Racing: Startling career of miracle man

Noel Harris
Noel Harris

Noel Harris has been in the saddle for 40 years and you can read all about it in Harry - The Ride of My Life, released this week. Below is a teaser from his book.

Chapter 8: Singapore awakening

"Jesus Christ, you look like a gangster, not a jockey." That was the first reaction I got when I stepped off the plane in Singapore to be greeted by Ivan Allan's right-hand man, Jimmy Mulchand. Gangster. That was a word I heard a lot of as time passed during my three-season stay riding for Ivan Allan. But this was the only time it was directed at me.

I'd stepped off the plane dressed in my 1970s gear. I had six-inch platform heels, flared jeans, jean jacket and long hair. I thought I was cool, but Jimmy just thought I looked like a gangster.

We went into the immigration section to get the green card and I looked at a poster on the wall which read: 'People with long hair will be served last.' You were classed as a hippy.

Monday morning, Jimmy took me into his department store and I ended up with six pairs of sports trousers and about 10 silk shirts, and he said, 'Now you look like a jockey.'

I shortened my hair a bit. I'd had trouble with my long hair in New Zealand beforehand. It was down to shoulder length and Phil Reid, the stipendiary steward down our way, told me I had to get it cut. Jockeys had to be cleanly shaven, but a lot of jockeys refused to get it cut. Jock [Noel's dad] asked how long it could be and he was told one inch above the collar. Jock replied, 'Well, how would Michael Jackson go with his afro?' I copped a bit of flak over it when I started riding in Aussie, too. But it was the fashion at the time and a lot of jockeys had long hair.

Anyway, Jimmy Mulchand had me dressed up and looking the part. He was one of Ivan Allan's owners and he ended up being like a father to me over there. He used to look after me as well as Lester Piggott, picking him up and running him around, taking him here and there, and telling Lester and me the dos and don'ts. Lester was a champion jockey, a legend, and he was used to being looked after, but it was different for me. I'd have been lost without Jimmy.

I'd heard a lot about Ivan Allan before I arrived. I knew he was the kingpin, and he virtually ran racing in Singapore. He was the top trainer and to ride for him was a big break for me. It was a real eye-opener and I had to learn quickly.

When I got up there, suddenly the racing scene was so big. To get into Singapore you practically had to be at or near the top of the premiership in your country. I was riding against the likes of Lester Piggott, George Podmore and Ron Hutchinson - all top international riders. It was interesting, especially with the English riders coming over to ride in their off-season. There was a real international flavour and I learnt plenty.

One of the first things Ivan Allan got me to do was to ride shorter. As young apprentices we used to put the stirrup leathers up a couple of holes to ride a bit shorter when the boss wasn't looking, but he wasn't happy and we'd have to put them down again. But when I got to Singapore Ivan insisted that I ride short. He told me their horses didn't like being bashed with the whip. He explained how the horses imported from England and Ireland were thinner skinned and couldn't take the whip like Australian and New Zealand horses. I was to ride short and just tap them every third or fourth stride.

When I came back to New Zealand many of the trainers thought it was a gimmick, but it had become natural for me. If I put my links down even a little bit it doesn't feel comfortable. It's just the way I ride and it suits me. I prefer to push forward and use my balance, and it is important to find the balance that suits you and the horse. That's something Jock drummed into me as a kid. To make me understand the meaning of balance he said it was just the same as carrying a sack of spuds. If you let it slip down your back it's hard work. Keep it up by your shoulders and it's easy.

Every time I rode for Ivan Allan if he didn't go to the races he'd always write out instructions on how to ride a horse. They'd be presented to the stewards, so if I didn't ride them the way he wanted I was in trouble. In Singapore, Ivan could do virtually whatever he liked because movie tycoon Runme Shaw was the virtual head as chairman of Bukit Timah Turf Club.

One of the big things in Singapore and Malaysia was jockeys having their punters, usually owners who would cover you on tickets on the horses you were riding. They'd also put it to you as to whether you wanted to punt on other horses or not. In contrast, in New Zealand, you can bet on your own mount if the owner gives you permission, but it's illegal to bet against your mount.

Over there at that time everybody just knew that if you were a jockey and you had friends around you, you were usually tipping to them and they were punting for you. An owner would put, say, 100 tickets on the horse you were riding for him, and who was to say you were going to put more money on it or get someone else to put more money on? It got scary in the sense of who some jockeys dealt with.

In Singapore - Malaysia they trained them to win and then sometimes decided not to win. They'd just say: 'Cannot win. Owners don't want to try.' It sometimes got to the stage where a jockey got into the birdcage, hopped on the horse thinking he could win and then was told he couldn't. In one instance two senior riders and an apprentice were all riding different horses for Ivan Allan. When one of the senior riders hopped on his horse Ivan said to him, 'You're not trying.' Then just before he went out of the birdcage he came back and said, 'Change of mind. You're on. Tell the other two to get lost.' He got around to the barrier and told them, and apparently they both went white as ghosts, because in the meantime they'd signalled to their own punters what was supposed to happen. But they did get lost.

Ivan Allan always said, 'The day my jockey tells me my horse can win I'll give up training. I know all the jockeys' signals.' And there were all sorts of signals. The rider might go around to the start and if he was not trying he might trot around near the inside fence. If he was on - trying - he trotted around by the outside fence; and if he trotted up the middle he was an each-way bet. Another signal was leaving the chin strap tied up or undone when the rider jumped on. It was a signal of trying or not trying and the same went with leaving the feet out of the irons in the birdcage. The rider walked once around the birdcage with his feet out, meaning he was on or off.

It reached absurd lengths when the owners would say, 'If I put a white towel up or a red towel and you're around the barrier you look up to the hotel room and you'll know whether to try or not.' Apparently they used to use umbrellas in the same way, too.

Extract reproduced from Harry - The Ride of My Life, Noel Harris with Wally O'Hearn ($44.99 RRP) with the permission of Hodder Moa.

- NZ Herald

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