Thu, 22 Feb 2018
WHERE do I start with this week’s subject? Jockey, trainer, TV personality, comedian, bon viveur.
Luke Harvey is probably the best-known keeper of point-to-pointers in Britain!
But pointing is no part-time hobby for Luke – he cut his teeth as a rider between the flags in the 1980s, riding for the likes of Tim Forster and Henrietta Knight, before a successful career as a professional, including Welsh National success on Cool Ground – and has been a huge fan of the sport since that time.
I went to see him shortly after he won the prestigious Racing Broadcaster of the Year award to chew the fat (and try to avoid having the mickey taken out of me!)
Luke’s story begins in the Devon village of Bampton, where he was the eldest of seven.
“We all rode ponies and hunted with the Tiverton Staghounds,” he recalls. “We weren’t rich, we had free school meals and drove beaten up cars.
Dad had horses but they were all useless and bought for ‘meat money’! I left school at 16 and went to work for Captain Tim Forster,” he continues.
“He used to come down and hunt with us and his ambition was always to win the Devon & Somerset Staghounds Open – I won it for him on When In Rome.”
Luke’s first winner was not, however, on one of Tim’s but on Shining, for Chris Nash at Hackwood Park in 1984. “It was an unwritten rule that the Captain’s amateurs – Mark Wilkinson and Richard Dunwoody before me – rode Colin and Chris Nash’s pointers,” he confirms.
“I was left clear when some of the others ran wide by the horseboxes on the top bend, but there used to be a chute in the middle of the track and I came round the last bend and took the wrong course, so had to pull up.
One of the others caught me up, but luckily the rider fell off!” I wasn’t there that day myself – although I did see Luke ride a double at Siddington in 1985 – but you could interpret the Mackenzie and Selby’s annual comments about the race that way!
Among Luke’s 11 winners between the flags, he’s also keen to mention Game Trust – “My second winner, and Richard Dunwoody’s first.
She won Hunter Chases and didn’t run often, but she was bloody good!” – as well as When In Rome. “I couldn’t hold him,” Luke laughs of the latter. “I was only nine stone when I rode in points, so I would let him bowl along.
I remember at Siddington, I was a long way clear with Gee Armytage on one for John Manners. She fell off and it turned out John hadn’t put the weight cloth on – I was giving her about four stone!”
After three seasons riding in points, Luke turned professional. “I thought I was a multi-millionaire,” he laughs again. “I was getting paid for riding and getting a wage in the yard.
The first thing I did was buy a Ford Escort XR3i… red!” What a dude. Luke had ridden his first winner under rules as an amateur on Bickleigh Bridge for John Roberts at Taunton in 1984 and soon found himself in demand on a bigger stage.
“I won the Coral Golden Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 1987, on Taberna Lord for Jim Wilson,” he tells me. “I was just 20, still claiming an allowance, and naturally assumed I’d have a chance of being champion jockey!”
Luke may never have challenged for a title, but he made the most of his time in the saddle. “I’m jammy,” he confesses. “Reg Akehurst had a horse called Air Broker that kept falling.
I got him round then won four races on him. That got me the job with Reg and I rode horses like Cool Ground and Solidasarock for him. I mostly rode moderate horses,” he admits, “But kept getting on good ones – Country Member, Rubhahunish, Katabatic…”
Luke retired in 1999 after, he reckons, more than 250 career successes. He explains why his first career came to an end. “I started working for the Racing Channel in 1998 and they half offered me a job, but I rode for another year because I was so bad (at broadcasting) when I started that I wanted to mix the two!”
He has a self-deprecating view of his abilities, considering himself “Bloody fortunate” to have got his next role, with Radio 5 Live, but he must have been doing something right. “They were looking for someone to do morning slots,” he tells me. “For three or four years, I got up at half past three every morning to drive into London.”
His TV and radio work led to Luke’s role with At The Races and – eventually – to ITV. “I was sitting outside the pub having a pint when they called me up and said, ‘Fancy doing some work?’” he says casually (although I’m sure it wasn’t quite simple as that).
“They were going to guarantee me 15 days a year and I did a practice, which went well, so they gave me 50!” So what qualities does Luke think he brings to his TV role which have made him Racing Broadcaster of the Year?
“My greatest forte is that I’m passionate and I like talking about horses. On TV, it’s easy to see through people. I say what I think – it’s a leisure industry, it’s supposed to be fun and if you want to attract new people, you’ve got to make them understand the sport.”
