David Harrison has earned himself the reputation as one of WA racing’s most likeable characters over the past 40 years, however, he’s also widely regarded as a highly-astute horseman.
The Group 1-winning veteran has finished in Perth’s top 10 leading metropolitan trainers’ premiership in almost every season over the past three decades and has achieved prolonged success with horses of all ages in that time, enhancing his status as one of the state’s best trainers.
His most recent feature race victory was with top three-year-old, Jericho Missile, in the Listed Belgravia Stakes at Ascot on October 26 and he has a perfect opportunity to score back-to-back wins with the same galloper in this Saturday’s Listed Fairetha Stakes.
A jockey-turned-trainer, Harrison’s story is one that is characteristically honest, however, it is also a raw account of a popular and fun-loving Aussie bloke who, much to the surprise of some, has battled mental health issues at times.
The jovial, unpretentious and always-amusing Harrison’s journey begins in Midland, where in 1958 he was born into a largely non-racing family and moved around to different schools throughout his childhood.
“I went to school in Safety Bay, then went to Geraldton and then back to Rockingham High School,” Harrison said.
“Dad was a punter and I used to go to the races on his shoulders and watch the horses.
“I always wanted to be a jockey growing up.”
Harrison ended up doing just that after finishing his schooling, commencing his newfound career as an apprentice jockey for Alan Carter.
Despite making a flying start, however, his time in the saddle was eventually cut short due to persistent struggles with his weight.
“My first ride was a winner down in Bunbury, so that was pretty lucky,” Harrison said.
“I was with a few different trainers while Alan was getting established down at Bunbury, because I was at Ascot at the time.
“I went to a few trainers like Len Pike, Colin France and Bob McPherson and I rode a couple of winners and then I got a bit heavy, so I went up to Geraldton to Robbie Pettit.
“I stayed up there until I finished my apprenticeship.”
Once he completed his jockey apprenticeship, Harrison moved back to Perth and spent his following years working for local thoroughbred studs.
It was during that time that he met Jenine Lever, the daughter of top trainer, Kevin, who would become the love of his life.
“I was the foreman at Blackwatch Stud for Steve Wallace for a couple years in the late 70s,” Harrison said.
“Then I met Jenny and we settled over east and worked for the leading trainers on a working holiday for a couple years.
“We worked for Tommy Smith, Neville Begg, Bruce McLachlan, Bart Cummings and Colin Hayes.”
After gaining invaluable experience working for some of the biggest names in Australian racing, Harrison and Lever ventured back to their home state and Harrison tried his hand at training in his own right.
He took out his trainers’ licence in 1983 and, after acquiring a veteran galloper from his father-in-law, he got his winning account underway soon after.
“Bridge Patrol was my first winner,” Harrison said.
“He was one of Kevin Levers and I got him at his 100th start.
“You take a little bit out of everyone that you go with, but I reckon I probably learnt the most off Colin Hayes because of the uphill training.
“Bruce McLachlan too, I suppose, they both had a bit of an uphill training scheme.”
Reflecting back on some of his favourite horses over the years, Harrison says it is difficult to single one out.
Blevic gelding Blevvo, however, is a horse that usually springs to mind after he landed Harrison his sole Group 1 winner to date in the 2002 Fruit ‘N’ Veg Stakes at Ascot.
“He was one of my best ones,” he said.
“He’d won six in a row after the Fruit ‘N’ Veg.
“Waratah’s Secret and McFlirt, too, they were real good horses.
“McFlirt won his first five races and probably should’ve won the Caulfield Guineas.
“Century Blazer was probably my favourite, I bought him from New Zealand for $17,000 and he won 11 races in the 90s.”
After initially being based in Secret Harbour, Harrison relocated his stable to a 55-acre property in Serpentine 12 years ago and named it in honour of his first ever winner.
Bridge Patrol Lodge.
The establishment is set in a relaxed environment, which is typical of Harrison’s personality, and includes spelling paddocks, two exercise tracks and a horse pool, whilst also being within close proximity to the Lark Hill thoroughbred training complex.
