Author Jilly Cooper—the Jilly Cooper, of “Riders” fame, upon researching that book—once called him “Heathcliff on horseback.”
Who could earn such a moniker from such a writer? None other than British show jumper Harvey Smith.
By the 1970s, the Olympian’s character as a Byronic hero had already been cemented. The Yorkshireman was blunt, brash and nothing like anyone else competing in the posh sport of show jumping—and he was loved for it. In 1970, he’d completed a trifecta no rider had ever accomplished in the same season: He’d won the Hickstead Derby (England), the King George V Gold Cup (England) and the Dublin Grand Prix (Ireland).
And coming into the following year’s running of the derby, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary June 26, Smith was so sure that he and his horse Mattie Brown could pull off another win that he didn’t bother returning the trophy to the show grounds in 1971, much to the distaste of Hickstead owner and creator Douglas Bunn.
Back and forth the men sniped about the trophy.
“I said it didn’t matter because I’d only win it again,” Smith recalled in a Guardian article. “He reckoned I couldn’t.”
Eventually Smith gave in and sent for the trophy. But his strong personality popped out when, after knocking down a fence in the first round, he heard cheering in the crowd.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, you bastard,’ ” said Smith.
With no one jumping clear in the famed class, Smith earned a jump-off spot with Steve Hadley on No Reply. He and Mattie Brown outran Hadley to earn the back-to-back Derby titles he had predicted. And, as Smith crossed the finish line and cantered towards the judge’s box, he pointed his index and middle fingers to the sky in “V” shape—but with his palm facing inward.
To American readers unfamiliar with the nuance of British hand gestures, that sign made with palm outward is just what we generally associate it with: a symbol of “V for Victory,” often credited to Winston Churchill. But the palm inward? In the United Kingdom and beyond, it’s a rude sign of defiance, akin to giving someone the middle finger on this side of the Atlantic.
Bunn missed the moment. But Hickstead directors Janet Kidd and Mary Bates-Oldman—also a judge for the show—didn’t, and called it an insult. After Smith had already left for home, Bunn sent him a telegram declaring him disqualified for going against Hickstead’s rules of decorum—and telling him his £2,000 prize was due to Hadley.
With the moment captured by the BBC’s cameras, the press at large had a field day. Show jumping found itself on the front page of U.K. newspapers—for the wrong reasons. The Sun, according to Horse & Hound, ran a headline saying “That told them, HarVee.”
Smith insisted it was merely the Churchillian “V” to celebrate his win, and he brought out several photos to prove his point; Bunn was steadfast in his defense of maintaining decorum. The public picked sides.
“For well over a month the matter bubbled on, and it was a sign of how little hard news there was at the time that the press—and not just the equestrian press, though it made a good copy for us, too—and their readers gave it plenty of attention,” wrote Alan Smith in “Hickstead: A Golden Celebration.” “The latter were fairly equally divided between those who supported Harvey’s perceived tilt at officialdom and Douglas’s stand against bad manners.”
The British Show Jumping Association decided Harvey should not be stripped of his title though, “He should have realised it might have been considered offensive.” And with the £2,000 back in his possession, Harvey and Bunn worked out a deal in which the show jumper would donate £150 to a Riding for the Disabled program.
Watch Harvey Smith talk about the incident decades later:
“Douglas was the best man in the world at getting advertising (for show jumping), and that V-sign was pretty good advert by him,” Harvey told Alan Smith. “It was good for the sport, which certainly needs something like that now to shake the sport up a bit. He was a good man, and we were the best of mates—it was only you press boys who made it seem otherwise.”
Though Harvey played his angle, he later admitted to using the gesture for its exact purpose. And for many years after, the “Harvey Smith sign”—or the “Harvey Smith salute”—reportedly was added to the Chambers Dictionary, defined as “a V-sign with the palm inwards, signifying derision and contempt.”
“I was always the working man’s man,” Harvey wrote in The Guardian. “Anything the authorities did to me offended the biggest part of the viewing public. That’s life—people either love you or they hate you. People always talk about the V-sign, and it doesn’t annoy me at all. It’s better to be remembered than to be forgotten.”