British-Born Balding Brothers Compete In America's

Golden Age of Polo

by Bruce E. Balding

 

In 1926, at the age of 22, Gerald Balding was invited by Robert Strawbridge, the president of the United States Polo Association, to come to America “to train our boys how to play the game.” Mr. Strawbridge, an heir to the Philadelphia dry goods store of Strawbridge and Clothier, had visited England’s best hunting country in Leicestershire and over the course of many seasons when he noticed young Gerald’s remarkable athletic ability combined with an exuberant outgoing personality. Gerald was invited to teach polo at the Rumson Polo Club in New Jersey. And he was soon followed to America by his two brothers, Barney and Ivor. Their older brother had written them with exciting tales of thrilling parties populated by beautiful young ladies and lots of “horse talk.” Gerald knew that they would quickly “fit in” to this glamorous society.

 

 

Even before their American debut, the young Baldings had distinguished themselves as horsemen and polo players in England. In 1925, Gerald and his two brothers with their uncle Billy Balding swept through eighteen tournaments in England and France without a single defeat. The fourth member of this team, Uncle Billy, was not only a superb horseman, but also an inventor who created the Balding girth made of cross-hatched leather straps designed to eliminate the chafing of conventional girths that often causes distress to a horse’s belly. It is widely used to this day. He also invented the Balding gag that reduces the pressure on a polo pony’s jaw when the rider demands an abrupt stop and turn in the middle of white-hot competition. However, neither of these innovations was patented.

 

 

Before leaving England, brother Barney, still in his teens, rode Lord Queenborough’s horse Drinmond in the Grand National steeplechase, considered to be not only extremely difficult but also extremely dangerous to the point where today there are serious calls for its elimination. A particularly challenging fence on the course, five feet high and six to ten inches lower on the landing side, Becher’s Brook owes its name to Captain Martin Becher, who suffered a fall there in the very first Grand National and sought shelter in the brook on the landing side while the rest of the field galloped over him. He is said to have later famously remarked, “Water tastes disgusting without the benefits of whisky.” On his first outing at the famous Aintree Course in Liverpool Barney Balding came in fourth. Lord Queenborough considered young Balding’s ride a miracle, defying the odds against its successful completion raised by the large field and hazardous course, and by the height of the wooden fences to be cleared.

 

 

In short, the Balding brothers were well known at horse shows, fox hunts and race courses, with trophies and endless newspaper coverage to show for it. In the U.S., in both 1935 and 1936, Gerald Balding, with teammates Hitchcock, Whitney and Bostwick, won two US Open Championships. And a year later 40,000 people came to the Meadow Brook Polo Club’s championship field to watch the U.S. play England in a match. America won this contest, but an historic opportunity for the two brothers to represent their country was missed when Gerald’s brother Barney was hurt in polo practice. Initially, the New York sports pages trumpeted, “British Team Is Improving, Barney Balding at Number One Helps to increase Efficiency.” Then, a few days later, another headline read: “J B Balding Hurt in Polo Practice, Lost to British.”

 

A long newspaper article reported his story. Part of it read: “The younger Balding, brother of Gerald who has supplanted him at No. 1 in the revised tentative line-up of the British team for tomorrow’s opening, was engaged in an informal match on the No. 2 field of the Meadow Brook Club across the way from the International Field. In the sixth period following a hard bump with another player, Balding’s pony crossed its feet and went down at racing speed, throwing the rider to the turf with terrific impact. A steeplechase rider of experience, Balding rolled into a ball as he fell, but he struck hard on his shoulder.”

 

Balding père (Albert Balding) was known as a kind of “General Motors” because he had supplied so much “horse power” to the army during the Boer War, which ended in 1902. Mr. Balding’s barns housed scores of horses at a time. He bought green, unbroken horses for £100 and sold them for £500 a year or two later after his thirty stable “lads” had broken them under his supervision.

 

Above: Action on Meadow Brook's International Field during the 1936 Cup of the Americas matches between American and Argentinean teams, with more than 35,000 spectators looking on.

 

(l-r) Ivor, Barney and Gerald Balding ca. 1935.

COURTESY OF BRUCE BALDING

Left: Oil painting by E. P. Earl depicting the famous Becher's Brook fence during the 1927 Grand National steeplechase, with Barney Balding among the figures in the forefront.

As the shadows of World War II began to gather in earnest, Gerald’s patriotic remark, “I guess I am good enough to play polo for England, I am good enough to fight for England,” was widely quoted. Like his father before him, he was to contribute to England’s war effort, albeit in a different way. Thanks to his many friends in high places on both sides of the Atlantic he got a commission in the “Blues” or Household Cavalry, the King’s own two regiments in which members of the royal family always serve, whether in time of war or in time of peace. Most recently, it was Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, who represented the royal family in the “Blues,” retiring as a helicopter pilot after he married in 2012.

 

Gerald served as a captain in the Second Household Cavalry Regiment and was assigned as a liaison officer to the Americans, as he knew them from the eight years he had lived in the United States. George Bernard Shaw is famously said to have commented that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” In the 1930s, England’s high command apparently took that statement seriously. Captain Balding was ordered to observe enemy positions from an armored car at Arnhem, an engagement well depicted in the famous Hollywood movie A Bridge Too Far, which immortalized General Montgomery’s famous “Operation Market Garden.” The U.S. Army awarded Gerald a Silver Star in addition to his British decorations.

 

Both Barney and Gerald were racehorse trainers after the war, and both died prematurely in their 50s. Ivor, on the other hand, lived to be almost 100 and worked for many years for his lifelong friend Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney. He was both farm manager and head trainer at Mr. Whitney’s racing stable. In 1940, it was Ivor who suggested to his boss that he purchase the celebrated stallion Mahmoud from the Aga Khan for what was then the very steep price of $80,000. Mahmoud went on to sire a string of famous Whitney winners.

 

The three Balding brothers all received their high goal ratings in the 1930s. Gerald has the distinction of being the only British polo player since 1939 to achieve the highest rating of 10 goals, the equivalent of perfection in the sport, while both of his brothers, Barney and Ivor, were rated at seven goals apiece. In his book Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. wrote: “Polo is the most difficult game on earth, requiring the horsemanship of a Genghis Khan, the anticipatory stance of a hockey player, the hand-eye coordination of a pool shark.” And, he might have added, all this must be done on the back of a pony at full gallop with frequent abrupt stops and turns. No other family on either side of the Atlantic has ever produced such fraternal talent on the polo field as the Balding brothers. However, today the game is owned by the Argentineans, fielding teams that include three or even four family members.