Life after the final race – Noel Harris
Noel Harris was a true champion of the race track, having one of the longest and most successful careers ever experienced by a New Zealand jockey.
Coming from a strong racing family, Noel, or “Harry” as he’s known to many, spent 45 years in the saddle before his retirement at the age of 60.
Following his popular induction to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame, Love Racing caught up with the 63-year-old to talk about his extraordinary career, why he eventually chose to retire in April 2015 and what’s been keeping him busy since.
Noel doesn’t travel the country to ride racehorses anymore, but he’s running up more miles than ever in his role as National Riding Mentor for New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. “I travel a lot,” he says. “I used to do about 30,000kms a year when I was riding, now I do about 50,000kms each year.”
Not one to muck around, Noel had his last raceday mount on Pondarosa Miss in the Group One NZ Thoroughbred Breeders Stakes at Te Aroha on Saturday, April 4, 2015 and by the following Monday had his feet under the desk in his new job.
There’s no-one out there more qualified for the role of developing the next generation of jockeys. Following his older brothers, Johnny and Des into the family trade, Noel started his own apprenticeship with his father Jock at age 15 in their hometown of Woodville. Both Jock and his brother Desmond were jockeys too, before Jock turned to training and Desmond was sadly killed in a racing accident as a teenager.
Racing was a way of life for the Harris family. As well as Noel and his older brothers becoming jockeys, the three younger Harris siblings, Peter, Karen and Jenny, gave it a go too. “I was always looking at my older brothers riding, and it was just a natural transition,” says Noel. “It was all about racing for our family, we lived and breathed it. “I liked gymnastics at school, but it wasn’t going to be a career, so I was 15 and straight into riding.”
It was a smart career choice, with Noel going on to become leading apprentice as an 18-year-old in the 1971-72 season and then sharing the national jockeys’ premiership with David Peake the following season, with 91 wins. He also won the jockey premiership in Singapore a few years later, during three successful seasons there.
Noel won a staggering 2163 races during his career in New Zealand alone, as well as winning many big races overseas, including the Cox Plate in 1988 on Poetic Prince. “Winning 1000 races was a big deal and you don’t expect to make it to the next thousand, so getting to 2000 was something special,” he says.
Noel joined the exclusive “2000” club in 2008 at Te Rapa, riding Beau Casual for trainer Bill Pomare. “I had ridden a lot for Bill over the years and it was pretty cool winning my 2000th race riding for him.”
Now, harnessing all of the knowledge and experience gathered over 45 years riding, Noel has channelled his passion for the sport into helping apprentice jockeys become the best they can be.
It’s a full-time job which can demand Noel’s attention up to seven days a week and his focus has been on increasing support for jockeys and improving the standard of riding across the country.
Working with about 50 licensed apprentices, plus a handful of probationers enrolled with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing apprentice schools, Noel has the help of another former champion jockey, David Walsh, who looks after the South Island.
Noel says the standard of riding is very high in the Auckland and Waikato because of the competition from senior riders in those areas. “A focus since I’ve started has been to lift the standard of riding across the whole of New Zealand,” he explains. “We’re in the right space to do it and help those apprentices out. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re working on it.”
Working weekly with jockeys at the apprentice schools and being available at trial and racedays to provide advice and support, Noel believes the more regular and proactive contact model that he introduced when he started in the role is crucial.
“We used to only meet with jockeys fortnightly, but now they get immediate feedback and help and if they make a mistake at the races, we bring them into the stewards’ room and let them know where they’ve gone wrong straight away.
“It’s also about giving them confidence. I used to find a lot of the senior riders would be growling at the apprentices rather than helping them, so we’ve worked towards changing that. We want to keep the young jockeys interested. It’s a good earn if they can get their teeth in and make a go of it.”
After experiencing plenty of ups and downs in his own career, Noel has straightforward advice for the young jockeys he works with. “Work hard as you only get out what you put in, be kind to the horses and learn that to be a good winner, you have to be a good loser too. Lots of people find it hard to accept losing, but that’s part of it,” he says.
Apart from temporary stints overseas, including his three seasons in Singapore as a youngster, Noel has always chosen to stay based in New Zealand, growing up in Woodville, then living in Palmerston North for several years, before relocating to Matamata in 1998. It was in Matamata, that he met his wife, Kylie. They will celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary in June this year and Noel fondly describes her as “his backbone”.
Kylie was by Noel’s side to help him make the decision to finally plan his retirement race at Te Aroha in April 2015. After a relatively injury-free career there was nothing forcing Noel’s decision, but mentally he’d decided enough was enough.
“I got sick of having to perform week in week out, and the expectation to win a group or listed race every season. I’d been contemplating retiring for a few years but kept getting on a horse who made it worth keeping going. Eventually we decided the Auckland Cup in March 2015 would be it, but then we said no, we will do Te Aroha, and came out and said to the press that would be the last.”
When Pondarosa Miss ran fifth in the Group One at Te Aroha, Noel says it would have been easy to carry on and do one more, but he stuck to his decision. “I had to do it sometime or it could have gone on forever and I could have been out there on a zimmer frame!”
Though he loved his career, Noel doesn’t really miss the life of a professional jockey. “In a small way I do miss it, there’s nothing like winning a race on a horse and there are so many good parts about the job, but I don’t miss the stress.”
Most importantly, he doesn’t miss the constant battle to manage his weight. “Wasting and having to lock yourself up for a week to get your weight down, then waiting for the day to come along to see if you make the weight, there is nothing worse. But it’s the profession you choose,” says Noel. “My weight came right in the end, in the last five years, but I do say to the jockeys now that when I was riding all I wanted to do was stop at a dairy and have a pie and a coke, or an ice-cream, but that discipline is part of being a jockey.”
In recognition of Noel’s career and the work he has done since his 2015 retirement from riding, Noel was inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame. Visibly emotional and moved in his acceptance speech, Noel was thrilled to be inducted alongside other industry professionals that he’s had a long association with. “I was humbled to be surrounded by such honourable hard-working people. Going in with Murray Baker who I rode a lot of winners for and Chris Waller, I rode his first winner, it was very special. I never thought I’d be in the game for 45 years.”
With his jockey years behind him now, and thriving in his position with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, what else might the future hold for Noel Harris? Right now, he loves living in Matamata, thanks to its central location and lack of traffic lights and parking meters, though he and Kylie love the opportunity to escape to their beach house at Mount Maunganui when they can.
“It’s nice to be able to take a few holidays now, that I never used to be able to when I was riding, but we don’t get over as much as we’d like to.” There’s even been talk of a permanent move one day, though like his retirement from racing, it could take a few years to reach a decision. “It’s definitely an option to move over there one day, it’s all about timing!”