which is more than the winner of Leopardstown’s Group 1 Matron Stakes next month. The £100k+ for finishing third isn’t to be sniffed at, either.

These are the sorts of numbers that can carry Balding to the title and it looks like he knows it, despite what he says to the media.

Alcohol Free might be carrying much of the burden when it comes to Balding’s title challenge, but he does have a good deal of other ammunition in the locker, not least in the 2-year-old division.

Unbeaten filly Sandrine is 15/8 favourite to pocket a not insignificant £85k first prize in the Lowther Stakes while Berkshire Shadow, who was undone by testing ground at Goodwood, looks a huge player in the Gimcrack Stakes.

Don’t be surprised if Sky Bet York Stakes winner Bangkok popped up again and, although he proved a touch disappointing in the Hackwood Stakes at Newbury, there are plenty that think King’s Lynn could still be a Group 1 sprinter.

Balding, who has now reached the 100-winner milestone for the season, might not have the depth of Group 1 horses of some of his contemporaries but he’s got a wealth of ammunition that can take him close even if Alcohol Free’s Juddmonte raid doesn’t go to plan.

The Shergar Cup Works, But Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

A trip to the races is one of the most popular ways to socialise in style.

The problem with racing is that, on a seven-race card, racegoers get to watch between 10 and 20 minutes of action throughout the entire day, that’s if they want to watch the racing at all.

That’s not a lot of track action and it means that racegoers need to entertain themselves in other ways throughout the afternoon. For the mainstream, that generally involves eating, drinking and chatting to friends.

The challenge of finding winners isn’t one that most people that go racing on a Saturday take overly seriously. Everyone wants to make some money but most people don’t go racing to make money, they go to have a good time and if they can make a few quid along the way, then all the better.

Even on Shergar Cup day, being a racegoer doesn’t involve the dissection of the rules of team racing. It doesn’t involve familiarising yourself with the jockeys and it certainly doesn’t involve monitoring the state of play when it comes to scores on the doors.

Let’s take away all the pretence that we get from the broadcasters who do everything they can to try and convince the audience that they care which jockey or team has amassed the most points. They care as little as we do, and they know we know it.

If you take the live music away, bars and restaurants, you would be left with a core racing audience that just loves watching racing.

And this is my issue with the Shergar Cup. Sure, it’s become a very successful day for Ascot, but the sport is kidding itself if it thinks that a new breed of punter is there because they love the idea of racing reinventing itself as a team sport for the day.

Ascot aside, the biggest winners from any Shergar Cup are the female riders, who are given a precious stage to shine.

Hayley Turner has taken that opportunity in the past and Nicola Currie did the same at the weekend, which was great to see because it feels like she has been living in Hollie Doyle’s shadow for a while now.

Personally, I don’t feel that Nicola is far behind Hollie in terms of raw talent, if at all, but she suffers from a lack of opportunities and that elusive association with a big Saturday horse, which Hollie has had with the likes of Glen Shiel and Trueshan.

Only time will tell whether Saturday’s Ascot double will change that for the better but if excelling on the biggest stage of all doesn’t earn you new opportunities, then it’s hard to know what will, sadly.