Luke is honest about why it took him ten years from quitting the saddle to training his first pointer. “It’s such a bloody commitment.
When I gave up riding and was trying so hard to get into the media, it took up so much time. Also, I’d had enough of horses,” he admits. “Then we got Zaajer, a horse who’d raced for Ed Dunlop and Jim Old, and my brother Dom and I team chased him – I got my mojo back.” Zaajer led to Luke’s first pointer Nawow, who he got from Peter Cundell.
“He ran in three points and was placed a couple of times, but he didn’t stay,” he recalls. “So we ran him in a two-mile chase at Towcester, which he won – he was an absolute legend. My Mum was ill and it was the last time she was able to go racing. It reignited my passion.”
We skip over Luke’s second runner between the flags – “Good horses normally have good names and I went to Ascot and came back with Harry Hedgehog!” – he smiles, before returning to the present.
Luke currently has two pointers in training, Cecil (Porlock Bay) and Willy (Drumlynn). He stables them at Cross Bargain Farm near Kingston Lisle, where he rents a couple of boxes from Ben and Cheryl Elcock. “I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for them – it’s a team effort,” he tells me.
“Cheryl often does my horses and when something goes wrong and I start crying, she tells me to pull myself together! When I started, I knew nothing about horses and my stable management was terrible. But Cheryl and Ben are so meticulous.”
Luke introduces me to Porlock Bay. “Cecil’s one of those horses who loves life. He loves his work – he jig-jogs to the gallop – and is the kindest nicest horse you could have anything to do with.”
He tells me how he got hold of the horse. “(Irish pointing guru) Richard Pugh phoned me up saying he had three horses for me to look at and I just knew Cecil was the one,” Luke says fondly. “He’d had about a dozen runs in Ireland and had been placed a few times, but he’s been a roaring success for me.
To win at Lockinge on my 50th birthday… well, that just doesn’t happen and he improved as a ten-year-old.” At this point, Cheryl chips in. “No, Luke upped his game.”
Porlock Bay injured a ligament after his third win last campaign and took a while to come right, but is in flying form again and will come on for his Higham seasonal debut.
However, as Luke is keen to point out, “If he’s good enough to run in a Hunter Chase, great, but I have pointers because I like pointing and his season is geared around (Luke’s local meeting) Lockinge. I reckon he improved 20 pounds last year,” Luke continues.
“And that the difference is this Strike Free Australian saddle. The tree doesn’t push on his withers and he moves so much better. I wrote about it in the Newbury Weekly News and they gave me a free one” And here’s even more publicity for the manufacturers!
Drumlynn came about over a lunch. “I was asked if I was getting another one and my friend Emily Jones said that doing two horses is easier than doing one. I’d kept in contact with the Rosses, who I got Cecil from and they told me they had one even better,” Luke explains.
“I went to the sales, looked at Willy and loved him. He’d been placed in his last three Irish points and the form had worked out well, but I dropped out at £10,000. Neil Mulholland bought him for £12,500 and said, “You’re a bloody idiot. You should have him – I’d never have looked at him if it wasn’t for you.” Readers can guess the rest…
Drumlynn’s debut run – and win – for Luke actually came in a Worcester bumper last June, for which he was trained by Nicky Henderson. Luke explains why he didn’t run in points last season.
“I got the job at ITV and didn’t have time to do one horse, let alone two. He was ready to run at the end of the season and he was going well working with Nicky’s string, so I thought ‘Fast ground point-to-point or spin in a bumper?’ Luckily he won first time and he’s still eligible for Restricteds.” Luke goes on. “He’s a bit of a sick note – he’s had stitches in his leg where Cecil kicked him – so I’m going to take my time and run him at the end of March. I’d like to think he’d be good enough for the Restricted Final at Stratford.”
Darren Edwards was in the saddle for Porlock Bay’s three victories last season and Luke explains how the connection came about – “His father Gordon used to be our farrier” – before praising and damning the jockey in the same sentence.
“Tactically he’s the best, different class, even though he looks more like Dick Turpin than AP McCoy!” He also professes himself a fan of Connor Brace – “I’m really impressed, he sits well on a horse and isn’t short of self-confidence” – and, unsurprisingly, Gina Andrews, who has also won for Luke.
