Jean Gooder let me take a day off to ride at Chepstow...

Jean Gooder let me take a day off to ride at Chepstow on condition that I explained the racing page to her

English was the only subject, apart from riding, that I was really good at, and Miss Healy, who taught me at Downe House, the girls' boarding school in Berkshire, was the first teacher to make me realise it. She taught me at A-level and introduced me to Robert Browning, with whom I had an instant rapport. I loved his collection Men and Women, in particular the poem "In a Year", which he wrote in a female voice. It is one of the most brilliant examples of female bitterness written by a man. It is so full of hurt and real anger and lack of understanding of why this guy could possibly leave her.

I enjoyed a challenge, and Miss Healy made me feel I had to prove myself - which was good because I could be quite idle. She encouraged me in terms of the breadth of my reading and to think differently. I don't think I had realised until then that having an opinion wasn't enough - you had to be able to substantiate it.

I was a mixture of confidence in sport and uncertainty academically. I was younger than everyone else in the class, and always seemed to be chasing to keep up.

Miss Healy was good at getting people to speak up in lessons, and she had a dry sense of humour. If you said something outrageous, she'd laugh but she wouldn't put you down. She was much younger than the other teachers and probably hadn't been long out of university. She'd been to Oxford and gave the impression of having had a great time there. I remember thinking I had never met anyone so clever.

I left Downe intending to become a barrister but didn't get a university place. So I had two years out. Inspired by Miss Healy, I tried for English at Cambridge. Early on, I'd been asked by the headmistress what I wanted to do when I left school, and I'd said I wanted to be an eventer (riding in three-day events). But she misheard me and said: "Really, how exciting. What do you want to invent?" They were very good at school about my riding, but it was never considered a career option.

I retook my history A-level to get it up to an A, then went to the Sorbonne in Paris to do a diploma in French civilisation. I taught youngsters to ride at pony club camp, took a secretarial course - and rode in a lot of races.

I'd done a lot of public speaking at school. I was head girl and had to stand up and say something quite often. Everybody had to take turns to read in chapel, and there was lots of reading aloud in class and plenty of opportunities to be in school plays. I was always happy speaking in public and at Cambridge I did a lot of debating.

I was competing in one-day events and show-jumping when I was at school, and started racing when I left. My first week at Cambridge coincided with the race that made me champion amateur jockey. Luckily, my director of studies, Jean Gooder, believed in encouraging students to pursue other interests. She let me take a day off to ride at Chepstow on condition that I explained the racing page to her. By the end of my three years, she was so interested in racing that she and her husband stayed with my parents and looked round the stables. Mrs Gooder was a big Henry James fan and I got very into American literature through her. We are still in touch.

Dr Sue Manning took over where Miss Healy had left off in developing my essay-writing skills. Writing quickly was always my problem, and Dr Manning helped me get things down on paper for exams. We lost touch, but I think she went on to be head of English at Edinburgh. I don't know what became of Miss Healy, but I will always be grateful to her, especially for encouraging me to think for myself and to have the confidence to put my point across.

Portrait by Christopher Thomond

Television presenter Clare Balding was talking to Pamela Coleman


1971 Born, daughter of trainer Ian Balding

1980-88 Attends Downe House School

1987 Finishes second in first point-to-point race aged 16

1989 Diploma in French civilisation from the Sorbonne

1990 Reads English at Cambridge

1990 Champion amateur lady jockey

1993 President of Cambridge Union

1993 Reads racing bulletins for Danny Baker's Morning Edition on Radio Five

1994 Joins Radio Five Live

1997 Appointed BBC racing presenter

2002 June-July Presents BBC's television coverage of Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot meetings

July 26 Covers Commonwealth Games

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