The call would come in early May, just as the nights were turning cold but State of Origin was drawing near.
“Mate, I’m doing Merewether Stairs at 7pm,” Andrew Johns would say.
“I’ll be right there,” Kris Lees would reply.
Kris Lees with Mugatoo at his stables in Broadmeadow.Credit:Peter Stoop
If they weren’t trudging up and down the famous stairs at Merewether Beach, where many a Newcastle Knights player has spectacularly vomited in pre-season training, the champion rugby league player and emerging horse trainer would run the unforgiving hills of nearby King Edward Park.
“He’s got a big motor,” Johns says. “He trains his arse off. I’d call him a month out from Origin, when I was doing extra work trying to get that edge, and he’d get in and train with me. That’s just how he is. His work ethic is exceptional. If he’s been out with me, and we’ve finished late – or finished early, depending how you want to look at it – he won’t miss work the next day. He’s never missed a day of work in his life.”
Johns, 46, has long since retired but remains great mates with Lees, 50, who is fast establishing himself as another iconic sporting figure to come out of the Hunter Valley.
Not that Lees would ever consider himself or what he does in those terms.
“Unassuming” is the word mostly attached to him when I did the ring-around for this story. “Quiet” is the other.
That’s why it shocked so many when Lees completely lost his rag as his outstanding six-year-old Mugatoo won the All-Star Mile at Moonee Valley last month.
Sure, it was a $5 million race. Yes, it was a mighty effort after Russian Camelot had headed Mugatoo in the straight, only for jockey Hugh Bowman to find another gear, kick clear again and win.
But Lees’ unfettered reaction, alongside 16-year-old son Marshall, which was captured by a racegoer on his mobile phone, surprised even him.
“I don’t usually show that emotion,” Lees smiles, shaking his head. “I probably wouldn’t if I knew the bloke behind me was filming.”
That performance is why Mugatoo will start favourite in the $3m Doncaster Mile on the first day of The Championships at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
It’s also why I’m meeting Lees here, in this cafe in Merewether, which was a TAB in a former life.
He’s enjoyed group 1 success over the years, first with County Tyrone, then Samantha Miss and then Lucia Valentina, among several others.
But he’s never won the Doncaster. The closest he came was in 2017 with Sense of Occasion, which finished third.
“I’m a racing traditionalist,” Lees says. “A $5 million race is great, you can’t knock that, but the Doncaster is a proper group 1. I think I’ve been to the last 30 of them.”
It’s almost impossible to write a story about Lees without mentioning his late father, Max, also a Newcastle sporting icon after he prepared Luskin Star to win the 1977 Golden Slipper.
I’m reluctant to raise Max because the storyline has been visited so many times. His son stepped out of his shadow a long time ago.
“It doesn’t worry me,” Lees says, humbly. “I just get worried people get sick of reading about it.”
‘He had one dose of chemo before passing away. It was really traumatic, but it happened so quick that I didn’t have time to grieve. I was at work the next day.’
It’s an important part of the Kris Lees story because Max’s life – and death – shaped him as a trainer and a man.
In August 2003, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He passed away 14 days later at the age of 65. Kris was 33.
“He had a heart attack in April of that year and became really pedantic about his diet and lost a lot of weight,” Lees says. “The reason he lost the weight was the cancer. We spoke to the doctor about what we could do, even though there was really no hope. Dad said, ‘There might’ve been a bit of blood’. He had one dose of chemo before passing away. It was really traumatic, but it happened so quick that I didn’t have time to grieve. I was at work the next day. I had to be.”
There were two attributes Lees picked up from his father.
The first was a relentless work ethic. The big motor that Johns talks about.
When Johns was playing for the Knights, he’d travel with Lees to Sydney on a Wednesday for the races.
“Sometimes I’d drive and Kris would constantly be on the phone,” Johns says. “He’d be talking to trainers, jockeys, owners. He didn’t have any technology with him. It was all in his head. He just knew every horse, what it was doing, where it was racing next.”
The second thing Lees learnt from his father was patience.
“Max was so good at placing horses to win races,” Hall of Fame jockey Jim Cassidy says. “And Kris is exactly the same.”
Hugh Bowman steers Mugatoo to victory in the All-Star Mile in March.Credit:Getty Images
While the comparisons between father and son are easily made, there’s little doubt Kris has excelled since taking over his father’s stable.
Max had about 65 horses in work at his peak – his son has more than a hundred, with a pre-training and spelling farm near Cessnock and a satellite stable on the Gold Coast.
Max had his wife, Vicki, running his books – his son has 75 staff who get paid every week.
Max notched 20 group 1 winners – his son has claimed 16 and is far from finished.
Sky Racing expert Gary Harley, whose raspy voice has been the soundtrack of Newcastle sport for decades, knows how Max would feel about his son’s success.
“Max will always be the man who trained Luskin Star – but he’d be so proud of what Kris has achieved,” Harley says. “He always wanted him to be a trainer.”
“Max was very conservative,” Harley says. “If Luskin Star was in a maiden, he’d say, ‘It’ll be hard to beat’. Kris is exactly the same. The happiest I’ve seen him was when he won the Newcastle Cup last year with Mugatoo. He’d had a heap of runners, a heap of placings, but winning that race meant everything to him.”
Lees was happy because it was a race neither Max nor himself had ever won.
“It’s not a time-honoured race but it’s a race I’d always wanted to win,” he says. “It’s not always about the money.”
Indeed, he’s resisted the temptation over the years to relocate to Sydney and expand his operation even further.
“It once crossed my mind,” Lees says. “I had an offer of some sorts about 10 years, and we considered it, but I didn’t really. I don’t think we need to. I just love this area. It’s as good as anywhere. We can go anywhere and be competitive.”
He’s right: he sits fourth behind Chris Waller, Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, and Tony Gollan for most winners prepared across the country for the 2020-21 season.
Winning also makes the drive home up the M1 Motorway even sweeter, and there’s every chance he will do so on Saturday with the Doncaster Mile trainer’s trophy in the boot.
Mugatoo will easily lug the weight of 56 kilograms, has drawn ideally in barrier four, and the splash of rain this week also suits.
“I’ve done a lot of kays on that drive home over the years,” Lees smiles. “I know exactly where I am, how long until I get to my place and how long to the Pymble pub from the track where I can get three beers for the trip home.”
Spoken like a true Novocastrian.
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