Kris Lees and the success of Mugatoo serves as a reminder of the Lees family racing legacy

Take a seat in the trainers’ stand at the back of Broadmeadow Racecourse’s 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 the red brick cottage near one end of the Broadmeadow Racecourse’s long straight. “I went to school 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. “The facilities have been upgraded over the years, we have 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 trainer’s stands the world over: instant coffee and a steady stream of banter help maintain a good mood through the year-round, early morning grind.

Luskin Star

THERE are a few things you need to know growing up as a sports fan in Newcastle: 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 $6500 and then purchased privately by Max Lees for owners from a farm near Maitland near 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’.

At Broadmeadow Racecourse the legacy of the Lees’ name is everywhere through the champion colt. The Luskin Star Gardens sit inside the track. Just inside the main entrance 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”.

Born to race

A CHILDHOOD of Saturday afternoons alternating between Broadmeadow races and nearby Beaumont Park dogs – watching the Sydney and Melbourne races on monitors – meant Kris 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.

The commercial realities of racing in 2021 mean that compared to his father’s job, Lees is running something that sometimes seems more like a business than a stable; his 110-horse team around twice the size of his father’s biggest string, he has some horses based in Brisbane and a farm at nearby Ellalong features pre-training and recovery facilities.

“We have an office with six people helping me every day, and Max just had mum doing the accounts – that might be the biggest difference between what we do,” says Lees, who reckons the fundamentals of animal husbandry and preparation handed down through generations are timeless.

“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.”

Winning ways

Lees commitment to his hometown and craft paid off last season with a NSW trainers’ premiership that saw him win 192.5 races in the state (half of a win is given for a dead heat), 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.

Lees won races at 37 different racecourses during that premiership winning season – the trainer dominates 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, pouring over an Excel spreadsheet and relying on a racing manager for much of the logistical work, Lees does his race planning the old-fashioned way.

“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 [race] 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.”

Then came Mugatoo

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, last year’s hometown Cup provided an emotional breakthrough. Lees had logged eight minor placings in the race previously, including a heart-breaking narrow defeat with Exinite in 2006. Two of those placings were with County Tyrone – the horse that gave Max his final G1 in the 2003 Queensland Derby, and Kris his first top flight triumph in the 2004 Metropolitan.

After Mugatoo saluted in the 2020 Newcastle Cup, as owners and staff gathered in the trainers stand for celebratory beers, Lees took a moment to pay homage to his father and raised the Cup to that framed photo of Max.

Mugatoo’s owners Australian Bloodstock have “around 30 or 40” horses with Lees 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. “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.”

On Saturday Mugatoo took on some of the biggest names in Australian racing in the All-Star Mile in Melbourne. The $5 million was billed as a clash between two high profile stars Probabeel and Arcadia Queen but Mugatoo loomed as third pick in betting. “He is such an honest horse and never runs a bad race,” Lees said after watching the horse’s final pre-race gallop at Moonee Valley. “He has shown he likes this track, and that gives us some added confidence.”

Mugatoo claimed the All-Star Mile in what has been described as a life-changing result.

The future

Back at home, Newcastle Jockey Club has plans for a $20m stable redevelopment that could see nearly 1000 horses trained at the track by the end of 2022 and give Lees a chance to streamline his operation.

“I have horses at 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,” Lees says. “It’s great to see they are finally coming to fruition.”

Given the grand plans, it seems like Lees was right to stay all along, and maybe it will be those Sydney-siders or Hong Kong-based handlers that will one day be tempted to relocate to Lees’ backyard in Broadmeadow.

Picture: Marina Neil.