Shrugging off the urban outskirts of Leeds, climbing steadily into prosperous, leafy-lane villages, the final destination has a recurring capacity to surprise. Just above Bingley, south of the fabled Ilkley, the moor stretches wide and bleak, its near horizon dominated by a curious cocktail of architecture, animals and machinery.
Craiglands Farm is not, by any stretch of imagination, a showpiece racing stable. No manicured lawns here, no modern barns with airflow technology. Its message is far less pretentious, and none the worse for that. “When Trevor Hemmings first came here,” Harvey Smith recalls, “he had a look around, nodded his head and said, ‘I like it. I think a lot of work gets done here.’”
Hemmings, whose wealth was earned entirely by toil and enterprise, has had horses here almost since Sue Smith, wife of Harvey, took out a licence 25 years ago. “He’s family to us,” they agree. Yet the three of them are also prominent representatives of the wider family of northern jumps racing, a family that has fallen on hard times.
The new system the BHA has brought in for novice hurdles will kill horses and injure jockeys
Sue is sitting in the window of the conservatory, a lived-in extension of soft chairs and dog baskets with a view across most of West Yorkshire. The sun is shining as seldom before in this wettest of years and the trainer looks as if she is mentally back at the villa in Spain where she and Harvey spend their biannual holidays.
It is, of course, an illusory impression. Sue Smith may be smartly dressed and looks far younger than the looming 65th birthday dictates but it is her work ethic that has set the standards at this idiosyncratic yard. Despite a lack of wealthy patrons (Hemmings apart), the consistency has been remarkable. Another couple of years might see her to 1,000 jumps winners.
Yet what can be divined from her smiling presence in the picture window is a new state of mind. “I am more relaxed about the job now,” she says. “I still ride out every day but one or two rather than the four or five I used to ride. I oversee everything but we’ve got a very good lad now, in Ryan Clavin. He’s grown up with us since he was 15, he’s listened and learned from us and now he is a very active assistant who does a lot of the training.
“Five or six years ago it was hard work. I was very hands-on, always setting targets. It felt like a lot hanging round my neck and I did worry more then. Now, I look at things a bit differently – I have to, because of the way racing in the north has gone. If we can contest Cheltenham, that’s great, but it’s not going to break our hearts any more if we can’t.”
The first good-natured harrumph of the day comes from the chair across the room. “When she was busier, it stopped her nagging so much,” Harvey puts in, before digressing sharply into a tirade about the foolish timing of the late-summer breaks in the jumps calendar.
Time spent with this couple is never less than rewarding. They agree on most things but bicker routinely. Sue tells Harvey to stop interrupting her with yet another cantankerous view, expressed in that wide-eyed mix of outrage and humour that could surely have got him dates as a stand-up comic to go with his back catalogue as a part-time wrestler and singer.
There are times, when in full flow, that Harvey Smith reminds the listener of nobody so much as Les Dawson in his pomp. The difference is that Smith is utterly serious in his points and more deeply concerned about the sport of jump racing than anyone. Indeed, its decline in northern England over recent years would be far more pronounced, and quite possibly fatal, but for the constant heckling and hectoring of this extraordinary character.
Of course, Smith has never bowed meekly to authority. His showjumping career was decorated with medals yet is remembered just as much for the V-sign he awarded the judges at the 1971 British Derby. His ability to make a controversial point and still see the funny side is exemplified by a model hand making the same gesture, pinned for years on his back door.
Tea is served and Sue is called away to the phone. Harvey is now in full flow. He has his pet subjects – handicappers are the dartboards of his life – but he has a knack of articulating and amplifying issues that others may suffer in silence. Though 74 this year, his mind is sharp with reforming zeal and his energy appears boundless.
“I’ve taken notes of what’s been going on in this novice chase business,” he begins, and produces them on cue. “We’re getting horses rated 140 and 60 in the same race, they’re going off at a holy shemozzle” – too fast, I think he means – “and so you get two or three down. This new system the BHA has brought in will kill horses and injure jockeys.
“When horses first go chasing, it’s a new discipline to them. They’ve been going fast over hurdles and they need to go slower over fences. All these novices should earn a handicap mark, not be given it, yet under this system there might be two good horses racing up front and another ten in behind just jollying round.
“It’s a system that has been created behind closed doors without having any horse sense put into the equation. It’s been done by academics. I know they want proper field sizes but this is the wrong way of going about it.
“They need to get a lot of trainers in a room to sort it out – but Paul Bittar must be there, too. I’ve got time for him.” Indeed, the Chief Executive of the BHA continues to impress even his more sceptical constituencies by engaging and listening.
“I had an hour and a half with him at Wetherby and he took all my points on board,” Smith says.
