Outspoken and a phenomenal character, the talented Yorkshireman remains one of showjumping’s biggest names, says Jennifer Donald
Ask any member of the public to name a showjumper and the first name to roll off the tongue is likely to be Harvey Smith. It is testament to the Yorkshireman’s brilliance in the saddle – as well as his antics out of it – that even 30 years after he left the sport, he remains one of the world’s most recognised equestrians.
For decades, this likeably controversial and straight-talking character held the nation in thrall, ascending the ranks of a traditionally stuffy, upper-class sport to reign in an era when showjumping was prime time viewing and the leading riders became household names.
Outspoken? Yes. Rebellious? Often. But Harvey will always be remembered for the immense contribution he made to the sport, not only as the ultimate showman, but as an Olympian who represented his country with fierce patriotism and whose desire never to be beaten drove him to win more than 50 grands prix, four Hickstead Derby titles, six championship medals and a swathe of prestigious trophies.
So it’s almost incomprehensible that this astute horseman has never had a riding lesson in his life.
“I just learnt through common sense and natural ability I suppose,” says Harvey, who still lives a stone’s throw from where he grew up in West Yorkshire.
His parents Walter and Ethel ran the family construction business and Harvey briefly joined the industry, but he developed an early affinity with horses thanks to neighbouring farmer Jack Baker.
“I used to ride the local milk pony, whom he took to shows nearby,” he says. “I went down the farm every spare minute I had.”
Harvey was eight when he first remembers competing at Bingley Show, although the roots of his showjumping career weren’t established until he moved on to horses, inspired by watching classes at Todmorden Show in the early 1950s and thinking he could do better.
“I bought my first horse, Farmer’s Boy, in 1954 at auction in York and brought him down on the train,” recalls Harvey, who was 15 at the time and paid 40 guineas for the big, strong Irish gelding.
“He put me on the map. He began jumping clear rounds, then we started winning and it progressed from there.”
The rookie pair first grabbed attention when winning the championship at Southport Flower Show in 1956.
“Everybody was there and the class had about 80 horses in it,” says Harvey. “It was a huge event.”
The next step up the ladder was an appearance at the Royal International at White City in London. “I jumped the only clear round in the King’s Cup. Colonel Harry Llewellyn saw me ride and they put me on the Nations Cup team for Dublin in 1958,” remembers Harvey, who made his international debut against the might of the Americans and French. “We beat them hands down – it was a good start!”
Harvey had also caught the eye of David Broome, who would go on to become one of his greatest friends – as well as his closest competitor. Some of the best sporting eras develop from the fiercest rivalries, and during the illustrious time of David and Harvey they brought the sport into every living room, generating acres of media coverage.
“I first heard about Harvey on the television when he was jumping at White City in 1957 and Dorian Williams sang the song of the moment for him,” recalls David. “Harvey was a different person in those days – he was this quiet lad when I first met him!”
Farmer’s Boy remained the stable star well into his teenage years, taking Harvey to his first big win when slamming more fancied rivals in the leading showjumper of the year at Wembley in 1959, the national championship at Blackpool, and he was the first horse Harvey rode round the Hickstead Derby at the inaugural running in 1961.
Harvey’s first impression of Douglas Bunn’s innovative track was that it “came naturally” to him and in 1970 he lifted the trophy for the first time, winning back-to-back titles with Mattie Brown, following up in 1974 with Salvador and adding a fourth title in 1981 on Sanyo Video, a catch ride from his son Robert. In over 25 years he only missed the 1972 Derby, suffering from kidney trouble.
Hickstead and Harvey will always be intrinsically linked, not least for the famous V-sign incident in 1971 where BBC cameras caught Harvey’s two-fingered salute towards the directors’ box as he crossed the finish as that year’s Derby winner.
“That was all part of life in those days and it was only blown up because Dougie Bunn used it as an advertising gimmick – I always got on well with him though,” says Harvey, who claimed he was copying Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory”.
The story made the front pages across the world, with The Sun running the splash: “That told them HarVee”. He was initially disqualified for the misdemeanour, but later reinstated as the winner.
On his next visit to the West Sussex venue, Harvey teamed up with Graham Fletcher, Paddy McMahon and David Broome to win the Nations Cup. Graham remembers: “As soon as we went in for the prize giving, Harvey said: ‘Come on fellas, let’s all give Dougie the V-sign’ – obviously done in fun. But that was typical Harvey – we haven’t just won this, we’re going to milk the situation.
“In those days there was no money in Nations Cups but, despite Harvey’s great love for money, there was no one more passionate when it came to jumping on teams.”
Harvey helped Great Britain win two silver medals at the European Championships in Vienna in 1977 and Hickstead in 1983. His first individual medal came aged 24 in 1963 when he won bronze riding Warpaint. Four years later, he and Harvester claimed silver behind David Broome in Rotterdam, then in 1971 he came home with silver again, riding Evan Jones.
