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I WAS ten minutes late on my visit to see Milton Harris and his Triumph Hurdle hope Knight Salute.
That’s a cardinal sin in most trainers’ books and with it goes your chance of a warm welcome.
Knight Salute is unbeaten over hurdles for trainer Milton HarrisCredit: SWNS
Harris hopes to win his first race at the Cheltenham Festival next weekCredit: SWNS
But thankfully Harris isn’t like most handlers. He was half an hour late himself.
“I’ve lived a life, I tell you,” the 63-year-old smiles. And you know full well that’s only half of it.
For starters he says he made enough working on cruise ships to buy a few horses on his return to England.
And while living in Miami he was drinking buddies with Hollywood star Cary Grant and dated Belinda Carlisle, who had a No1 hit with Heaven Is A Place On Earth. His team likes to remind him of this.
But horses took over and in 2000 he started training near Stratford, before his licence was taken away by the BHA after 11 years as he was forced into bankruptcy.
He fought his case and returned just over three years ago. Now he’s enjoying his best ever season, with a trio of Cheltenham Festival chances in the wings.
Taking shelter from the rain at his new Wiltshire stable, he tells his story. He said: “I was 18 or 19 and went to America. In those days you didn’t need a return ticket.
“I flew to Miami and I had 32 quid in my pocket. I worked behind a few bars to get by.
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“Then I’ll never forget, one day I was walking along and someone flew past me on a pair of roller skates. I’d never seen it before , that sounds stupid but I was a country boy.
“Anyway, to cut a long story short, he soon became my best mate and got me to go and work on cruise ships with him.”
I did tell you this wasn’t any old trainer.
But Harris is proud not to be your typical racing man and at his yard people were coming and going all morning, just to say hello or to watch their horse on the gallops.
He said: “I’m a working-class lad, I’ve got two real big chips on my shoulders. Not many make it in the game like that.
“I won’t name names but if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth it’s easy.
“You go to Eton, you grow up, you get a stable and you call your rich mates to send you nice horses. Some people probably wish I wasn’t in the game but I’d rather they had the courage to come and say it to my face than whisper it behind my back.
“But I’ve got some good mates. I’ll never forget Paul Nicholls coming over when I had my first runner back, shaking my hand and saying, ‘Welcome back’.”
Knight Salute is as short as 8-1 for Friday’s Triumph Hurdle at CheltenhamCredit: SWNS
Harris went through the ringer when bankrupt he lost his house, business and friends so it makes his comeback that much sweeter.
“Excuse the mess,” he laughs as we jump in his car to go to the gallops to see Knight Salute in action.
Thankfully things are a lot rosier now. He said: “I used to go to the Festival all the time.
“I’d be in the cabbage patch in the middle back in the day, I’d never even dream of being suited and booted in the main enclosures.
“Knight Salute is a street fighter.
“He’s the working man’s horse for the Festival this year and I think that’s why people have warmed to him. He’s tiny and wants to fight everyone … it’s always the small ones!
“He only cost 14 grand, which is peanuts these days. I can’t afford to compete with the big boys.
“He’s small but he battles and we’ve got Paddy Brennan in our corner. Can you find me a jockey that rides better at Cheltenham?”
Harris might have the best British chance in the Triumph field but has to take on the Irish might of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.
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However, he claims Knight Salute might just extend his unbeaten run over hurdles to six.
He said: “How good are they? Who knows. Pied Piper cost well over 200 grand and I know Vauban cost over 400 grand. If I’d paid that much I’d expect to be lining up in the Triumph, too!
“If we can get to the last and we’re still in contention, we’ve got as good a chance as any.
“I know my lad and he’s quick. I hope we get into a battle as that’s what those others lack. I’d be more surprised if we’re out the top three than if we win it, put it that way.”
Knight Salute on the gallops at Harris’s Wiltshire stableCredit: SWNS
In the lead-up to Cheltenham, most trainers are pulling their hair out. Stars are ruled out and the pressure builds.
But you can tell Harris is loving every minute and he reckons he’s earned his crack at the big stage.
He said: “We’ve had a brilliant season already, that’s the first thing that needs to be said. We should get the 50 up before long and I’ll be proud.
“We’ve only been back in the game a couple of years and it’s not been easy. But to go to Cheltenham with a few live chances is the cherry on top.
“Hopefully it might make a few people sit up and realise what we can do here. I’d love some of the big owners to have one with me, JP McManus would have a great time here!
“For what I’ve been through, on and off the track, a winner really would mean a hell of a lot.”
And it’s not just the yard that will be roaring Knight Salute on the crowd in the local boozer have already organised their trips.
Harris added: “The lads in the pub I drink in have loved following him. Mind you, like always, they’ve tried to tell me where to run him and how to ride him.
“I turned round to the plumber and laughed, ‘Will you eff off, I don’t tell you how to fix a leak!’ “
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