By Michael Cox
Take a seat in the trainers’ stand at the back of the grandstand, ask Kris Lees why he hasn’t left Newcastle for the big smoke and he will tell you. “I grew up there,” pointing towards a cottage near one end of the Newcastle Racecourses long straight. “And I went to school down there,” with a nod to Merewether High School at the opposite end, “… and I am very happy right here.”
Lees has long had the CV to command a spot in any trainers’ stand in the world, whether it be with stables in Sydney or even the Asian racing hubs of Hong Kong or Singapore, but the proud Novocastrian is happy to be beating the big guns from his hometown.
“Of course the thought (of relocating) crossed my mind over the years, but not anymore,” Lees says on the eve of a Newcastle Cup meeting that also includes the G3 Cameron Handicap and G3 Tibbie Stakes. “The facilities have been upgraded over the years, we got a great training track and the course proper rebuild has worked. There isn’t a better track in Australia.”
That little room at the back of the grand stand has the hallmarks of any trainer’s stand around the world,: instant coffee and a steady stream of banter help maintain a good mood through the year-round, early morning grind.
Behind Lees hangs a framed black-and-white photo of his father Max – wearing his trademark cap, with stop watch and binoculars poised, as he calmly looks out across Broadmeadow.
The legacy of “Maxie” Lees – and his great champion Luskin Star – is one that could easily weigh on Lees, but much like the picture on the wall, he sits comfortably with it.
There are a few things you need to know growing up as a sports fan in Newcastle, three fundamentals, if you will: four-time surfing world champion Mark Richards is an ocean God, rugby league’s eighth immortal Andrew “Joey” Johns is the greatest footballer to ever lace on a boot – of any code, oval ball or otherwise – and there has never been, and never will be, a better two-year-old than Luskin Star.
Like Richards and Johns, Luskin Star’s story is an underdog yarn that suits a city with a perpetual chip on its shoulder and something to prove. Tall and athletic, but with some conformational faults and unexciting pedigree, Luskin Star was passed in at auction for $6,500 and purchased by Max Lees for owners from a farm near Maitland, at the tiny town of Luskintyre.
Framed photos and newspaper clippings of Luskin Star’s seven length romp in the 1976 Slipper still adorn the walls of pubs and homes in the Hunter. There was a song about him released by Johnny Tapp and obsessive fans painted pictures of the colossal colt from the coalfields. The 1977 Golden Slipper market had Luskin Star and Tommy Smith’s Blazing Saddles equal favourites, but the Newcastle raider ate him alive. Luskin Star eye-balled his rival at the top of the straight and streaked away with a sustained burst of speed to win in track record time. He won the two-year-old triple crown by a combined winning margin of 16 lengths, backed up to Brisbane and won what is now the TJ Smith Stakes in the winter and finished the season having won eight of nine.
At Broadmeadow Racecourse the legacy of the Lees’ name is everywhere, through the champion colt. The Luskin Star Gardens sit at the centre of the race course. Just inside the main gates a suitably larger-than-life statue of the great horse, along with a statue painted with the horse’s blue-on-blue silks, greets visitors. A lounge where winning owners watch replays is named after Max and another framed photo of the trainer is captioned: “a winner in the race of life”.
Of the three main pastimes presented to a Newcastle lad, the decision between surfing, rugby league and racing, the latter as a career made Kris Lees’ choice for him, with a little help from rugby league. If there was any doubt that a career in racing was the better option, a snapped leg playing hooker for his South Newcastle Lions Rugby League Football Club, aged 23, in the lower grades gave Lees an extra push.
(Lees plays down his league exploits but the Newcastle Rugby League is semi-professional and competitive enough that locals refer to it as “The Real NRL”, a shot at the more commercialised and less rugged National Rugby League (NRL)).
A childhood of Saturday afternoons alternating between Broadmeadow races and nearby Beaumont Park dogs – watching the Sydney and Melbourne races on monitors and having a sneaky underage bet with bookies – meant Lees had the racing bug early.
“I was a racing tragic, still am,” Lees says. “I left school at 16, when I was a couple of weeks into year eleven. I knew school wasn’t for me and I wanted to train. I was encouraged but never pushed into training by Max.”
After he made that decision, Kris was always destined to take over the stables, but the day came much earlier than expected.
In 2003, after a long tenure as stable foreman, Lees was thrust into the role of head man aged 32, just 13 days after Max had been diagnosed with cancer.
It’s August 26, 2020, just over three weeks out from Newcastle Cup day, and 17 years to the day since Max passed away. Sixteen barrier trials have Lees bustling between the tie up stalls and that box at the back of the grandstand. Up the 47 stairs to watch the trials, and back down to observe the 23 runners he has going around across the 16 heats.
The commercial realities of racing in 2020 mean that compared to his father’s job, Lees is running something that sometimes seems more like a business than a stable, with his 110 horse team around twice the size of his father’s biggest string. A farm at nearby Ellalong provides pre-training and recovery facilities, plus a small satellite yard in Queensland gives even more options.
