April 5, 2013 3:14 pm

Grand National time: William Huntingdon on Kingsclere

The Queen’s former racing manager on what makes a successful stables
William Huntingdon©Rick Pushinsky

The view from my desk reaches across the chalk springs fed by an aquifer from the Hampshire downs 800ft above Kingsclere, the place where I was raised and which has been associated with horseracing for more than 150 years.

The importance of place – of the landscape, buildings and the terroir – is as crucial to racing as the pedigree that it helps to create. This may explain, in part, why the forgiving climate and lush pastures of parts of the UK, Ireland and France have produced so many winners.

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I suppose I was bred to work in racing. My paternal grandfather, Aubrey Hastings, trained four Grand National winners and rode and trained Ascetic’s Silver to win the 1906 National. He died when my father was nine but not before he had brought to Wroughton Stables the legendary Brown Jack, who won the Champion Hurdle and Ascot Stakes in 1928. He went on to become a national hero when he and Steve Donoghue won six Queen Alexandra stakes at Royal Ascot during the Great Depression.

Ivor Anthony held the licence to train, as the Jockey Club would not recognise female trainers for another 40 years, and my grandmother helped run the stables. There were quite a few American owners in the yard and one of them, Ambrose Clark, introduced Paul Mellon to the stable in 1935. He had horses with the family until his death in 1999 and bred and owned Mill Reef, one of the great horses of the 20th century. It must be added that the same year he bred probably the slowest horse as well, Macaroon, whose fate it was to become my trainer’s hack [horse]: Mack the Hack.

The move to Kingsclere from Wroughton came just before the coronation in 1953. Evan Williams had ridden Wroughton’s 1937 National winner, Royal Mail and Golden Miller in the 1936 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He trained Supreme Court to win the first King George and Queen Elizabeth at Ascot but went to Ireland, where he became a master of foxhounds. My mother, Priscilla, had lost her mother in a riding accident when she was very young and was partly brought up by her maternal grandfather, Lord Derby, who bred and owned Hyperion. So there was little my housemaster at Winchester could do to persuade me that Lazards was a more attractive career than a life on the turf. I did have a little hobby influence from Sunningdale, my prep school, when I helped tend the sixth-form window box under the tutelage of one Robin Lane Fox. I squeezed into Cambridge and felt the strong pull of Newmarket, the racing town 12 miles east of the university. It was agreed that as long as I got my degree in history, I was free to learn about racing. Sir Noel Murless, Elliott Burch in the US, Bart Cummings, TJ Smith and Colin Hayes in Australia gave me some tutelage.

My father died when I was 16 so, though brought up at Kingsclere and still living across the road from the stables, I was never to train from there. I started in Newmarket before moving to West Ilsley on the Berkshire Downs, where Mick Channon now trains. It was left to my brother-in-law Ian Balding, and now Andrew, his son and Clare’s brother, to return Kingsclere to the heady days of the 19th century.

John Porter, the founder of Newbury Racecourse, moved to Kingsclere in 1867 and went on to win 23 classics including three Triple Crowns, the 2000, Derby and St Leger. He built the red-brick house and two yards as well as a lads’ hostel and other accommodation. They exist mostly unchanged today and are a monument to his planning with well-ventilated, large boxes and hard-wearing blue brick floors. Next to the head lad’s house is a high-roofed building that was a chapel, then a gym, served as Mill Reef’s hospital when he fractured a foreleg and is now the best saddle room with all the racing tack and owners’ colours. It is also in part a museum and trophy room.

It brings back sterling memories of my three Ascot Gold Cups, a Ribblesdale and Hunt Cup and Group One Arlington Handicap for the Queen. I dabble with a couple of broodmares of my own in France, some buying and selling yearlings for old clients here in Europe and in Australia. It leaves me time to hone my gardening skills, learn to cook properly and occasionally help out at Andrew Balding’s and at the races. I also much enjoy my directorship at Salisbury racecourse, home to one of the oldest races, the City Bowl, won in 1768 by Gimcrack and in 1769 by Eclipse. They were the Frankels and Black Caviars of their day.

