Top local trainer Kris Lees has extra spring in his step as he takes aim on Saturday’s $1m The Hunter

Kris Lees is looking forward to Saturday’s The Hunter at Newcastle. Picture: Aaron Francis–The Australian

The Hunter meeting is just six days away and the fact Newcastle locals will be able to see one of Australia’s best sprinters race on their track highlights what a success the day has become.

Saturday will be the third Hunter meeting which not only features the $1 million feature but another new race, the $300,000 The Beauford (2300m) for stayers, along with the Group 3 Spring Stakes and Max Lees Classic.

John O’Shea confirmed on the weekend that Everest fourth place getter and Classique Legend Stakes runner-up Lost And Running will take his place in The Hunter and Hugh Bowman will ride him once again.

His Everest profile makes him the favourite but it also gives The Hunter a headline act.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve never had an Everest runner run in it so he looks pretty hard to beat,” local trainer Kris Lees said of the early $2.80 favourite.

I remember the first Hunter meeting in 2019 and seeing Lees. He came up to me and shook my hand with more energy and enthusiasm than usual.

I could tell how proud he was about Newcastle taking centre stage on the biggest racing day of the week.

“Two hours in the car to Sydney takes the spring out of your step a bit,” Lees said.

“It’s turning into a big day and the crowds are back so I think it will be well received this year.”

Lees will have a good team aimed at The Hunter with Gem Song headlining.

The six-year-old won the Group 3 Newcastle Newmarket in March and ended his autumn preparation with a 1.9 length fifth to Think It Over in the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes – so he’s got the class to win on Saturday.

Everest runner Libertini is a $26 hope in The Hunter while fringe Everest types like Standout, Signore Fox and Kementari are in the market.

It’s not just a race for out of season Listed-standard horses.

“I think Gem Song is the type of horse that’s certainly up to a race like that although I think this is the strongest running of the race so far,” Lees said.

“Gem Song is the type of horse where if the predicted rain falls it might just play into his hands.

“He’s going really well. There wasn’t a real obvious lead up run for him so we’ve had to keep him up to the mark and he can race well fresh.”

Lees has run second with Tactical Advantage and Special Reward in the first two runnings of The Hunter.

It’s only early days but he doesn’t want it to be a hoodoo race like the Newcastle Cup was for many years.

“It took about 16 years and nine or 10 placings to win it (Newcastle Cup). We’re two placings from two already in The Hunter so it’s starting to look a bit ominous isn’t it.

“Any million dollar race is good to win and it’s now probably our flagship race.

“I’ll have three or four nominate for it. Wandabaa might back up and Special Reward, who ran second in it last year, is ticking over well and is going better than the form reads.

“Wandabaa ran well on Saturday and she could easily show up in The Hunter.”


What else can we say about James McDonald after his Melbourne Cup carnival?

His 10 winners broke Brett Prebble’s carnival record and, amazingly, he’s sixth in the Victoria metropolitan jockey’s premiership from just 34 rides.

His Everest win and Melbourne Cup win have helped him ride the winners of more than $21 million in prizemoney and it’s only the start of November.

Last year in NSW McDonald won the premiership but ran second in the prizemoney won because Kerrin McEvoy took out The Everest on Classique Legend – despite the fact he rode 81 more winners than McEvoy.

He’s won The Everest this year and if all goes to plan he will earn more money in the saddle this season than any jockey has ever won.


The bumper spring carnival is over but trainer Mark Newnham said owners can still fill their pockets over the summer months.

“There’s plenty of options and money for non-carnival horses now, that’s the best thing about it,” Newnham said.

“The Hunter, The Gong and Villiers ($750,000) are worth a lot of money and you don’t need to be a Group 1 horses to win them races.

“They’re spreading the money out throughout the year so there’s less reasons to travel your horses which is always good.”

Newnham said the extra prizemoney and new rich races put on by Racing NSW in recent times, with more to come, means horses not only won’t leave their home state as much but the country.

“It’s viable to be racing horses now and there’s less reason to sell horses too which keeps more in the system,” he said.

“If you get offered $500,000 for your horse from Hong Kong it’s not as viable to sell as it used to be.”

Newnham also said while the Melbourne Cup was great on Tuesday he thinks it would be better if it was more of an Australian race and not one stacked with internationals who aren’t known well.

“To me, there’s no point in running a race for that amount of money ($7.75m) where the trainer, the jockey and owner don’t participate in our industry for the rest of the year and the money goes offshore,” he said.

“Turnover is a good indication of whether races are working or not and in recent years turnover has gone down so it’s not a viable option to run it that way.”


Shalatin was beaten by Sejardan in the Golden Gift on Saturday at Rosehill and it will be interesting to see how he comes back for the autumn.

Both are rated $11 chances for the Golden Slipper behind $6 favourite Coolangatta.

Sejardan looks the more natural two-year-old but you get the feeling if Joe Pride can get Shalatin doing everything right then he might have the X-factor to beat anything.

“He panicked when he got in between horses and he had one tighten him up from the outside on Saturday.

“He could be anything. He’s an exciting horse and he’ll get there,” Pride said.

“The job I’ve got now is getting him race-savvy enough for the autumn.”