The names at the top of the National Hunt trainers’ championship may be familiar, but one of the stories of the jumps season has been the re-emergence of Milton Harris.
Harris amassed 172 winners over a 10-year period before filing for bankruptcy in 2011 and having his licence removed by the British Horseracing Authority.
Following seven years in the doldrums, Harris returned to the training fold in 2018, but having saddled just 30 winners in his first three seasons back on the gallops, it is this campaign where Harris has catapulted himself back into the headlines.
A career-best season has seen Harris earn £596,701 in prize money and although he fell agonisingly short of his £600,000 target, the handler can take comfort from the fact his stable star Knight Salute provided him with his first Grade One success at Aintree.
The consistent juvenile, who won six of his seven starts for Harris in the 2021-22 season, bounced back from a disappointing showing in the Triumph Hurdle to force a dead-heat with Pied Piper in the Jewson Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle, only to be subsequently awarded the race in the Stewards’ room, a result which is subsequently subject to appeal.
“He’s been wonderful, the Irish have appealed the Aintree decision, which to be honest won’t really effect us other than a bit financially if they are successful,” explained Harris
“I feel a bit sorry for him because he probably never gets the credit he deserves. He’s been an absolute star and won six races out of seven and picked up our first Grade One.
“He disappointed at Cheltenham, but I give him the benefit of doubt there as the ground wasn’t right. He’s a proper warrior.”
Although the Grade One victory was an obvious high for the Sutton Veny handler, Harris is also proud of his string’s consistency throughout the season which has come, Knight Salute aside, without a plethora of superstars amongst his ranks.
“The main thing about this year for me is our strike rate, we’re up at 22 percent and for a yard of our size, which without Knight Salute, is probably just running in handicaps, is phenomenal.
“We’ve also done exceptionally well with our bumper horses and we finished the season above 20 percent. If you look at the stats the only yards that normally do that are the ones with lots of good novices and good horses like Nicky (Henderson) and Paul (Nicholls), its normally very hard to get over 20 percent.”
Paddy Brennan has been a man Harris has called upon on the big occasion and has partnered Knight Salute in five of his seven outings. But when Brennan has been otherwise engaged, the Wiltshire-based handler takes great pride in the opportunities he has given to some of the younger members of the weighing room and has been delighted to see three of the jockeys he uses thrive this season.
“This season, we’ve had three jockeys that we use – Mitch Bastyan, Kevin Jones and Harry Reed – all ride their claims out, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. They drive me mad jockeys, but it’s tough love here, they might get a telling off now and again, but its only because I want them to do well and win,” said Harris.
Some may ask how Harris has managed to change his fortunes around, but the handler, who recorded 56 winners in total in the 2021-22 jumps season, is keen to stress there has been no magic wand and just a combination of good old-fashioned graft, mixed in with a little rub of the green.
He continued: “The horses have been healthy and have run well all season. We’ve perhaps had better horses than in the past and that is down to the owners who have supported me, and a lot of credit has to go to the staff – we’ve got good staff. But there’s no magic formula, just hard work and a bit of luck.”
Refusing to rest on his laurels, Harris is already busy hatching a plan on how to better the season’s efforts next term and believes having success over the larger obstacles could be key to climbing the next step on the training ladder.
He said: “This year sets the bar high for next season, but that’s how its supposed to be if you want to keep on improving, and we’ll aim to beat this year’s numbers next season.
“We’ll have a lot more horses, I would say perhaps better-quality horses, and some that you won’t have seen yet, as well as going out and restocking with some novices if possible over the summer.
“Ironically, we don’t have any real chasers in the yard with setting up from scratch, which is where the real money is, and I think next year we’ll have a few more for fences.”
Not shy of naming names, the 63-year-old highlighted one of his charges that has been out of action in 2021-22, as well as a couple of his star bumper performers from this campaign as a trio of names to look out for next season.
“One of our best horses, Stimulating Song, has been out for the season, so we’ve got him to look forward to. At the start of the season he would have been our most talented horse, but he’s had a knock and he’ll come back, go novice chasing, and I have really high hopes for him,” stated Harris.
“Mullenbeg jumps really well so she’ll run in novice hurdles next year and she is one to look forward to, one who I’d hope would take high rank.
“We try not to be bad losers and I was delighted it was Oliver (Sherwood) that beat us the other day, but his filly was getting 15lb off Mullenbeg and in hindsight that looks a big enough ask for our horse, and before that she bumped into a nice horse of Nicky Henderson’s (Luccia) when the ground beat her at Sandown.”
“Oh, and don’t forget Rosy Redrum. Don’t give up on her, she’s just a little ground dependent and she’s much better than she showed at Aintree.”
Buoyed buy the success of 2021-22, Harris is keen to quickly replenish his stock ahead of the new campaign and highlighted the summer jumping months of May, June and July as an area he is eager to target now the scoreboard has been reset.
He explained: “We’ll buy a lot more juveniles again, I enjoy the juvenile hurdlers and bringing young horses through.
“We only had three winners in the first three months of last season and that’s something I want to tackle in May, June and July. We need to get a few on the scoresheet early so we have a healthy start by the time the main season starts in October. I think we’ve got the stock to hopefully do that.”
The season may have drawn to a close, but there is a feeling that in Sutton Veny, Harris is only just getting started.