Kris Lees’ story is not an unfamiliar one. Straight from school into the family business which was, in his case, training racehorses with father Max.
No backpacking around Europe in his twenties. No placements with legendary training figures in other parts of the world. “Yeah, I regret that a bit…but not much,” says the 48-year-old Newcastle (Australia) trainer who brings In Her Time to Sha Tin for the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m). Lees is always obliging but rarely garrulous.
However, if his horizons needed to be broadened then that happened via numerous visits to Hong Kong and a lack of experience, beyond that gained with his successful father, certainly hasn’t hindered his own training career.
“I first went to Hong Kong in 1996. I hadn’t been anywhere much before that and it was quite an eye opener for a 25-year-old from Newcastle. The sights and sounds of the city and the amazing atmosphere at the races,” says the man who this season, and last, has trained more winners in New South Wales than all bar leviathan rival Chris Waller.
Curiously, by chance, Waller - now the most powerful trainer in Australia but then working for New Zealand trainer Paddy Busuttin - joined Lees on that April 1996 expedition to the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.
Lees travelled Potential Star, trained by his father, who finished eighth, one slot behind Busuttin’s Sam McGuire in a race which saw Overbury provide trainer Saeed bin Suroor and jockey Frankie Dettori with their first international wins in Hong Kong.
“We’ve always got on well since then,” Lees says of that time spent with Waller in the quarantine stables. Indeed, Lees still carries a faded photo of the pair together at Sha Tin.
“It was pretty raw back then. We flew up on a cargo plane and we and the two horses were up the back and the rest of the plane was filled with all sorts of other stuff including fruit and vegetables but it was a great experience. We had a lot of fun,” he says.
Back again in 1998
Lees returned in 1998 with Corporate James, also trained by his father, who finished ninth to Japan's Midnight Bet in the Hong Kong International Cup when it was over 1800m rather than 2000m and International day boasted just two other feature races - the International Vase and the International Bowl.
Lees was in more familiar company that year. The eight visitors from Australia and New Zealand included fellow Newcastle trainer Paul Perry, whose Bezeal Bay beat all bar French raider Jim And Tonic in the Bowl. Jim Cassidy rode Bezeal Bay while the controversial Allan Robinson, also a Newcastle boy, rode Corporate James for the Lees family.
“That was a bit of an experience, taking ‘Robbo’ to Hong Kong. He’s quite a character,” says Lees.
Robinson started his apprenticeship with Perry as a 14-year-old and the two were a remarkably successful team. Robinson, who now sits on the Newcastle City Council and still sparks controversy, rode an Australian record of 207 winners in the 1998-99 season. He bettered that mark, to 224 in 2005-06, and that record stood until last season when Western Australia’s William Pike notched 234 winners.
Robinson’s amazing tally was almost matched by his number of run-ins with stewards and race officials - suspended more than 100 times.
I have digressed but the strong Newcastle connection continues this year as In Her Time’s co-owner and breeder Peter Brown, a long-time supporter of the Lees stable, also hails from the city which is the world's largest coal export port. Brown retains 50 per cent of the mare’s ownership after selling the other half to Hong Kong-based Orbis Bloodstock. “Peter is a real Newcastle racing identity,” Lees says.
Hoping Lightning winner strikes again
And Lees’ connection with Hong Kong has continued unabated. He originally purchased and trained the BMW Hong Kong Derby winner Furore, who’s slated for the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup on International day; he bred and originally trained Rad, who won the 2015 HKG3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy, and had his first runner in his own right in 2015 when Lucia Valentina finished an honourable fifth to Japan’s A Shin Hikari in the Cup.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to represent Australia again on the world stage and especially in Hong Kong,” he adds. I go most years regardless of whether I have a runner. We have Hong Kong clients and we’ve sold lots of horses up there.
“It’s a racing mecca and it’s no surprise that everybody asks whether you’d want to train there. In my case, I’ve thought about it but not too seriously as we are so well set up at home, but going there is something I think crosses every trainer’s mind at some stage. Winning a big race there would be something else.”
Lees believes that In Her Time providing that win is not out of the question. “She goes there on the up after just two runs this season. She ran well at Flemington (third in the Darley Classic) and that race didn’t take anything out of her at all. I was really pleased with how she worked last Saturday.
“Whether she can beat the likes of Aethero and company remains to be seen but she deserves her place,” Lees says of the seven-year-old whose nine wins include two at Group 1 level; the Galaxy in 2018 when ridden by Hong Kong champion Zac Purton and the Lightning Stakes earlier this year.
“She flies to Hong Kong on Sunday (December 1). She’s a pretty relaxed horse and I don’t think the travel or the change of environment will bother her. I don’t think it’s any more complicated to travel a mare. It didn’t bother Lucia Valentina who ran to her best and then came home and won the G1 Queen Elizabeth (Stakes) at Randwick a few months later,” Lees says.
Sydney jockey Brenton Avdulla will ride In Her Time.
Steve Moran is an award winning Melbourne racing journalist who has covered the 'sport of kings' on television, radio and in print for more than 30 years. His passion is international racing and especially the major days in Hong Kong which he has attended since 1999. He names Silent Witness, Good Ba Ba and the dual Cox Plate winner Northerly among his favourite horses and considers the Hong Kong wins of Sunline, Lord Kanaloa, Maurice, A Shin Hikari and Chautauqua among the most spectacular he's seen.