Willie Mullins may have grabbed much of the limelight this winter, but for many the outstanding trainer of this particular Jumps campaign has to be Kerry Lee.
She took over from her father Richard less than nine months ago and has had a sensational opening season. Dad is still an integral part of the team at Bell House Stables in the beautiful Herefordshire countryside. She has just under 30 horses at the yard, and insists that the attention to detail this allows is part of the reason for such a successful winter.
The purpose-built yard features a six- furlong woodchip all weather gallop known as Brand Hill, along with schooling grounds which include cross-country jumps, brush hurdles and fences. The yard is ideally placed for racing at Bangor, Chepstow, Cheltenham, Ludlow, Worcester and Warwick, though her raids on Newbury and this weekend in Ireland at Fairyhouse have proved extremely beneficial.
With prize money now exceeding £350,000 Lee must be pinching herself and wishing that the season would never end. Yet again the yard’s well-being has been publicised with major success at Fairyhouse over the last few days.
On Saturday her exciting novice chaser Kylemore Lough won the Grade 1 Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase, defeating Gigginstown’s Outlander. The seven-year-old is now five from six over fences, but this was by far his best performance to date. Sent off the 7/4 second favourite, he stayed on powerfully to beat Willie Mullins’ classy chaser. This 2m4f trip looked absolutely ideal, having spent most of the winter winning over shorter.
Lee was understandably thrilled with the success, saying: “It's fantastic. I never had a runner in a Grade 1 until today and Kylemore Lough battled hard to win with Barry (Geraghty) using all his expertise to pull it off. Jamie (Moore) also deserves a lot of credit as he's done a massive amount of work with the horse and recommended Barry when he was unable to ride himself because of injury. If the ground is right and not too quick the horse will come back to Ireland and run at Punchestown next month.”
The same can be said of yesterday’s winner Top Gamble. He added a Grade 2 victory for the stable when powering away from the field in the Normans Grove Chase. The ground was plenty quick enough for the eight-year-old, but the race was run at a terrific gallop and when the leading pair of Flemenstar and Days Hotel began to fade, Richard Johnson’s mount had more than enough in the tank to pick up the pieces. The eventual winning margin was seven lengths.
Johnson was clearly pleased with the win, saying: “It's great to come over and Kerry's horses are running really well. This horse, on his day, is very good. Kerry's doing very well and this horse was good at Newbury last time. We were slightly worried the ground might have dried too much, but the strong gallop suited him. He's not the fastest - even though he's a two-miler - and prefers really soft ground over the trip. But because they've gone so strong early I thought he had every chance.”
The win at Newbury was of course the Grade 2 success in the Game Spirit, when accounting for former Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets. Prior to that the horse ran a blinder when chasing home Village Vic over 2m5f at Cheltenham. Should the ground turn soft at Punchestown, it would be unwise to dismiss him, even in more exalted company.
These two huge performances at Fairyhouse prove that Lee is not just an exceptional trainer of staying chasers. The winter had highlighted the depth of talent the yard enjoys with deep ground marathon types, highlighted by victory for Mountainous in the Coral Welsh National. The race was run in bottomless conditions, proving tailor-made for the gutsy performer.
Lee then sent out a newcomer to the yard Bishops Road to win his debut race and Sandown and then follow up in terrific style in the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock. Both victories came on heavy ground, and though he is fancied for the Grand National, he’ll need to prove he’s just as proficient on a sounder surface.
Russe Blanc was another heavy ground winner when taking the Betfred Classic Chase at Warwick back in January. Jumping errors cost him at Newcastle in February and a combination of faster ground and further jumping mistakes put him out of contention in the Irish National the other day. He’s still only nine, and there’s a chance that Lee could glean further improvement from him, especially when back in more testing conditions. That Warwick win was impressive, and though his handicap mark has suffered as a consequence, he still looked a horse with plenty more to give.
With Aintree and Punchestown just around the corner, there’s every chance that the Herefordshire trainer will be out doing a rain-dance or two in the coming days. This soggy winter looks to have played to her team’s strengths, and it’s likely that she will be looking to strengthen the yard with those bred to appreciate better conditions. Having said that, many would say ‘why change a winning formula’.
The future looks bright for this season’s outstanding new talent. The size of yard has without doubt aided her quest to get the very best from the equine talent on hand. Attention to detail with each individual is that much easier with a smaller team, and she has clearly put in place training regimes that suit each particular horse.
There’s always the danger that the handicapper will now have several of the stars in his grip, and therefore next winter could prove that much tougher. Just how Kerry Lee sets about building on this year’s success will prove an intriguing sub-plot when hostilities resume in autumn 2016.