Grand National: Harvey prepares victory sign to salute Ross Comm

A Yorkshireman famous for a two-fingered salute is sure of a rare reception if his wife Sue's horse wins today's big race. Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online

One of the great traditions of the Grand National is the post-race breakfast, when victorious connections mix with villagers and even welcome the press as the sainted champion returns to the wellspring of great triumph.

Nowhere would this tableau be played out more incongruously this weekend than at the Craiglands Farm base of Sue and Harvey Smith at High Eldwick, high on the Yorkshire moors, a place so inhospitable and foreboding that even thunder and lightning are afraid to visit. It is like Siberia without the homely touches.

Harvey is looking forward to it already. "Aye, the press," he said yesterday. "I've had 50 years of them. They build you up one day and they knock you down the next. I've been up and down so many times I feel like a yo-yo. With me it's been the big thing about being built up into a superstar to start with and then being knocked down into the shit.

"They've done that about six times to me, but they forget the first time round they've educated you." It could be quite a reception.

Yet Harvey Smith is the sort of person who should be winning Nationals, one of the few people the once-a-year housewife punters will have heard of when they peel off their washing gloves and rush through to watch the great race this afternoon.

Smith is 67 now but not one of those pensioners who take a tartan trolley down to the corner shop to pick up the tins of cat food. Indeed, he was born at the right time and with the right attitude, a blunt, heavily accented Yorkshireman in the days when the prim realm of showjumping was a major televised sport.

One day in August 1971 burnt Smith into the nation's consciousness, the day when Harvey brought two fingers into play after winning at Hickstead. At the time, Smith said the gesture was an expression of delight at having won the event in consecutive years.

There were others who considered it a response to Hickstead owner Douglas Bunn's assertion that he could not ride the course. Whatever. The act of "doing a Harvey" became part of the vernacular.

As well as a brief singing career there was also a spell as a wrestler. A "V" motif was carried on the back of a velvet robe when Smith made his Yorkshire grappling debut, a "battle of the Pennines" bout against Cockey Kaye, the "Lancashire Thunderbolt", which drew 1,300 spectators to the Royal Hall at Harrogate.

There will be more spectators today, more genuine peril over a course and occasion which Smith himself would have liked to tackle. There was a faux challenge once when television viewers saw him fall to earth on a schooling venture round the Liverpool fences.

"They can't have thought much of my neck because they sold the horse I was on," Smith says, "at Doncaster Sales for 250 quid the week after."

There have been some even worse Liverpool days for Smith and his trainer wife, notably the deaths of their stalwarts The Last Fling and Goguenard. "It's the same as anything else, football, rugby, cricket or whatever. When you get to the very top end you get casualties," Smith says. "It happens to the best of them."

Now it is the turn of a 10-year-old gelding by the name of Ross Comm to represent the stables which look like Steptoe's yard minus the order. It has been said that the grey has improved recently, that he is a progressive animal. Harvey does not quite see it that way.

"Whoever wrote that doesn't know what they're talking about because he's always been a good horse," he says. "He's always been a nice horse. Right from the word go when we started with him.

"The National is a little bit of a lottery and they have to get a nice run round. But if you've got a horse with talent and you get get a good run you've got some sort of chance. And luckily we've got no weight on [10st 5lb]. He's in very good order and, hopefully, he'll be flying round there."