Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: U.S. Quickly Became Home Sweet Home For Irish Transplant Simon Harris - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: U.S. Quickly Became Home Sweet Home For Irish Transplant Simon Harris

Simon Harris at Belmont Park

Oct. 17, 1992.

Simon Harris, a long-time exercise rider and valet on the New York circuit, remembers the day as if it was yesterday.

It was a day of roiling emotions – sadness, anxiety, excitement. He was 24 years young and was leaving behind friends and family in Dublin, Ireland, for Ocala, Fla. He knew he had a job there with breeder and trainer Noel Hickey. Nothing else was certain.

Was he making the right move? Among others, he was leaving behind a girlfriend and a loving relationship that had lasted for a decade. It had been the saddest of goodbyes.

“It was hard to leave home,” he said simply.

Perhaps harder than anyone can imagine. And yet he never looked back. He was first struck by the warmth of the Florida air – and then by the warmth of those he met.

“I love the way people are here,” said Harris, now 55. “If you work hard, people give you a shot.”

The husband-and-wife training team of John and Tonya Terranova head the list of people who gave him a shot. The 5-6, 135-pound Harris began galloping horses for them in 1993 and was instrumental in the development of Gander, a star gelding. He continues to be a key figure in their operation.

“He's like family to us,” said Tonya. “He's like a brother to me.”

He interacts with the horses in the barn almost as well. “It's very rare that there is one he can't get along with,” Tonya said. “It's not just a job for him. He really has dedication and a love for the animal.”

The Terranovas count on Harris to breeze their horses. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert frequently sends top runners to them from his West Coast base ahead of scheduled starts in major New York stakes. Harris is a major reason why. Harris ranks Point Given, Baffert's 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, among the best he has ever climbed aboard despite the horse's headstrong nature.

Simon Harris aboard multiple Grade 1 winner McKinzie

When Baffert was considering retiring Indian Blessing at the end of the 2009 campaign, he left the deciding vote to Harris. Indian Blessing had been champion 2-year-old filly in 2007 and the nation's leading female sprinter in 2008.

“She's still good,” Harris told Baffert after hopping off. “She's not the same.”

Baffert had suspected as much. “She's done,” Baffert told him before the retirement was made official.

When trainer Tom Albertrani sensed he had a gem in Bernardini, he turned to Harris to help prepare the colt. Harris still ranks the winner of the Preakness, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup in 2006 as the best horse he has ever ridden.

“He had everything. He had a great mind. He knew what he was,” Harris said. “When he went on the track, he had such a presence about him. He just looked special.”

According to Harris, much of his success has to do with demeanor. “The better exercise riders have a way about them that is calm,” he said. “They do things a little bit slower.”

He establishes relationships with his mounts almost immediately. “Horses have different personalities. They can tell right away that they can do whatever they want with you or they can't,” the rider said. “They know.”

“If you work hard, people give you a shot,” Simon Harris reflected on his U.S. racing career

Harris got his shot as a full-time valet in 1996. He continues to hurry to the jockeys' room as soon as his morning work is done. The jockeys' room is a world unlike any other. Opposing teams cool off in separate locker rooms. Opposing jockeys may sit beside one another.

“You're trying to win a race and something happens,” Harris said. “You're going back to a place where you're going to see that person right away.” It is not uncommon for valets to jump in as peacemakers.

Harris has worked for numerous riders, with Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens most prominent among them. He views Bailey as the greatest he has ever been around for his ability to anticipate the moves of his rivals.

“What made Bailey different from other riders I've taken care of, he was like a poker player,” Harris said. “He knew you. He knew your tendencies.”

Harris currently assists future Hall of Famer Flavien Prat and Jaime Torres, a promising youngster from Puerto Rico.

As far as tales from the jockeys' room, do not expect to hear any of those. “What goes in there,” he said, “stays in there.”

Harris is a divorced father of two daughters. Brianna, 22, and Eva, 20, live in England. Many family members remain in Ireland. But he stopped feeling as though he was a foreigner in a foreign land long ago.

Tom Pedulla, 2022 recipient of the Walter Haight Award from the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

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