In a thrilling moment for British fans, David and Harvey made it through to the final four at the 1970 World Championships, where the Welshman won the title but Harvey wasn’t far behind, taking bronze on the brilliant Mattie Brown.
“I was so very close with those silver medals – I was always just beaten on time or faults, but that’s life I suppose,” he shrugs with typical God’s-own-country resolve.
Harvey was piqued to be left at home for the 1964 Olympics with selectors claiming his horses were over-travelled, but he went on to represent Great Britain in Mexico in 1968 with Madison Time, where Marion Coakes (Stroller) and David (Mr Softee) won medals, and just missed a podium finish in 1972 when the team finished fourth.
Harvey’s sons with first wife Irene, Robert and Steven, became the second generation of Smith family Olympians as they forged stellar careers of their own, dominating the sport as a trio during the early 1980s.
Harvey’s success rate in major classes was phenomenal, but one gives him most satisfaction.
“My proudest achievement would be winning the John Player Trophy, the grand prix of Great Britain, seven times,” says Harvey, whose first victory came in 1962 with O’Malley, and three times with Harvester.
He made a great name for himself overseas too, becoming only the second British rider to win the Rome grand prix in 1963, and landed the Aachen grand prix in 1977 with Graffiti, a performance that impressed his opponent John Whitaker.
“Graffiti was a big winner, an unbelievable speed horse, but you never thought he was capable of winning Aachen – Harvey needed all his strength to get him round and that was something special,” says John. “But Harvey really got the best out of horses.”
It was from a show in Paris that David Broome recalls “typical Harvey” off the field.
“We always got invited to different functions at these shows – we were never the most enthusiastic participants, I’ll be honest – but this time we were invited to the palace,” he remembers. “When we arrived, Harvey realised he had forgotten his invitation. Typical Harvey, he went to bluff his way in but the guard pulled out his gun and pointed it straight at him. He got the fright of his life, I’m sure he’d never had a gun pulled on him before! I think that’s the only time I’ve ever seen Harvey climb down actually…”
So what was the secret to Harvey’s phenomenal success in the ring?
“We live in a lovely place to get the horses ready, you see – we ride them out over the moors, whereas other people get them ready in little sand paddocks,” explains Harvey, who would casually jump five-bar gates and stone walls with his showjumpers at home. “Our horses were always a bit fitter than everyone else’s. We’ve found the same with the racehorses as well.
“In my lifetime I won most of the grands prix all over the world and we went on to win the Grand National too, so horse-wise I don’t think there’s anyone done much better.”
Harvey clearly knows horses inside out and he was blessed with some real stars along the way including Madison Time, Mattie Brown, Salvador, O’Malley and Warpaint.
“I can’t pick favourites,” he states. “When you think I was there over 40 years, it’s a right load of top-class horses so it would be wrong to start picking and choosing. I had good speed horses, good puissance horses, good grand prix horses. But I used to get everyone else’s cast-offs – that were [sic] my job, making them into something good.”
But as well as his knack for nurturing equine misfits, Harvey’s ring craft was exceptional. He inspired riders following in his wake with his will to win – or rather his dislike of being beaten. He was the master of the quick turn and always found the shortest route from A to B.
“If Harvey was in a jump-off, you knew you had a challenge on your hands,” explains David Broome. “He produced rounds that were absolutely unbeatable so you gave in to them. But I think we were lucky to have each other. In a lot of sports, people arrive two at a time and they drive each other on. Harvey did that to me and I think I motivated him too – not that he needed much motivation.
“Absolutely we were the best of mates – but it all stopped when we went in the ring. We watched each other like hawks.”
One of Harvey’s favourite classes was the take-your-own-line, and David remembers one in particular.
“He had created a course of a one-stride double on the angle to a Liverpool oxer on one stride – it just wasn’t on,” says David. “But bugger me, if Harvey and The Sea Hawk, who was a little South African blood horse, jumped it on the one stride. Then what did he do? He turned round and did it again. I was in awe.”
Although a tough and fiery competitor, who worked his horses hard in the ring, Harvey was stylish, too, and Enid Whitaker, matriarch of the showjumping clan, encouraged her sons to learn from him. As a self-made fellow Yorkshireman, Harvey was a natural icon to the young Whitakers.
“As a kid I used to copy everything he did – even down to riding in green wellies,” says John. “So when I first beat Harvey Smith at Harrogate one year, I really thought I’d made it.”
The blunt-talking Harvey endured a love-hate relationship with the press. He had a weekly column in The Sun, which again got him into trouble but only served to endear him further to the public.
“He never regarded it as a poncy sport that was only for the elite – he brought showjumping to all sections of life,” explains Graham Fletcher. “But one thing he isn’t given enough credit for is that Harvey believed that showjumpers were there to entertain – showjumping was show business. I learnt a lot through him in that respect.