“We have an office with six people helping me every day, and Max had mum doing the accounts – that might be the biggest difference,” says Lees, who adds that the fundamentals of animal husbandry and preparation handed down through generations are timeless, and that the observations of the horses and conversations with jockeys after the trials aren’t all that different to the ones his father would have had. “There has been big changes in the sport, but I don’t think the way we train, especially compared to a lot of sports, has changed that much.”
Hall of Fame jockey Jim Cassidy is up from Sydney for the day. “The Pumper” was a regular partner to Max Lees’ great sprinter Coronation Day and was close enough to the family that Max and his wife Vicki were made godparents to Cassidy’s eldest daughter Nicole.
Cassidy – who won the 2006 Sydney Cup on stable favourite County Tyrone for Kris – can see similarities not only in training style, but demeanour, between father and son.
“Max was a true gentleman and just a pleasure to ride for,” Cassidy said. “If he thought you did something wrong on a horse he would tell you, calm and direct, but he would never put you on show in front of the owners or stewards like some trainers did. Max was all class, and Kris is the same.”
The other similarity in style observers note is the affinity with fillies and mares. Seven of Lees’ 15 top level wins have been with fillies or mares, including multiple G1 winners Samantha Miss (three) and Lucia Valentina (two).
“Max was never hard on his horses, and I think that is a trait he shares and the reason for his success with fillies and mares,” says Alan “Jock” Gollogly, a former jockey and media man, who serves as clocker in the Lees box every morning and has known the trainer long enough that he calls him by his full name, Kristen (everybody else in Newcastle calls Lees “Fred”, a nickname with origins that seem to be a mystery to everybody, including Lees).
“Max never wanted them to break the clock in trackwork,” Gollogly says. “I think both of their great success with mares was that work schedule. And there wouldn’t be many better at placing horses than Kristen.”
Lees commitment to his hometown and craft – as well as that astute race planning – paid off last season with a NSW trainers’ premiership that saw him win 192.5 races in the state, bettering the mega stables of Chris Waller, Gai Waterhouse and Godolphin.
In total, Lees won 212.5 races Australia-wide and was the only trainer in the nation’s top nine whose primary base is a non-metropolitan track.
While Waller, Waterhouse, the Snowdens and Godolphin’s head man James Cummings focus on the rich pickings from their home tracks in the city, and rely on the regional courses as a fall back option, the Lees team travel far and wide – all for the right race – and to carefully build records; starting at country tracks, progressing to the provincials, before diving into metropolitan races.
“It’s about building the horses’ confidence and delivering an early return to the owner – that is the most important thing – and then getting to Sydney before they have found their mark,” Lees says. “In saying that, the prize money at country and provincial races is very good now.”
Lees has won races at 37 different racecourses in the last 12 months – the trainer has logged double digit totals at tracks as far afield as Taree, Tamworth and Port Macquarie – which, horsemanship and placement aside, is a remarkable logistical feat.
While his Sydney rival Waller is never far away from a laptop, Lees does his race planning the old-fashioned way, and a Racing NSW magazine is usually in his hand. “I’m still a pen-and-paper man,” he says. “I do everything in a diary, I speak it out and my staff put it on the computer, I have it all in my head and have a pretty good memory for things like that.
“I am always thinking about it. When I go for a run I leave my phone at home but I can nearly see the program in front of me. I can tell you what races are on everywhere for the next two weeks. I enjoy going for a run and that is when things come up through my head like that.”
Max Lees never won a state title, although Kris maintains his father’s effort to finish second in the Sydney premiership was a greater achievement. “Sydney racing is the pinnacle and always has been, and always will be,” he says.
Despite three decades of dominance at his home track Max couldn’t win the Newcastle Cup either. For Kris, a heart-breaking narrow defeat with Exinite in 2006 is one of eight minor placings. Two of those placings were with County Tyrone – the horse that gave Max his final G1 in the 2003 Queensland Derby, and gave Kris his first top flight triumph, in the 2004 Metropolitan. Another two came last year when Attention Run and Our Candidate filled the minors behind Hush Writer.
This year Lees has four runners entered, including favourite Mugatoo, the quartet all raced by another homegrown Newcastle success story, Australian Bloodstock.
Australian Bloodstock has “around 30 or 40” horses with the trainer at any one time and its proprietors Luke Murrell and Jamie Lovett, locals with strong rugby league links, are both trackwork regulars.
“The three of us get on really well, we knew each other through football,” Lees says. “They have done extremely well. It’s a relationship that works well: they obviously know their stuff and I respect their opinion, but they let me train the horses and call the shots.”
Newcastle Jockey Club has plans for a $20m stable redevelopment for more than 500 horses that could see nearly 1,000 horses trained at the track by the end of 2022. The artist’s impressions show luxurious facilities that will allow Lees to streamline his operation.
“Since they have built the new track it’s great and now they have plans for new stables,” Lees says. “I have various locations and it will be fantastic to have everything under one roof. I have been at them to build new stables for 20 years, if not longer, and Max was at them before that. It’s great to see the plans are finally coming to fruition. The trend is for horses to be trained away from the city now, and the plans are in line with that.”
Given the grand plans, maybe Lees was right to stay all along, and it will be those Sydney-siders or Hong Kong-based handlers that will one day be tempted to relocate to Lees’ backyard.