“I use her if I can. I’d rather not use a jockey I’m not happy with, as I put too much in.”
Luke admits to having a greater passion for pointing than racing under rules. “Pointing’s brilliant,” he laughs yet again.
“I was at Ascot yesterday and looking at what was winning at Barbury between races! I’m lucky – I go to every big flat and jumps meeting but I still look at the pointing website every day, I find it a release. West country points are my favourite – that’s where I come from and I know so many people there. When Cecil got headed at Black Forest Lodge and got back up to win, it brought tears to my eyes.”
“I’d do anything I can to promote pointing,” continues Luke, “And I always try and promote it on Jumpers and Bumpers (the At The Races show he hosts with Jason Weaver). Talking about Cecil is good for pointing and, when he won at Cottenham last season, Jason led him up.”
He’s got the bit between his teeth now and is difficult to rein in! “Under rules you need licences and permits, you can’t do this, you need sponsorship here… It drives me bonkers! I want to put the boots on, lead the horse up, I just get so involved with the horses.
When I was riding, the horse was a tool of work. You get on, then you get off. Doing this, I live and breathe it. Looking after the horses keeps me sane and as long as pointing stays like it is and I’m healthy, I’ll keep doing it.”
Luckily, Luke pauses for breath and suggests that, as the incessant drizzle shows no sign of abating, we adjourn to the Blowing Stone at Kingston Lisle to continue our chat.
“I ran the pub after I retired,” he reminds me over a well-earned pint. “Jim Culloty had his parties here after Best Mate won three Gold Cups and I used to do my Radio 5 Live pieces from here – I’d do the 7 o’clock update, then the cleaning, then the 8 o’clock!”
We turn now to Luke’s views on the state of pointing, about which he is unwaveringly positive. “I’m never afraid of change,” he states firmly. “Look at the Barbury bumper – whatever people say, if you’ve got three divisions of a race, it’s been a success.
Jockeys have claims now (in Open races), there are different penalty structures, anything like that is good. When I started riding, I was probably the only one without an elastic band to make my boots fit! Now the jockeys and horses are so fit.”
Luke cites the number of horses being bought out of British pointing, and the prices they make, as proof of positive change. “Look at those horses of Tom Lacey’s that won at Larkhill.
Why shouldn’t a Fame And Glory horse be worth the same as if it had won in Ireland? It’s been the best start to a point-to-point season that I can remember, with the number of entries, the number of runners… I’ve been four or five times and there’s a great, renewed, enthusiasm.”
Talk of the Lacey Maidens begs the question of whether there is still a place for a small trainer (size of string, not height) like Luke, but he shrugs off any suggestion that he’s fighting an uphill battle.
“I’m not too fussed who wins the races,” he declares. “I’d can be galling to get beaten by a big yard and some of these handlers could train professionally, but there’s still room for people like me – as long as I get my horses fit enough!”
Pressed on one thing he would improve, Luke – unsurprisingly – has a clear view. “I’d introduce more people to pointing.
It doesn’t get the crowds it deserves. Lots of people who go racing have never been to a point. It’s really good that the PPA are doing the videos – the website is excellent and I watch a video of every horse entered against mine, but it needs to get out there to a bigger audience and to attract the casual viewer.
There are loads of opportunities with social media,” Luke continues, “But there is still a certain arrogance and resistance to change and you need to spend money promoting a meeting.
It takes a lot to attract someone with just a passing interest and point-to-points should become a baby county fair with better stalls and better food. People need to treat it as a proper day out. There’s an untapped market.”
“I’ve hunted all my life, it’s how I learned to ride,” is Luke’s enthusiastic response to my probe about one of the big debates in the sport at the moment – the link between pointing and hunting. “I can’t now though, because I work on Saturdays!
I like the link between the two – it’s integral – but in the modern day, things have to change. Pointers out hunting are a pain in the arse – they lose a shoe, they kick someone… Centralisation (of hunter certificate fees) is going to hit some hunts hard but then, if you can afford £150 but don't want to pay £250, should you really be doing it?”
We finish, as ever, on a positive note, as I ask Luke to sum up his views on pointing. “It’s a genuine release for me – I love everything about it.
An owner of Captain Forster’s used to say, ‘The worst bit about owning a horse is when it runs,” and I’m the same – I get so nervous.” The last thing I’d have expected from someone who regularly broadcasts to millions on live TV!