Editor of the Loose-Leaf form guide and compiler of the ratings, Martin Harris has been a familiar sight on point-to-point courses since he started working on the ‘pointing bible’, “Hunter Chasers & Point-to-Pointers” in the early 1990s.
Martin first had his name on the annual publication in 2002 and now also operates as the Point-to-Point Racing Company’s senior race-reader, co-ordinating a national team who go pointing in all weathers to bring racegoers the detail of every single runner between the flags each season.
Jake Exelby rang him last week to get to know him better.
How did you get into point-to-pointing?
As a child, I used to go to the North Cotswold meeting at Springhill on an Easter Monday. It was full of Hooray Henrys with no interest in the racing who totally obscured the view, but it didn’t matter – I loved the experience.
Then I started working on Rules racecourses – doing my first commentary at Carlisle in 1988 – and got into working in pointing through that, helping with the annual and going through race videos. I did my first shift as a race-reader at Upper Sapey in 1994. There were 12 races and 131 runners and it went on forever, but the weather was perfect and it didn’t put me off.
Which jockeys have you most admired?
When I used to go as a punter, Damien Duggan, Tim Mitchell and Julian Pritchard –and Claire Allen and Emma James among the ladies. Nowadays, 95% of them are better than all but the top 5% 20 years ago and it's the bad ones who stand out!
Who have been your favourite horses?
The only one I’ve ever had an affinity with was Master Eryl, ridden by Matt Sheppard. He was a barmpot with wonky steering – he wore a pricker – and a tendency to bend fences in two, but he had so much natural ability and was exciting to watch.
When you’re rating horses, you have to be dispassionate, so I always want the top-rated to win!
What are your favourite courses?
I live very close to Chaddesley Corbett and I like it there, but my favourite is Bitterley – it’s a pretty spot and you can see everything.
What's been your funniest moment in the sport?
Normally it’s something a commentator says. I remember a grey horse falling at Larkhill but the commentator didn’t spot it. When he saw it again, he said it was still going well. The divided race at Kimble earlier this season was hilarious. You didn’t know what was running until they got to the start and bookies were taking bets on a mare of Phil Rowley’s even though she was still in Shropshire!
My favourite write-up in the annual was a horse called Yr Eryr. “Welsh for ‘The Eagle’ but more Eddie than the feathered version so far – may fly further next season.”
What’s been your highlight?
That I’m still here after 30 years working in pointing!
What are your career ambitions?
Pointing’s actually got in the way of my career as a commentator! I’ve always put pointing first, even though it’s only one-third of my income. I’m passionate about the sport – maybe if I wasn’t, I’d have done some more high-profile gigs under Rules. I’m looking forward to Shelfield Park on March 20th – it’ll be my first commentary between the flags in years.
Which other commentators do you admire?
I actually prefer the funny ones to the accurate ones! And I’m a traditionalist, so I like the local commentators who know the horses and jockeys – people like Edward Dingle and Eddie Williams.
What recent changes have you seen for the better? And for the worse?
I’d be an advocate of keeping 48-hour declarations. This might cause problems for some meetings in a normal year, but only those that would get fewer than 30 runners and I don’t think we’ll see so many of those in future as I don’t think there will be so many meetings. Whether to publish them in advance is another matter.
I miss the “kamikaze pilots”, the proper arm-waving amateurs who are having a go regardless of their ability.
What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?
I’d reduce the number of areas to six, have no more than six meetings per weekend and make sure the fixture list was the most important part of the job – without a decent one, you can’t operate properly.
What do you think the effect of lockdown on pointing will be?
I think it will be similar to what happened after foot and mouth, with a 10% drop in horses. This year, we were on target to match last season’s total of qualification certificates issued, but was that the effect of the shorter season in 2019/2020?
What else have you been up to during lockdown?
Thank God the weather was good during the first lockdown. I’d go out on my road bike (Martin refused to send a picture of him in lycra!) and was as fit in May as at any time in the last 30 years. I normally do sportives (mass participation rides) in the summer but there weren’t any last year, so there was no end result apart from keeping me sane!
Have you enjoyed anything about lockdown?
It’s proved that I can cope without racing in my life – if only for three months – and can find other things to do.
Have you been cooking during lockdown? If so, what's your signature dish?
(Wife and fellow race-reader) Alex is the baker and I’m the chef! I do a mean ragu for a lasagne or spaghetti bolognaise.
Tell me about the TV and books you’ve enjoyed?
I’ve been bingeing on Game of Thrones but Alex kept falling asleep. I also tried to get her into Harry Potter but she’s more into CSI and anything crime-related – if she wanted to do me in, she’d get away with it!
Do you have a hero outside racing?
They’d all be sporting. Geraint Thomas in cycling and anyone who plays for Worcestershire at cricket or Aston Villa – woe betide anyone who runs the Villa down…
Who else should be featured in “The Lockdown Lowdown”?
A rider like Tim Mitchell. Or Granville Taylor, the doyen of point-to-point journalists.