The third edition of the million-dollar The Hunter is this Saturday, and few better appreciate the significance of the standalone meeting than local trainer Kris Lees, who has been second in the feature race the last two years.

On Saturday, a weight of attention will slide north in New South Wales to the Newcastle Jockey Club (NJC), which will host its annual million-dollar race, The Hunter.

Inaugurated in 2019, the 1300-metre sprint is the state’s standout feature in the weekend following spring carnivals, and it’s quickly becoming a significant local fixture.

No one knows this better than trainer Kris Lees, who has trained at Newcastle his entire professional life. Lees welcomed the announcement of The Hunter a few years ago and, like anything, he said it will take time to blossom.

“It has certainly grown each year,” the trainer said, speaking to TDN AusNZ. “The race is going the right way from a popularity point of view, and I know the town is getting right behind it. We’re expecting 4000 people trackside this week, but I think you’ll find in time that it will be getting into the double figures easily.”

 

Last year, The Hunter meeting has had to contend with COVID-19, but Saturday’s fields across the entire card are unaffected.

The million-dollar race is boasting its best field yet, while the new $300,000 The Beauford is primed for the stayers. The G3 Spring S. has drawn an army of 3-year-olds, including the on-song Festival Dancer (Choisir), undefeated in her last three, and even The Highway attracted 41 nominations.

“Once you introduce a new race, it takes two or three years to be embedded,” said Duane Dowell this week, NJC CEO. He cited Saturday’s field for The Hunter as a good example.

“We have 10 horses that are rated 100 or over, so that is a genuine Group-level race and it certainly fits the level of prizemoney on offer.”

Timing is everything

The million-dollar The Hunter was tactically timed to occur in the wake of the Sydney and Melbourne spring carnivals, and it’s something that Lees said has worked in local favour.

“It’s a really good time for it,” he said. “We’ve got no footy and the cricket is just starting to warm up, so it’s the perfect time with Melbourne just finishing, and both Newcastle and Kembla are beneficiaries of that.”

Kembla Grange will host the million-dollar The Gong on November 20, and both races were announced in the winter of 2019 with an eye on casting the net further than Randwick and Rosehill. Racing NSW was looking to provide a standalone, feature race meeting in its two big cities of Newcastle and Wollongong, something that would give new racegoers an excuse to go to the track beyond a traditional weekend meeting.

 

For Lees, and most local trainers, it’s been a success, and Lees in particular knows exactly how important the concept is to the region. As the son of local training legend Max Lees, his family has deep roots in Newcastle.

Max Lees had the superb horse Luskin Star in the 1970s, plus a raft of other great Group 1 horses, including SnippetsCounty Tyrone (Danewin), Coronation Day (Munich) and Ruffles (Zeditave). The trainer died in 2003, upon which his then 30-year-old son uptook the 50-horse yard in Newcastle.

“Any trainer back in my father’s era would have been extremely surprised to have seen a million-dollar race on our doorstep,” Lees said. “The Newcastle Cup might have got to $300,000 one year, so this stands above all our other races, to be fair. The Cup still has its heritage, but The Hunter will be our flagship race, if it’s not already.”

“Any trainer back in my father’s era would have been extremely surprised to have seen a million-dollar race on our doorstep.” – Kris Lees

On Saturday, the meeting will honour the Lees legacy with the 900-metre Max Lees Classic, a short scamper for the 2-year-olds that has been running for a number of years.

“From a family point of view, we’re honoured to have a race named after my father,” Lees said. “And he would have been in two minds about it. Publicly, I think he would be embarrassed, but privately he’d be pretty chuffed.”

Third time’s a charm?

In its only two runnings to date, The Hunter has landed Lees a second place on both occasions.

In 2019, he trained Tactical Advantage (Bel Esprit) to finish runner-up behind Godolphin mare Savatiano (Street Cry {Ire}), while last year, Special Reward (Demerit) lost out to Sweet Deal (Casino Prince). Both of the latter horses will line up on Saturday.

 

Lees has four from his yard heading into the 15-horse field and, alongside Special Reward, they are the fancied Gem Song (Your Song), Countofmontecristo (NZ) (Echoes Of Heaven) and Wandabaa (Wandjina).

For the first time, The Hunter has pulled in a runner from The Everest in the shape of Lost And Running (NZ) (Per Incanto {USA}). The 5-year-old gelding was a last-start second to Eduardo (Host {Chi}) in the million-dollar Classique Legend S. in late October.