“John McNair had the place originally and I pulled my stables up from Secret Harbour and added to the ones at Serpentine,” Harrison said.
“We spell most of the horses over at Darling View Stud but some them spell at home.
“We have about 30 to 35 horses in work usually and about 10 staff and a couple of foremen.
“I haven’t ridden for about 15 or 20 years.
“I jump on a couple at the beach bare-back, but I’ve broken my back, pubis, pelvis and a fair few different things, so I thought ‘that’ll do me’.”
Renowned as a larrikin who enjoys a beer and a good time, it’s rare that you ever see Harrison get agitated or lose his cool in public.
Asked where his easy-going style stems from, he says it’s just how he is.
“I’ve always been like that,” Harrison said.
“I’m pretty casual, I’ve always worn shorts and thongs around the horses all my life.
“When I was riding up in Geraldton, you’d ride every week and you’d hit the drink for five days and then starve yourself for two days.
“The organs are starting to feel a bit now, though, they might be a bit older than 61!”
Despite the light-hearted and entertaining exterior, however, Harrison has encountered some dark times behind closed doors in recent years.
The pressures of being a trainer in the cutthroat industry of thoroughbred racing, as well as the burden of heavy expectations on himself, is a battle that he has had to manage and bravely speaks openly about.
“I’ve still got to have my nuthouse pills, I’m still on pretty high levels,” he quipped.
“You’ve just got to try to get everyone to talk about it, though.
“It’s no good holding it up inside, you’ve got to get it out in the open so then everyone else knows you’re half-crazy as well.
“I’m never going to get leading trainer, the highest I’ve got is third, and I used to put pressure on myself to try to be better than what I am.”
Asked how his past mental health struggles have impacted him, Harrison says it’s taken more of a toll on his personal life, rather than his professional life.
“It hasn’t really affected my training career, it’s more a mental thing where you do your own head in,” he said.
“Some of it is the pressure of racing and owners, but it’s mainly the demands you’re putting on yourself to get better.
“That’s mainly what got me going.
“I think rather than pressuring yourself, you just need to enjoy yourself and do your best.”
Part of Harrison’s improvement has been thanks to the support of his wife, who he credits as being instrumental to his recovery.
“Jenny’s always helped me, and with the stable and everything,” Harrison said.
“She’s not so much out at the farm anymore, she’s more doing the bookwork now, but she’s always helped me.
“She still helps me at the races when it’s needed, but it’s mainly the bookwork and with owners and that sort of stuff now.”
Rewind to October 26 and Jericho Missile, Harrison’s Patronize three-year-old who was the winner of last season’s Crystal Slipper and Magic Millions WA 2YO Classic, defied his $17 starting price to claim the Listed Belgravia Stakes second-up from a spell.
The talented gelding is a winner at three of his six race starts to date and also started a short-priced favourite in the Group 2 Karrakatta Plate on April 6 but pulled up shinsore after finishing unplaced.
Despite being forgotten by punters at his last outing, however, Harrison says he went into the race with confidence after an eye-catching first-up performance a fortnight prior.
“I thought his run in the 3YO Classic was the run of the race,” Harrison said.
“He was held up and then to quicken like that with 59 kilos and still run through the line against the ones that had the momentum, I thought was the run of the race.
“I’d say he’d be the most exciting in the stable, he definitely looks on the way up.”
Harrison’s main aim for Jericho Missile is the $500,000 Group 2 WA Guineas over 1600m at Ascot on November 23, however, he’s not one who particularly strives for big race success.
Instead, the knockabout horseman has a simple philosophy that has served him well throughout an impressive career that, he says, is in its twilight years.
“I reckon another couple of years will do me, but I’m not sure what I’ll do yet,” Harrison said.
“I just try to win as many as races as I can.
“I try to buy some nice babies that go reasonably early and then just try to win as many as we can for the owners.
“If a horse is suited to a Group 1 or Group 2 or whatever, then I’ll have a go.
“Who knows, Jericho Missile might run through the line in the Guineas and the three-year-olds have a pretty good record in the Kingston Town so he might end up having a go at that.”