In 2021, Andrew Balding came very close to a first Saudi Cup meeting victory in the Red Sea Turf Handicap with Spanish Mission, but his horse ultimately finished second behind Gifts of Gold.
Balding is keen to improve on that result when he returns to Riyadh on Saturday with Happy Power running the 1351 Turf Sprint at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack.
And the British trainer is looking forward to returning to the Kingdom after enjoying the trip last year.
“It really was excellent,” Balding said. “Obviously, it was a very positive experience from a financial point of view — the rewards are enormous, if you’re successful at the meeting. (But also) the staff felt the horses were very well looked after. All in all, it was a very positive experience for all of us.”
Balding also mentioned “tremendous condition” of the turf track in Riyadh last year, saying that it more than matched up to other turf circuits in the region.
“I think both Nad Al-Sheba and Meydan (in Dubai) have always had wonderful turf tracks, grass husbandry now in the Gulf is fantastic. And I found that also in Doha and Bahrain, it seems to be that the Gulf states can produce fantastic turf tracks. We haven’t had any complaints in any of the places raised horses.
“And that’s obviously a huge plus to provide a safe racing surface at this time of the year,” he continued. “So, for European horses, it is all that we want and the main requirement is that the horses come back from their races (in good condition), which is always important.”
Balding believes Happy Power is in as good a shape as can be to take up the challenge.
“I couldn’t have been happier with his work at Kingsclere before he left for Saudi Arabia and he’s a high-class seven-furlong specialist,” he said. “He had a disappointing year last year, but the frustration was that he never really got his optimum conditions, which are seven furlongs on good ground, essentially. I’ve been very happy with his work.”
Balding’s main concern pre-race is Happy Power’s starting position. “Obviously, being drawn wide on a turning seven furlongs isn’t ideal,” he said. “We’re going to need a little bit of luck to overcome the draw. Prior to that, I was fairly hopeful of a big run but that’s added another slight negative to the race, because he’s going to need a lot of luck to run well from that door.”
Balding became the licensed trainer at Kingsclere in 2003, when he succeeded his father Ian, who famously trained Mill Reef. His training career got off to a perfect start when he saddled Casual Look to win the 2003 Epsom Oaks.
Many more domestic and international Group winners have followed, including Phoenix Reach (Group 1 Canadian International, Group 1 Hong Kong Vase and Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic) and Blond Me (Group 1 E P Taylor Stakes, Canada).
Last year was Balding’s best yet; he was the leading trainer at the Goodwood Festival and runner-up trainer at Royal Ascot, finishing second in the British Trainer’s Championship with over $5.9m (£4.4m) in UK prize money won, and a further $1.47m earned abroad.
Happy Power is owned by King Power Racing, which was established by the late Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who not only fell in love with football when he arrived on the British scene as the new owner of Leicester City Football Club, but also quickly developed a passion for horse-racing.
After Vichai’s death in 2018 in a helicopter accident, his son Aiyawatt — known as Top — continued his father’s legacy with King Power Racing.
“They’re a fabulous family,” Balding said. “I mean, obviously, it was such a tragedy losing the chairman, whose whole idea was the drive behind King Power Racing, but I’m so delighted the Srivaddhanaprabha family have taken it up and embraced it with huge enthusiasm and they’ve been fabulous people to train for.
“They understand horses — they’re all involved with horses on a personal level — and are fabulous owners and very sporting people,” he continued. “Obviously, they’ve got other sporting interests which everyone knows about, but they seem to be very keen on the racing and have taken great pleasure in the successes we’ve had.”
Chief among those successes came in 2019 for Balding, whose win with Cleonte in the final race of Royal Ascot, the Queen Alexander Stakes, was particularly poignant.
“It was huge, because that was the chairman’s absolute number one objective: To have success at Royal Ascot.” Balding said. “We’ve achieved that on a couple of occasions, and it’s very special for all of us involved and anyone who had the pleasure of knowing him; to try and fulfil his ambitions was obviously the priority. He’d be getting huge pleasure out of competing in these big international races also.”
Last year was a record year for British trainers collectively, with their collective overseas winnings breaking the £30million mark for the first time.
“Obviously, the prize money makes it very attractive,” said Balding. “And I’ve been lucky — since I started training, we’ve had important international success. With the purse structure as it is, it’s a big deal. I think with Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai, obviously, now having good international programs that means our winter focus is very much in that area, and it’s added a new dimension to our racing season, which is very welcome.”
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