Kris Lees with steely focus for first win in The Hunter

Kris Lees hasn’t won his home track’s biggest race yet, but he hasn’t been far away either in three of the four editions.

Photo: Kris Lees-trained Spring Stakes hope Kind Words works at Newcastle Racecourse with Mal Ollerton on Wednesday. Picture by Simone De Peak

Kris Lees hasn’t won his home track’s biggest race yet, but he hasn’t been far away either in three of the four editions. And after a strong return last start from Rustic Steel, the leading Newcastle trainer is grateful to have another “live chance” to go one better in the $1 million Newcastle Herald Hunter (1300m) on Saturday. Lees has had 14 Hunter starters – four in 2021 and 2019, five in 2020 and one last year – and has been runner-up with Tactical Advantage (2019), Special Reward (2020) and Wandabaa (2021) in the quality handicap. He had three in nominations this year but Rustic Steel was his only acceptor among the 19 on Wednesday. However, there were no home track favours at the barrier draw after Rustic Steel drew 18, which remained the extreme outside following the scratchings of Ayrton and Strait Acer on Wednesday for the 16-horse race.

Single-figure odds with the TAB on Tuesday, Rustic Steel was out to $21 after acceptances and the draw.

Lees, though, was hopeful his 2021-22 Newcastle horse of the year could rise to the occasion after making up ground late to come seventh in a class-filled Everest consolation, the Sydney Stakes (1200m), on October 14 at Randwick. The Deep Field six-year-old was back after almost a year off the scene following his 10th in The Gong (1600m), which followed his win in the $2 million Big Dance (1600m).

“We’ve had a few seconds, so I’m hoping to go one better but, look, it’s a very strong race,” Lees said.

“It’s going to be a good edition this year. No million-dollar race is an easy assignment, so we’re just thankful we’ve got a horse with a live chance. “I’m really pleased with his return run,” he said of the 2022 The Coast and Scone Cup champion. “He drew the outside gate and went back to near-last and worked home really strong. He’s had a month or so between runs with a tick-over trial, so I think he’s in good order. “He might find the 1300 too short again, but I think the big spacious track will suit and he’s on route to The Ingham [1600m] and I think it’s a nice stepping stone. “He’s an ultra consistent horse. He’s been a really good horse to the stable and I think he’s certainly got a nice preparation ahead. He just needed the run first time out, in really good company. This will be similar, maybe not quite as strong as the Sydney Stakes, so I think he’ll run really well.”

Lees said The Hunter was “pretty much the path we chose” for Rustic Steel, which will have Everest-winner Sam Clipperton aboard. “We just knew he wouldn’t be quite ready for the early spring, so we just took our time with him and give him that run with the view of going five weeks into Saturday, then the Festival Stakes, then The Ingham,” he said. Peter and Paul Snowden’s Mazu, the only 2023 Everest runner in the field, was a $5 favourite in gate six. Far Too Easy was next best at $5.50 after drawing one. Sydney Stakes winner I Am Me, which also accepted for the Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes at Caulfield on Saturday, firmed to $6.50 after drawing four at Newcastle and 10 in Victoria. Scone mare Opal Ridge, with Newcastle’s Dylan Gibbons to ride, was $10 in gate 14.

“It’s always been a strong, competitive race, either with a Lost And Running on the way through [to The Everest], or now a Mazu, which has been there, so it’s a good race,” Lees said.

Lees had better luck at the draw for the group 3 Spring Stakes (1600m) with Kind Words, which got barrier one. The filly, a last-start maiden winner at Hawkesbury on November 9, was $13 in the 14-strong field of three-year-olds. “It was a really good win,” Lees said. “Obviously jumping a lot in grade, but she’s a filly we’ve always had a bit of time for. We’ve tried her at stakes level before. I think she’ll acquit herself well here on her home track on the quick turnaround.

“She was always going to be stakes filly at some point we thought, whether it’s now or next prep, so I’m happy to give her a chance now.”

Snowden-trained Heman was the early favourite for the race but he was a surprise non-acceptor on Wednesday. Peter Snowden said the colt would be spelled.

Lees does not have a runner in his father’s race, the Max Lees Classic (900m) for two-year-olds, or the $300,000 The Beauford (2300m). He is yet to win the Max Lees Classic but was glad to see the race grow again this year. “I think it’s getting a good reputation,” he said. “Cylinder got beat in it last year, so that speaks volumes for the depth of the race, and this year they’ve got big noms for it.”

The Hunter

No. – Horse – Trainer – Jockey – Barrier – Weight

1 – MAZU – Peter & Paul Snowden – Nash Rawiller – 6 – 59kg

2 – VILANA – James Cummings – Adam Hyeronimus – 16 – 58kg

3 – KING OF SPARTA – Peter & Paul Snowden – Chad Schofield – 10 – 57.5kg

4 – I AM ME – Ciaron Maher & David Eustace – TBA – 4 – 57kg

5 – STRAIT ACER – Scratched

6 – COAL CRUSHER – Joseph Pride – Tyler Schiller – 2 – 56.5kg

7 – RUSTIC STEEL – Kris Lees – Sam Clipperton – 18 – 56kg

8 – DARK DESTROYER – John O’Shea – Tom Sherry – 17 – 55.5kg

9 – EXCELLENT PROPOSAL – Michael Freedman – Joshua Parr – 11 – 55.5kg

10 – AYRTON – Scratched

11 – FAR TOO EASY – David McColm – Jason Collett – 1 – 54kg

12 – ROCKETING BY – David Pfieffer – TBA – 12 – 54kg

13 – SINAWANN – Joseph Pride – Reece Jones – 15 – 53.5kg

14 – OPAL RIDGE – Luke Pepper – Dylan Gibbons (a) – 14 – 53kg

15 – DAJRAAN – Gai Waterhouse & Adrian Bott – Tim Clark – 13 – 53kg

16 – GRAVINA – James Cummings – Zac Lloyd (a) – 7 – 53kg

17 – MILITARY EXPERT – Annabel Neasham – Rachel King – 3 – 52kg

18 – UMGAWA – Leon & Troy Corstens – Liam Riordan – 8 – 52kg

19e – MUCH MUCH BETTER – Sara Ryan – TBA – 19 – 52kg