The gallops on the chalk downs above the stables, where recently Mill Reef and Casual Look completed their classic preparations, would be recognised by John Porter because, apart from some fencing, they are unchanged. Beneath them and to the west lie the Lloyd Webbers’ Watership Down stud and then Highclere Stud, owned by John and Carolyn Warren, with the grave of her great-grandfather, the Lord Carnarvon who, together with the Egyptologist Howard Carter, discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, overlooking their property. Both farms benefit from the wonderful chalk paddocks that are easy draining and bone forming in young stock – the terroir of the ideal stud farm.

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Terroir and gizmos

Exercise aides

Automatic horsewalkers can replace the need for labour-intensive hand walking. Used in conjunction with a pool they help maintain fitness when setbacks such as sore shins, sore backs or days after the horse dentist make ridden exercise inadvisable.

Cold water therapy: the best type, in my experience, is the local chalk stream, Gaily Brook, fed by Wells Head springs. We lead the horses against the current, which is excellent therapy for their legs. Man-made alternatives – spas and pools – are expensive to buy and to run.

All-weather gallops are a godsend in very dry or wet conditions. There are three at Kingsclere: the Lochsong, Phoenix Reach and Ash on top of the downs. The alternative, for days when the weather prevents us using the gallops, is a high-speed treadmill in which horses are made to trot, canter and gallop. They are useful when dealing with a headstrong, fragile horse. I imported one of the first from Australia in 2008, when the exchange rate made it very reasonably priced at £25,000. Several sceptics have since become enthusiastic converts. Lactate testing and heart monitoring are particularly useful when done on the treadmill and give a scientific view of the horse’s fitness level.

My favourite meetings

Cheltenham Festival, the high point of the jumping season with four days of high class, and passionate, racing.

The Grand National, April 6 in Aintree, with worldwide viewing figures of more than 500m.

The Dubai World Cup, the most valuable horse race worldwide.

The Golden Slipper, Australia’s richest, two-year-old race.

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Stables, paddocks and the property market

Racehorses may be the pampered demigods of the equine world but that does not mean the cherished “field ornaments” belonging to Britain’s 3.5m amateur equestrians are not afforded a splendid lifestyle too, writes Ruth Bloomfield

Owners’ devotion to their horses is the reason why, while the country house market is 16 per cent below peak prices, according to Savills, one rural niche is thriving. Homes with “hobby-horse” facilities, up to 10 loose boxes plus up to 10 acres of paddocks, are bucking – sorry – the trend.

Girl on pony©Alamy

Estate agents report buoyant sales to owners looking for flat, well-drained grazing with one acre per horse, modern stables and access to riding country.

In the home counties Caroline Edwards, a partner at Carter Jonas, believes the strength of this sector is down to Londoners looking for dream homes where their children can grow up messing around with ponies.

For these buyers good links to London are crucial. High-tech equestrian facilities – solariums, horse walkers and so on – may be a deterrent, since their ambitions are more Pony Club than Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

William Wells, residential sales director at Mullucks Wells, says a home with a couple of acres and “basic” stabling would cost around £600,000 in Essex and Hertfordshire. A more sophisticated set up – a period house, half a dozen acres and stable yard, will be £1m plus.

Simon Derby, a partner at Smiths Gore, has seen a ripple effect in the southwest. A home with stables and paddocks would cost from around £425,000, he says, although grand houses with smart stable yards could easily cost over £1m.

George Lorimer, a partner at CKD Galbraith, says the market is also strong on the east coast of Scotland. “Houses with three to five acres for hobby riders with a couple of horses are still hugely popular – typically there is never any shortage of viewers and bidders when such homes are marketed in the £250,000 to £400,000 bracket,” he says.

Savills suggests low interest rates are encouraging buyers to take money out of the bank and put it into a home for the lifestyle and the investment.

Cotswolds-based Jo Aldridge, regional director for Stacks Property Search, says a pretty house with space for a horse or two currently commands a 10 per cent premium – so long as it is in the right place.

“Location in relation to competitions and activities, which often relate to hunt areas, is essential,” she says.

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