Harris the guiding light for a revelation named Vindaloo

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The Independent Online
When he goes into Vindaloo's box, Jimmy Harris can tolerate the gelding nibbling at the tyres of his wheelchair. He has had worse. "I used to have this thing called Pollock Fair," he said. "When I wasn't looking the bugger used to grab hold of a handle and tip me out."

Vindaloo, it has to be said, would have to be considerably mischievous to upset his trainer. Since the chestnut arrived at Harris's Leicestershire yard in late March he has won 11 races, nine of them handicaps, equalling the 20th century record for Flat handicaps won in a season. He is currently resting (which in Vindaloo's case is usually as long as it takes to fill the horsebox with petrol) before a push for a unique figure, probably on the all-weather, in the next two weeks.

Vindaloo is named after the speciality dish at the Curry Pot in Leicester, a coruscating meal which makes his owner, David Abell, a rather ginger mover on selected mornings. The gelding himself has moved with greater alacrity since his move to Eastwell from Mark Johnston's Middleham yard and cynics might claim that is because of the proximity of Melton Mowbray, where the principal employers are not pork pie factories but rather Pedigree Petfoods.

Harris's yard is not the show stable others like to present. On this day in the Vale Of Belvoir (pronounced as in the large rodent that makes its house in a river) there were hay collections in the shape of large toilet rolls littering the fields and an old chap leaning on a fence, shirtless but with braces pinching his cotton wool chest. In the driveway of Hall Stables there were random planks, drums of disinfectant and washing on the line. Arnie, the border collie, kept a rather slack guard.

Some of the trade's swollen-heads in their serf-scrubbed yards would not like this, but it seems the patina of haphazard appearance does not make Jimmy Harris's horses go slower. Quite the opposite in fact, and at just pounds 100 a week.

Inside the main house Ann Harris, the trainer's wife, was at the sewing- machine repairing horse blankets. On the television was the Rockford Files and, in the adjacent aquarium, a clown fish, seahorse and the marine world's ugliest creature, something called a prickly leatherjacket, fought over titbits. Tea and biscuits were produced (beer followed later).

Jimmy Harris has trained from Hall Stables ever since that career was forced on him in 1973. Before then he had been a jockey until an October day at Huntingdon and a fence in front of the stands. "I fell and broke my back," he said. "That was that. They never had to weigh me again."

In over 20 years with a licence his main claim to fame was that he used to tutor, and won with, a brute of a young beast who went on to greater things elsewhere. A horse they called Burrough Hill Lad. But then along came the horse that has cheered Harris almost as much as he has the headline- writers.

Vindaloo's greatest strength is that he has captured the essence of Petain's speech to the troops at Verdun. If anything gets by him, it is taken as a personal insult. This competitiveness spills over on to the gallops on which the horse is a regular performer despite his rigorous racecourse programme. There are seldom days when his face is covered by a straw hat and attendants ferry the cocktails.

"He's a big, lean horse and to look at him you wouldn't think he'd want a lot of work," Harris said. "But he is quite the opposite because he gets so stuffy. When he ran at Carlisle it was a four-and-a-half hour journey up there so I decided to give him a piece of work before he left. He won easily."

When he returns from his travels, Vindaloo closes down. "The day after he's been racing he'll lie down all day but, after, that he's ready, knocking at the door," Harris said. And come the time to get out the map the gelding does not need dragging out of his box on the end of a piece of rope. "On racedays you can almost let him run into the horsebox on his own."

Thus, Vindaloo seems to have forgiven humankind for taking the steel to him as a young and distracted colt. "He had to be gelded even as a two-year-old because he was a bit of a naughty boy," Harris said. "He was getting a bit randy."

Along the way this season, Vindaloo has been ridden by some seven jockeys, men who have returned with various thoughts. Harris seems to agree more with Jason Weaver ("he's a diamond of ride''), Mark Birch ("you'll win a good handicap one day'') and Nicky Carlisle ("he wins with plenty in hand, doesn't he?''), than Dale Gibson, who ventured after the three-year- old's first win: "I think he needs a rest."

Jimmy Harris is 60 now but the only signal that he may worry about the onset of old age is the copper band on his wrist. He certainly does not consider himself enfeebled because of his disability. In fact, he produces a counter argument. "When you're in a wheelchair you see more than you would normally. You somehow pay more attention to what you're looking at," he said. "Besides, if you're riding work on the gallops that's the only one you know about. If you watch them all you get to understand them all."

On the way out, a visit to Vindaloo's box (the coolest in the yard, naturally) gave evidence of tampering with the trainer's wheels. The horse looked for a moment as if he might even be blowing up the tyres. "He's a lovely horse with a lovely attitude even though he puts his ears back and looks as if he's threatening you," Harris told his nervous company. "But he wouldn't hurt anyone, not even the worst person in the world." And he was right, Vindaloo does not even mind journalists.