“As the sport became more internal, he had a job coming to terms with course-builders who are so technical. ‘What about the public?’ he’d say. ‘Are they interested in it, where is the climax of the competition?’”
‘I’m not retired!’
Harvey hung up his showjumping boots in 1990 but there’s been no inclination to put up his feet.
“I’m not retired, I’m still going!” stresses Harvey, who turns 82 later this year and still likes to be up at the crack of dawn with the string of racehorses his wife Sue trains at Craiglands Farm, near Bingley – his home for the past 50 years. “It was just a progression from one sport to another.”
Their crowning moment on the track came in 2013 when they sent out Auroras Encore to win the Grand National.
“Nowadays, I’m happiest when the horses are winning – that’s what we’re interested in and how I’d like to be remembered, as a winner,” says Harvey.
He still follows showjumping, “but the shows in England have gone dead – it wants a big shake-up,” he says.
“There’s no way to progress – it’s all gone into computer systems and it’s killed the sport.
“David and I definitely saw the best of showjumping, it will never be the same again. But I have no regrets, I had a good innings in the sport,” sums up Harvey.
Perhaps this national sporting icon will always be remembered as this controversial character, but there is so much more to admire.
“He is kind-hearted, generous and a good soul,” says David. “The world will remember him for his two-finger salute – that was Harvey I suppose – but he should also be remembered for his determination, pluck and the fact he never gave up. They don’t come any tougher than Harvey.
“I was just privileged that he was around while I was and I thank him for all his sportsmanship.”
Harvey Smith may have been a household name then, but he’s become a legend now.
David Broome on Harvey
“Harvey was wonderful for our sport – many sports people make the back pages of the newspapers, but Harvey could make the front pages, too.
“He loved boxing, and at the Mexico Olympics, athletes could go and watch any other competitions. Invariably you saw Harvey on the telly at night at the boxing venue – he used to put on his tracksuit, towel round his neck and off he went to watch from the front row.
“We used to do our own thing in the afternoons and he came back all excited one day and said, ‘Eh Basil’ – he always called me Basil – ‘I’ve seen a fella jumping over a fence backwards!’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It turned out that Dick Fosbury was attempting the first-ever ‘flop’ in the high jump and Harvey was there to see it. He couldn’t get over that.
“When we meet up now – and it might be 12 months since we last saw each other – we carry on talking as if we’d stopped yesterday. The lovely thing is, we’ve all enjoyed his company.”
Did you know?
- Harvey’s luxury item when he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1971 was a radio receiver, and his favourite track was Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago.
- In 1975, Harvey recorded a version of Cole Porter’s True Love.
- Jilly Cooper once described him as “Heathcliff on horseback”.
- Harvey was the first British rider to turn professional.
- In 2012 Harvey carried the Olympic torch through York racecourse, lighting the cauldron in front of a 25,000-strong crowd.
- During the 1970s he took up professional wrestling, which was shown on ITV’s World of Sport every Saturday. Harvey entered the ring wearing a large V on the back of his velvet robe.
- He even has a knocker on his back door in the shape of a V.
John Whitaker on Harvey
“The name Harvey Smith and showjumping go hand in hand. He caught the attention of normal people with his rough-and-ready character and did a massive amount for the popularity of the sport. Harvey could ride a difficult horse using his strength, but he could also ride a sensitive one – he had lots of feeling.
“He was also a good singer. He used to have two dustbin lids which he used for barbecues round the county shows and at a certain point each evening, he’d say, ‘How does it go?’ and he’d start a sing-song. They were good times.”
Three of Harvey’s bargain buys
- Mattie Brown: bought in Ireland in 1968. The seller, Paddy Griffin, wanted £40,000 for him, but after Harvey saw him stop three times at the first fence in Dublin, he offered him £2,000. Paddy was worried what he’d tell his neighbours, so Harvey said he’d issue him a dud cheque for the full amount, which Paddy could show them, then he’d pay him a cheque for £2,000. Mattie Brown was then the leading money winner the following year, won the Hickstead Derby twice, the King George V Gold Cup and world championship bronze.
- O’Malley: Harvey described him as either unbeatable or “solid useless” due to being sensitive in the mouth. But he was brilliant at puissance, clearing 7ft and winning in New York, Toronto, Washington and in Germany.
- Warpaint: a £300 bargain buy from Leicester sales in 1961. Harvey had followed his career but the horse had a mind of his own and if he decided he’d gone far enough, he’d refuse to budge from the corner of the ring. But when he wanted to do the job, there were few better; Warpaint won some of the biggest classes in Europe.
Harvey’s career in numbers
2 Olympic appearances
7 wins in the John Player Troph
6 championship medals
The first man to jump in 100 World Cup qualifiers, in 1989
Won more than 50 grands prix
£2,000 His prize after being reinstated as the winner of the 1971 Hickstead Derby – he was the first rider to win it back-to-back
4 Hickstead Derby win
Ref Horse & Hound; 17 September 2020