In an increasingly difficult financial climate when even long-established trainers with solid reputations are being forced to the wall, Milton Harris is among a handful who are bucking the trend by thriving. Harris has had a colourful career, for having mixed with Hollywood stars Cary Grant, Stewart Granger and Dorothy Lamour during a decade or so working on cruise ships in his twenties, his first spell as a trainer ended in bankruptcy. The battle to get his licence back was long and frustrating but since resuming from new premises in Sutton Veny in 2018 he has gone from strength to strength. His career-best 56 winners in the last jumps season included a first Grade 1 at Aintree and he is also starting to make his mark on the Flat.
My bankruptcy wasn’t racing-related. It was personal. The bank always wants to lend you an umbrella when it’s sunny, but they won’t let you have one when it’s raining. I was asset rich and cash poor, and I went from having a £1 million overdraft on my personal account to not being able to borrow a tenner. It was nobody’s fault but mine, but I’d got myself from a standing start with no background in racing to the Premier League – albeit the relegation zone – and if it hadn’t happened I’d have been in the top ten by now. Hopefully I might get there this season, or very close. But to be clear, I wasn’t warned off and my licence was never taken off me.
When I went bankrupt I was broke. There was no money salted away. Perhaps I should have walked away and come back when I was financially on my feet again, but racing gets under your skin. Luckily I had good friends who I could manage some horses for, and those good friends are still with me now. It was a constant fight to get my licence back and I had a couple of failed applications.
The sooner you realise life isn’t fair the better, whether you are a racehorse trainer or a plumber. My seven or eight years in the wilderness have acted as a real spur. I keep fighting and maybe there’s an element of sticking two fingers up to the bureaucracy. You wouldn’t do this job if you weren’t passionate about it. My work ethic is good and I’ve bought well, but most importantly I have excellent staff. Like most of us, I wish I was ten years younger with the knowledge I now have.
I’m not whiter than white – but I believe that everybody deserves a second chance. I’m involved in an experimental scheme with an owner who has a large company which does prison rehabilitation, predominantly for women. Racing is struggling for staff, and when offenders are released the Prison Service struggles to find them employment and accommodation. Racing can provide both. The idea is to talk to young, lowgrade offenders and get them six to eight weeks of in-house training from an equine expert. If they show enough initiative and enthusiasm, they can then go on to the British Racing School or the equine world and find a fresh purpose in life.
We came back with eight horses and two members of staff, and I was mucking them out and washing them down myself. We’ve gradually built things up, but if I’m a better trainer now it’s probably because I’m a better delegator. Tony Charlton, my senior assistant, has been in racing all his life, but under him are a lot of very good young people, mostly girls who arrived with no experience. In the last 18 months we haven’t had a single sick day, and I’m so proud that they feel that they are part of something.
I think not having a racing background has been an advantage. I don’t have preconceived ideas and I’m always looking for an angle. I’ll train for anyone, so long as they are straightforward, and we treat everyone the same. Remember, it’s probably harder for the owner who spends £200 a month than it is for the man who spends £20,000 a month.
We try to be selective and our strike-rate under both codes is around 20 per cent. We are mainly jumps, but I like the Flat too and when Postmark won a Racing League race at Lingfield he basically won his training fees for the jumps season, which is what he was bought for. We love bringing on young horses and we’ve done very well in bumpers with the likes of Mullenbeg and Twin Jets. I’d love to have two-year-olds too, but you can’t just have two or three. You need ten of them to bring each other along.
There’s too much self interest in our sport – and I do think there’s too much racing. Some tracks are better than others – I’m thinking Fakenham, Ludlow and Stratford, for example, the independents who put in their own money – and we should support them. We have to race Saturday and Sunday, as that’s our best chance to get the public in, but I don’t for the life of me know why we have to race every Monday and Tuesday. Couldn’t we give staff and jockeys a quiet day or two?
There are probably too many trainers, too. Too many are just doing it as a hobby, and I don’t see it as a hobby. At the other end of the scale, I don’t think it’s healthy for the sport to have so much horse power concentrated in stables of 200 or 250. Mind you, it’s even harder in Ireland if your name isn’t Willie, Henry or Gordon.
I promised myself when I came back that when I left again it would be on my own terms. I actually came close to stopping during that long delay for the photo and then the stewards’ enquiry after we won the Grade 1 at Aintree with Knight Salute. That day I felt that I’d achieved what I set out to do, but I’ve got an obligation and a loyalty to those owners and staff who have seen me through to this point. However, there’s no doubt that I will stop one day on my terms – not on the way down, but on the way up.