With Channels 4’s announcement that she is going to be the new face of their horse racing coverage and her recent marker-wielding coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics, it looks as if Clare Balding is all set to become the nation’s latest National Treasure at the tender age of 41.
Sport’s presenter Clare took the nation by storm with her Olympic coverage becoming one of the best known faces on television as a result. Clare commented on her recent success by saying: “I’ve been recognised before, but always in context – say if I was at a sporting event. But since the Olympics it’s gone a bit nuts. I’m getting people waving and shouting: “Look, it’s Clare-off-the-Olympics!” It’s quite bizarre, but nice because it’s all very positive.”
The news of her Channel 4 racing appointment has been equally well received, particularly by the racing fraternity. International jockey, Frankie Dettori, responded to Clare’s new job by saying: “It's brilliant news for racing; I've been glued to the Olympics, where Clare's been doing a fantastic job across a range of sports. She's bound to bring new fans to Channel 4 racing, which has to be a big plus, and I tend to ride my biggest winners when she's around!”
And legendary racing commentator, Sir Peter O'Sullevan, a former colleague of Clare's at the BBC, also praised the move. “I think it's very good news for Channel 4 and very good news for racing,” he said. “I have to congratulate Channel 4 on securing Clare's services and I'm sure they will benefit greatly from her expertise and guidance.”
Clare has lived and breathed horses since childhood; incredibly she could ride by the age of two. She’s recently published her childhood memories in a book which tells of her early life up to age 19. Her very British parents obviously feature heavily as do her animals – each chapter is based on a family pet. Clare says: “I thought that if I made every chapter about one of my pets, I could kid myself that I wasn’t writing about myself. But I think I actually end up revealing more than I meant to.”
The book tells the story of a stocky, spirited young girl determined to be just like all the other girls at her public school; how, despite her best efforts, she fails;and her struggle to find out who she is in the world. Mind you, Clare’s childhood world wasn’t a particularly easy one to inhabit. After all, it isn’t every little girl who has breakfast with the Queen and finds herself accidentally launching a sausage from her plate towards Her Majesty. Clare’s father, Ian, a respected racing trainer, was the man who trained the Queen’s horses – hence the fairly regular royal visits to their home in Hampshire and the sausage incident.
Clare says of this time: “We had Champagne in the house but no new clothes. My parents didn't actually have any money.” Clare’s private education at Downe House in Berkshire (which also boasts Kate Middleton as a former pupil) was paid for by Mill Reef’s owner, Paul Mellon, in an act of both thanks and kindness. Later, aged 18 and studying English at Cambridge, Clare wrote to ‘Mr. Mellon’ (as she always called him), thanking him. His reply was that he had been watching Clare and knew that she would do well. ‘Be lucky, be happy, and be true to yourself,’ he said. His words were to become Clare’s mantra.
Clare seems always to be true to herself. After university she became a flat jockey riding for her father and Champion Lady Rider in 1990. Clare has always wanted her father’s approval who, despite being his daughter’s employer, once declared to journalists (in his legendary chauvinistic manner) that he didn't think women made good jockeys. Clare’s father’s attitude towards her jockeying couldn’t have helped her as she struggled to keep her weight down, starving herself to borderline eating disorder. Eventually though she decided she’d had enough and decided to give up jockeying to become a sports presenter.
Clare seemed to take to it like a duck to water and the world of racing’s loss became television’s gain. Clare joined the BBC radio trainee scheme in 1994 and in 1995 made her TV debut – as a presenter at Ascot no less. Determined as ever to make her mark, by 1997 she was without doubt the BBC’s lead horse racing presenter.
Clare’s partner of many years is BBC Radio 4 newsreader Alice Arnold; they became civil partners in 2006. When reviewer A.A. Gill called Clare a ‘dyke on a bike’ in the Sunday Times, writing about her new cycling programme, she complained to the Press Complaints Commission and won. The paper had to print an apology – again Claire had remained true to herself.
The BBC, have been running down its racing coverage over the last few years, and earlier this year finally gave up the jewels in the racing calendar crown including: Aintree, Ascot and Epsom. Channel 4 will televise horse racing for at least the next 4 years, although Claire’s new contact is ‘non-exclusive’, allowing her to continue working for the BBC. With this move she will cover events including the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National from January next year. “I am excited by Channel 4's plans for their coverage and the way in which they have committed to expanding the profile of jockeys, trainers and horses,” she said. “I love my job and I can't believe how lucky I am. I thrive on being challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone and I'm incredibly excited at what the future holds.”
After her Olympic performance many think that Clare deserves a gold medal for professionalism, her popularity has certainly never been higher. She’s at the top of her game and at long last seems to have found out just who she is in the world. Yes, she’s been lucky, but she seems to deserve her happiness and there’s no doubt that Clare has become who she is by always being absolutely true to herself.
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