The Harvey Smith of today is certainly older – and more mellow – than the young showjumper who turned up for one of his early competitions with just a pony and a bridle.
Yet, as this national sporting icon celebrates his 80th birthday today by plotting further success with the string of racehorses that he trains with his wife Sue, his work ethic is as insatiable as ever.
There are more races to be won to add to their 1,000-plus tally – the couple would love a second Grand National to add to the victory of Auroras Encore five years ago in the world’s greatest race – owners to satisfy and staff to please.
Smith still likes to be up at daybreak working on his gallops on a wind-swept Baildon Moor, a short canter from where he was born. “I just dodge about in the morning, doing all the silly things. General mugsbody,” the often reticent Smith tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I’ve been on the tractor doing the land, harrowing the gallop. There’s always work. You just keep going. If you sit still, you seize up. Two chairs will kill you – the electric chair and the armchair. There are only three types of people – those who make things happen, them that watch things happen and those who wonder what has happened. And I’ve always tried to make things happen.”
As he sets out the world according to Harvey, he does recall the occasion when he was driving a JCB tractor in Menston in around 1953 – and dug through three gas mains in a week.
Born in Gilstead to his parents Walter and Ethel, they clearly hoped that the young Harvey would continue the family tradition and work in the construction industry with his older brother John. “They wouldn’t give me five shillings an hour so I told them to lick ‘em and stick ‘em and would go on my own with the horses,” said Smith.
He has not looked back. Even though the only family connection was Smith’s maternal grandfather whose horses pulled the Bridlington lifeboat, he has had an affinity with animals ever since he started riding a pony at the age of seven.
From then, he graduated to milk ponies for Bingley farmer Jack Baker and was just eight when he first competed at the town’s agricultural show in 1947. Seven decades later, his competitive instincts – and eye for a bargain – endure because he is, to all intents and purposes, self-taught and appreciates money.
An early photo shows the cherubic Smith at Malham Show where he competed against, amongst others, Michael Bannister whose family own Coniston Hall. He stands out. “Look, no jacket. No saddle. Just a pony and a bridle. And a smile. And I beat them,” he said.
“I didn’t really take to school. I was more of an outdoor person into dogs, ponies and horses. I never got any O-Levels or A-Levels. All I got was a stint on the building sites.
“It’s not education. It’s determination. If you are determined to do things, you will do it. In the early days, my father would ask ‘how did you get on today?’ and I’d say I’d been beaten by all these great names. He said ‘Harvey lad, don’t worry about them. You’ve just got to jump the fences better than them’. It was the best thing I was told – just keep jumping the fences. When you look back, a lot of it is common sense. Unfortunately there are a lot of people without common sense.”
The young Smith had a kindred spirit in an unheralded horse called Farmer’s Boy who he bought at Botterill’s Sale in 1954 for just £40. “I hadn’t any cash so I dashed to the phone box to ring my father who replied ‘Borrow the money’. The horse came back to Bingley by train.”
A horse who could genuinely jump, there was an air of quiet satisfaction when the young Smith and Farmer’s Boy started enjoying Nations Cup and other international success. Competing in Ireland where he had been introduced disparagingly as a ‘bricklayer’, this win was particularly satisfying.
They were also fun times despite the controversies that followed Smith. He says he became totally self-sufficient. “I could live for nothing,” he said as he recalled happy days at shows collecting meat, and other delicacies, off vendors before a barbecue in the evening accompanied by the local wine. Now he shops at Yorkshire markets and cooks at home.
On his public perception, Smith says after a thoughtful pause while keeping one eye on the afternoon’s racing: “Not stubborn. Just determined. Single-minded. A lot of Yorkshire grit. Geoffrey Boycott had it. Freddie Trueman had it.”
He is philosophical about Great Britain’s bad luck at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 – and Munich four years later. “That’s horses. You can’t dictate horses,” he says.
Sitting in his living room which is adorned with riding memorabilia, and soaking up the view down the Aire Valley towards Leeds, Smith is more piqued that he was not selected for the 1964 Olympics. “They never sent me. I had four leading horses and they never sent me,” he said.
Yet Smith – whose sons Steven and Robert became accomplished showjumpers – is sanguine about the events of August 1971 when he successfully defended the Hickstead Derby on Mattie Brown, another great horse, and then made a two-finger gesture at the committee box.
There had been tension beforehand – Smith had travelled from Yorkshire to the Sussex venue without the trophy – and the national media, he says, tried to stir up a controversy between him and Hickstead supremo Duggie Bunn.
Five years ago Smith was slightly embarrassed when asked by photographers to repeat the gesture after his Grand National win. He declined. Instead, he posed for pictures with his memoir from the time called V is for Victory.
Now he shrugs his shoulders. “There is no such thing as bad publicity. It was a storm in a teacup. I always got on with Duggie Bunn. We were only doing it for publicity for Hickstead. It’s been a talking point ever since. I think it is in the English dictionary. When I was talking to Lester Piggott at an awards do, he said ‘tall trees catch much wind’.”
More satisfying to Smith is the fact that most of his successful showjumpers – and racehorses – were cheap buys because of potential that only he could see. He’s still a regular presence at Doncaster Sales where most of his horses, including National hero Auroras Encore, were purchased. This is the horse that conquered Aintree under Ryan Mania at the end of a long, and bleak, winter when Smith was particularly incongruous in layers of fleece jackets as he tried to keep his gallops open.
What motivates him? “Winning,” he declares. “When you’re working with horses, it’s a disease worse than cancer,” says Smith whose grandson Joel, himself a showjumper, is becoming more involved in the training operation. “But when you work because it is a pleasure, it is satisfying. Very satisfying. Only one thing beats you. Old age.”
Today Smith is a familiar, forthright and still formidable figure on the North’s racecourses. Never short of an opinion, he – and his wife – are, nevertheless, universally respected because of their success since taking out a training licence in 1990. “I’m the public man’s person, are you with me?” he adds. “I’ve never lost my popularity. People still ask for autographs and selfies.
“I’ve done over 70 years performing in front of the public from Bingley Show in 1947 to Wetherby races. It’s been a good life. There’s not a lot you’d want to change. They said if they cut my heart open, a horse would jump out.”
And they wouldn’t be wrong.