New Zealand racing lost the patriarch of a racing dynasty with the death last Saturday of Jock (John William) Harris. His family has been flooded by phone calls and messages since his death, just a couple of months short of his 90th birthday. No sooner had his son Noel put up a message on Facebook than friends from around the world were responding with their condolences for a humble man who touched so many lives, a great all-round horseman who handed down his skills to his family and others.
His oldest three sons, John, Des and Noel, were all leading apprentice jockeys, topping the New Zealand apprentice table for six years in succession from 1967-68, and his other three children, Peter, Karen and Jenny, also rode raceday with Peter making an impression on the flat before being the country’s leading jumps jockey for the 1976-77 season.
Like his father, John went on to several highlights as a trainer, as did Des, and both celebrated Group One success, while Peter also enjoyed training success on a small scale, his highlight being Royal Secret’s win in the 2004 Group 2 Hawke’s Bay Cup (2200m).
Royal Secret was ridden by Noel, who became the star jockey of the family and is a member of the elite 2000-win club in New Zealand. After also enjoying notable success in Australia and further afield, Noel is now putting that vast experience (much of it instilled in him by his father) to educate the country’s apprentice jockeys in his role as National Riding Mentor, while his son, Troy, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a Group 1-winning jockey.
Jock Harris proudly followed the fortunes of his family and got joy from their success. One such proud occasion was 30 years ago when his family gathered to celebrate his 60th birthday. That same year (1990) his sons Noel and John combined as jockey and trainer to win the Group 1 Sydney Cup (3200m) with King Aussie and Noel recorded his 1000th win in New Zealand. But just a couple of days later celebration turned into mourning when Jock’s dear wife, Daphne, passed away, leaving a massive hole in the lives of the Harris clan.
Harris had retired from training a couple of years earlier, pulling down the curtain on a career in which constant hard work and determination saw him succeed, just as he had done so as a jockey when continuously battling with his weight. Harris was born in New Plymouth and left school at 15 to be a jockey, having been encouraged by his father to sign up with trainer George New at Awapuni. New had educated such top jockeys as Bill Broughton, Vic Dye, Jim Hely, Stewart and Bubs Waddell and George Tattersall.
He began his apprenticeship in 1945 and, after serving nine months before he could ride raceday, victory came in his 26th ride, aboard Blank Cheque at Hastings on April 12, 1947. When New retired he completed the remaining six months of his apprenticeship with Stratford trainer Bill Fowler before returning to Awapuni. Harris mixed flat and jumps riding and excelled in both roles, kicking home 367 winners. In the 1955-56 season he finished second-equal to Bob Skelton on the New Zealand Jockeys’ Premiership.
Through it all he had to keep his weight in check, but, after a rare splurge when suspended, his weight ballooned to 11 stone 1 lb (just over 70kg). However, nine days later he resumed riding and rode at just under 8st 8 lb (almost 54.5kg). He had lost an incredible lost 2st 7lb (15.5kg). As well as running every day, he’d often even sit in the dung heap with sweaters on to lose weight. That sheer determination was needed to keep riding.
Harris rode the +7700 longshot Tesla to win the 1954 Easter Handicap (1600m) at Ellerslie and Tesla also provided him with his greatest thrill when winning the 1955 Auckland Cup (3200m). His other major flat wins included the New Zealand Derby (2400m) – Great Northern Derby (2400m) double on Programme, the 1955 New Zealand Oaks (2400m) on Gentle Lu, the 1959 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) on Gayfair and the 1958 New Zealand St Leger (2800m) on Rover.
A tactical rider, Harris was remembered for his ride on the champion sprinter Fountainhead when second to Lawful in the 1958 Great Northern Derby (2400m) at Ellerslie. Other major races he won included the Awapuni Gold Cup (2000m), the Manawatu Cup (2400m), the Wellington Stakes (1200m), the Desert Gold Stakes (1600m), the Hawke’s Bay Guineas (1600m; twice), the Eulogy Stakes (1600m; twice), the Anniversary Handicap (1600m)1, the Whyte Handicap (1600m; twice), the Awapuni Hurdles (3000m) and the Eric Riddiford Steeplechase (4800m).
The highlight of Harris’ jumps success was winning on Aligarh in the 1955 Wellington Steeplechase (5400m), the same race his son Peter won 26 years later aboard The Assassin. Harris also trained Fleeting Moment to win the 1969 Wellington Steeplechase as well the Manawatu Cup (2200m) and the Parliamentary Handicap (2200m) and finish third in the 1965 New Zealand Cup (3200m), and second and third in the Great Northern Steeplechase (6400m).
After retiring from riding at Awapuni on Boxing Day 1959, Harris left racing for a period, working at an auction mart then as a builder’s labourer before deciding to take up harness racing. He shifted to Cambridge and worked for Peter Skousgaard, but after four months he was persuaded to try something different, being told there was little money to be made as a trotting driver in those days with so many owner-trainers driving. He returned to Palmerston North and began his training career with just a few horses in work. His first winner was Goa at Awapuni on January 23, 1961 and gradually his team increased and with it a move to Woodville, where his training career really blossomed.
Glengowan, New Moon, Sharif, Far Time, Fleeting Moment and the talented sprinters Westend and Anna Kildare were some of the stars for the Harris stable. The Group 1 Caulfield Stakes (2000m) was the highlight of Glengowan’s wins, but his most memorable effort was his second in the 1973 Group 1 Melbourne Cup (3200m) when ridden by Harris’ son Noel.
New Moon, the fastest horse Harris prepared, finished second in the 1972 Group 1 Railway Handicap (1200m) at Ellerslie and was later sold to the United States where she was a Group 3 winner at Santa Anita.
Sharif was a most versatile galloper, whose 13 wins included the 1973 Telegraph Handicap (1200m), a race which was also among his 25 seconds. He was also twice runner-up in the Group 1 Railway Handicap (1200m) twice.
Far Time created a piece of history when, in the hands of John Harris, he won the inaugural Group 2 International Stakes (2000m) at Te Rapa in 1970 in then-world record time. Also as a three-year-old, he was runner-up in the Group 1 Great Northern Derby (2400m), Group 2 Wellington Derby (2400m), Group 2 Great Northern St Leger (2800m), Group 2 Wellington Guineas (1600m) and Listed Hawke’s Bay Guineas (1600m) and third in the Group 2 New Zealand Derby (2400m).
Harris trained in partnership with his son John for four seasons, winning 54 races, and his last season of training was back at Awapuni in partnership with another son, Des, landing a couple of victories before he retired in 1988 with a total of 304 wins. He also enjoyed success as a part-owner of Go Bush, who was trained by John to win 16 races including two Listed events in New Zealand and the 1990 Group 3 Shannon Stakes (1500m) at Rosehill.
Harris also goes down in history as a co-founder and the first President of the New Zealand Trainers’ Association and he was honoured for his lifetime racing achievements at the Otaki-Maori Racing Club’s meeting in February 2009. He was also a regular at the Jumps Jockeys’ reunions, well-known for reciting his poems, headed by the dyslexic ode to the ‘’Rindercella.’’
Fondly remembered as the dapper humble man sporting his bow tie, Jock Harris was certainly a major contributor to the racing industry.