Sunday 22 October 2017

'It's tough -- but the good days always outweigh the bad' on the positive for New Year, writes Richard Forristal

No room for regrets as devoted Harding focuses

Brian Harding raises his arm in the winner's enclosure after riding Ferdy Murphy's Granit D'Estruval to victory in the 2004 Irish Grand
National at Fairyhouse
Brian Harding raises his arm in the winner's enclosure after riding Ferdy Murphy's Granit D'Estruval to victory in the 2004 Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse

When last Monday's Lexus Chase was postponed because of the dense fog that descended on Leopardstown, frustration abounded at the prospect of having to wait another 24 hours before seeing how things would transpire.

The Grade One had promised to be hugely informative and the hold-up delayed the process of finding out where the supposed challengers to Kauto Star and Denman were really at.

What's more, it complicated life for a number of jockeys, many of whom had alternative engagements on the Tuesday. Regrettably, Brian Harding wasn't one of those riders affected by the weather's intervention.

Harding watched the race from the confines of his own home in the north of England, when he might reasonably have been expected to be aboard Money Trix in the Lexus.

A long-term servant of Nicky Richards' Cumbrian yard and with a good record for the owner Craig Bennett (he has ridden Bennett's three winners this season), Harding's record on Money Trix, in particular, ought to have sealed the deal.

Three times he had ridden the horse, three times he had won on him. By any standards, it seemed a match made in heaven, but Davy Russell was booked to ride.

"I'll be at Catterick instead," Harding commented in the days preceding the race without a hint of bitterness, though clearly disappointed at being passed over. "Sure, who knows," he mused stoically, "maybe I'll ride a few winners there."

As it turned out, Harding didn't even have the consolation of Catterick, Monday's fixture at one of racing's bleakest outposts lost to four inches of snow. His Tuesday destination of Musselburgh also fell to the elements, meaning that the Cork-born rider had time aplenty to dwell on events in motherland. Such is the lot of a freelance jockey.

Under Russell, Money Trix ran in snatches before nearly grabbing victory from What A Friend in the shadow of the post. One comedian was subsequently heard to ponder what might have been "if only the grey (Money Trix) had a proper jockey up."

Although uttered tongue-in-cheek in deference to Harding's loss as opposed to a slight on Russell, it's not unreasonable to wonder what might have been if Money Trix had been partnered by someone who could claim to be as intimate with his intricacies as Harding. Ever the diplomat, though, Harding won't go there.

prove

"Those big races are the ones everyone wants to win," he admits after watching the race, "but it was nice to see Money Trix run well and prove that he's a fair horse. I've been in the game long enough to know that you've just got to get on with it. Of course, you're sick when you lose out. Racing is a funny old game -- it can be fickle -- but when you do get to sit on horses like that and win on them, at least you know you're capable of doing the job."

Harding, of course, is not the first jockey to have been shunned for a marquee name. Were it needed, he might have taken solace in watching Sam Thomas partner the Alex Ferguson-owned What A Friend to victory.

Thomas had also scored three times previously on that horse, and was last seen on him snapping at the heels of the mighty Denman when second in the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Yet on Monday, Thomas was shovelling coal at Chepstow, while Barry Geraghty got acquainted with What A Friend on the way to the aborted start.

Twenty-four hours is a long time in racing, as Harding will attest to. Back in March 1998, circumstance favoured him. On the first day of the Cheltenham festival, Tony Dobbin got incapacitated in a fall from Direct Route in the Arkle Chase.

Dobbin had been due to steer the iconic One Man in the following day's Champion Chase for Nicky Richards' father Gordon, and it was to Harding that the old doyen turned in Dobbin's absence.

Having only just returned from a year on the sidelines courtesy of a fractured skull, no less, Harding needed such a show of faith to re-ignite his career. A couple of months later, he received a first Lester Award for 'Ride of the Year' in recognition of his performance on One Man. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and all that.

"I had only been back four months," he says of that famous conquest, "so it was a very big shout on Gordon's behalf to put me up. The whole thing was unbelievable; to win a Queen Mother Champion Chase on a horse like that -- everyone loved him."

But racing can be fickle. When Harding and One Man next stepped out at Aintree, the latter failed to return. Richards himself passed within another six months and was replaced at the helm at Greystoke by his son. Notwithstanding a brief stint as stable jockey to Martin Todhunter, Harding has remained part of the furniture in the village yard, though without ever fully winning the younger Richards' confidence.

Dobbin retained the No 1 slot until his retirement 18 months ago, at which point Davy Condon was flown in to replace him. When that loveless embrace ran its course, Richards eschewed nominating a stable jockey, but Harding has since made the most of more frequent Greystoke bookings. With a young family to support, cutting ties was never an option, and a thick skin a prerequisite.

"To be honest," Harding explains, "I was always happy enough being No 2 when Dobbs was here. When he left, I was disappointed that I didn't get the job, but it didn't happen and you've just got to put your head down and keep working away. I rode a lot of winners for other trainers last year and I enjoyed that, and, the way things have fallen this year, I've got on a few good ones at Nicky's now that Davy is gone.

"When I first came to England it was to Greystoke that I came, so I've been around here most of my life really. I suppose I'm a bit set in my ways -- I'm a bit old to start moving around now! Even going back to when One Man won the Queen Mother, I was working on the yard seven days a week, and I'm still in there three or four days now. And Nicky and I never fell out -- I enjoy going in there -- so I'm just glad to get what rides I do get from there."

Not everyone could be quite so magnanimous, but such an industrious ethos and humility have enabled Harding to fashion a 20-year career in a profession that doesn't promise longevity when you sign up.

Recently turned 37, he now occupies the dreaded end-peg in the weighing room. Next stop, the door.

Since Gordon Richards first took him under his wing on the recommendation of Kevin Prendergast -- whom he rode winners for as an apprentice -- Harding has plied his trade largely away from the glamour meetings, to the point where he is now within touching distance of 400 career wins. While Tony McCoy might ride as many in two good seasons as opposed to decades, the champion would be the first to acknowledge the unyielding steel that sees Harding keep on keeping on.

commitment

And like so many of his ilk -- journeymen, if you like -- he has endured a small hospital's worth of injuries along the way. In light of his commitment to the game, then, it was fitting that Harding captured a second 'Lester' last season, this time a special recognition award that was voted on by his weighing-room peers.

Lured into racing's net by a combination of his grá for the few racehorses that were always at home on his father's farm and his awe of the dizzy heights reached by Jonjo O'Neill, a fellow Castletownroche native, Harding's durability was also rewarded with a fantastic success on Granit D'Estruval for Ferdy Murphy in the 2004 Irish Grand National. Again, it was a spare ride. Again, he fulfilled his brief with aplomb.

Typically, when Brian Harding looks back, he does so with gratitude. "I remember as a kid watching Jonjo winning on Dawn Run and the like at Cheltenham, and that was every young fella's dream if you were into horses. But it's one thing dreaming it and another doing it, so to have had the career that I have had, and to ride a Cheltenham winner, it has been great.

"If you had told me that I'd do what I have when I was a young fella, I'd have taken it -- you'd have to be happy. It's a tough business and for all the good days there are plenty of bad days along the way, but, as a rule, thankfully the good ones outweigh the bad ones."

Irish Independent

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