Until recently, Wetherby was high on his hit list, along with Haydock, Newcastle and other northern Grade 1 tracks that, in Smith’s view, were producing poor ground conditions and too much poor quality racing. “Haydock and Wetherby have improved,” he declares.
“They had both suffered after realigning their tracks – you can’t suddenly create the 50-year-old turf that makes for good jumping ground. But they have listened and improved. Do you know what’s been the difference at Wetherby? Pig slurry. It was our idea and it’s put nature back into the ground.
“But they all need to stop putting on so much low-grade racing. In National Hunt, no horse with a rating below 80 should be allowed to run. Then you could have three bands – 80-105, 105-130 and 130 and over. They have too many categories now.
“And another thing,” he says with the evident disgust of one convinced that horses are born to jump. “There are too many of these Flat-bred things in National Hunt racing. People are going out and paying 200 or 300 grand for these flatty things.
“They don’t last and they might win a couple of hurdle races worth three grand apiece, so where’s the logic? In my view there should be more National Hunt hurdle races.”
Sue returns to stem the tide. What about the problems of finding owners in the north? “We’re lucky to be self-sufficient here,” she explains. “It’s our own place, we have our own wagons, make our own hay and source the best bedding as cheaply as we can.
“We keep everything sensible and a good few of the horses are ours – Harvey has always liked to have his own. But it is hard to find new owners, they just aren’t around.”
Harvey, silent for a full minute, interjects. “Graham Wylie was the worst thing that happened to racing up here. He paid fortunes for his horses, took them to places like Musselburgh to clean up, then when Howard Johnson was put out of business he sent them all to Ireland and down south, saying there were no trainers in the north!”
We move on to jockeys, another subject close to Harvey’s heart. In the years the Smiths have been training horses, they have also trained a wide variety of jockeys, with notable success. “I had Jim Crowley here for five years before he went Flat racing,” Harvey says. “Richard Guest was washed up when he came here but we got him back to win the National.
“We’ve got a lad now called Jonathan England who was a bit wild but we’re getting him straight.
“You’ve got to be hard on them – if they behave themselves, they will get rides. But it’s also very relaxed up here. We ride them out on the moor three or four times a week and you can quieten anyone with enough work.
“The trouble with too many of them is they go to Racing School and ride a winner, then they get a car and think they can just drive up and down the motorway and that’s their apprenticeship done.”
Neither Harvey nor Sue has any such misgivings about Ryan Mania, who will ride the majority of their 50-horse string this season, most notably the high-grade chasers Mr Moonshine, Auroras Encore and Stagecoach Pearl. “He’s class and he doesn’t know it,” Harvey states.
Craiglands has been home to Harvey for almost 50 years. “I bought it for £7,600, with 20 acres of land,” he comments with that Yorkshire pride in a bargain. “We’ve just kept adding bits on. My youngest son lives on the farm and trains his showjumpers.”
This led to talk of the Olympics, which the Smiths watched on TV – “we thought there’d be too much hustle and bustle” – after Harvey had ridden up York racecourse with the Olympic torch. “I couldn’t believe it, 26,000 people turned up,” he says, promptly producing the pictures and his replica torch.
Neither of them is certain of the long-term future for their racing operation but that should not indicate discontentment. Sue says: “It’s still a way of life. We have the right number of horses now and the set-up is good.
“It’s not the poshest place on earth but they are warm, well-fed and happy horses. We don’t gallop them all the time, there’s a lot of long, steady work, and after they’ve been racing I will ride them out on the moors for a day or two. We’ve had owners who can’t understand how our horses are so relaxed, but it’s just the nature of the place.
“We’re in good order now and I’m looking forward to the season. If Ryan carries on as he is, we’ll continue. But the older you get, the harder it is and you can’t be held by racing all your life.
“If it came to the point where we couldn’t earn money because of the way racing has gone up north, we would stop.”
‘The National should be run only on soft ground’
The Smiths have never come close to winning the Grand National but that does not diminish their enthusiasm for it. Characteristically, Harvey has his own proposal for remedying the welfare issues that continue to plague the great race.
“They should not run the National on anything but soft ground,” he says. “That’s the one thing that needs to happen.
“They’ve done things all wrong by bringing the fences and the weights down and letting them run on quick ground. The horses need slowing down and the three ways to do it are by raising the fences and weights, and softening the ground.
“At the moment, they leave it too much to chance and you can’t do that in this world. I would make it a condition of the race that if they don’t come up with soft ground, they don’t run it.”
There is no disagreement from his wife. “The faster the ground is, the faster they will go,” Sue says. “We both think they should put a new fence in before the first, to slow them down at the start.
“I’d love to win a National, it’s a race in a million, but sadly the do-gooders will try to do away with it.”