“I think this race has always tried to drag Everest horses into that extra month,” Lees said. “They go on to that Classique Legend race, which will be the Nature Strip next year, and we’re quite fortunate that we’ve got one runner out of The Everest this year.”

“I think this race has always tried to drag Everest horses into that extra month… and we’re quite fortunate that we’ve got one runner out of The Everest this year.” – Kris Lees

Lees said the 1300-metre distance was an ideal target for sprinters out of the Sydney spring.

“It’s between that Everest distance and the mile of The Gong,” he said. “At our track, 1200 metres is not ideal because you start turning after 150 metres, so I think the 1300 is a nice trip on our big, spacious track.”

 

The trainer is hoping that this weekend will be ‘third time’s a charm’, because while the $190,000 second-place purse is attractive, the frustration of running multiple places is something he’s well versed in.

It took Lees a long time to land the Newcastle Gold Cup after a smattering of places in that race too, which was finally corrected last year when the Australian Bloodstock runner Mugatoo (Ire) (Henrythenavigator {USA}) won the race lumping 59kg.

“The Cup took me about nine placings, I think, before I got there,” Lees said. “If you’re going to continue to run second in a race, I guess a million-dollar race is better than some others, which is probably one way to look at it. I thought we were home last year for a few strides, but we’ve run into a couple of smart mares each time.

“If you’re going to continue to run second in a race, I guess a million-dollar race is better than some others, which is probably one way to look at it.” – Kris Lees

“Savatiano went on to win a Group 1 race (Canterbury S.) deeper into her career, and Sweet Deal was in awesome form last year. So we’ve run into two handy mares each time, which was frustrating.”

Lees said the Newcastle track is a broad, fair racecourse, and both previous winners won just off the speed. He said the chance of rain might spread the chances a little bit, and the New South Wales east coast is expecting a deluge before Saturday’s meeting.

“Unless it’s raining on the day, the track will be in terrific order,” Lees said. “It’s a magnificent drying track, and it’s only four or five years old so I wouldn’t be too concerned unless it’s raining on the day.”

RECENT PURCHASES

WHAT'S MAKING NEWS...

Australians Active at Deauville

Australians Active at Deauville

Story by Mark SMith for breednet.com.auThe Freedman brothers, Paul Moroney, Yulong Stud, Dean Hawthorne, China Horse Club, and Australian Bloodstock were active on the opening day of the Arqana Vente D'Élevage at Deauville. Lot 193 Amabelle (GER) (Danehill Dancer x...

read more
Australian Bloodstock import opens favourite for Pakenham Cup!

Australian Bloodstock import opens favourite for Pakenham Cup!

Story by James Lamb for punters.com.auAustralian Bloodstock import Mankayan has opened favourite for Saturday's Listed Pakenham Cup (2500m), worth $300,000. The ultra-consistent gelding heads TAB's all-in market at $3.50, ahead of two-time Zipping Classic winner Sound...

read more
Anethole and Satin Ruby out to shed luckless tags!

Anethole and Satin Ruby out to shed luckless tags!

Story by Ray Thomas for News CorpTrainer Cody Morgan hopes Anethole and Satin Ruby can finally shed their “luckless’’ tags at Tamworth on Tuesday. “I think Satin Ruby has been the most unlucky horse in my stable the last two years,’’ Morgan said, “Probably Satin Ruby...

read more

Featured Horse!

TURN ON THE CHARM

Tattersalls Horses In Training Sale | LOT: 641
Trainer: Ciaron Maher & David Eustace
Purchased for 135,000GNS

RECENT WINNERS

Grande Rumore – Nov 28, 2021 – Newcastle

Grande Rumore – Nov 28, 2021 – Newcastle

Grande Rumore Nov 28, 2021 Race: 8 - Newcastle Margin: 1.80 Kris Lees / A Gibbons $40,000 SKY RACING SUMMER PROVINCIAL SERIES - HEAT 3 - CLASS 5 PLATEGRANDE RUMORE (Night Of THunder x Silent Serenade) Was strong through the line over 1500m at Newcastle on the 28th of...

read more
Spellcatcher – Nov 23, 2021 – Newcastle

Spellcatcher – Nov 23, 2021 – Newcastle

Spellcatcher Nov 23, 2021 Race 5 - Newcastle Margin: 2.30 Kris Lees / A Bullock $24,000 HUNGERFORD HILL MAIDEN PLATE (1200 METRES)SPELLCATCHER (Extreme Choice x Spellbinder) showed speed and strength on his return at Newcastle on the 23rd of November. Going 1st up...

read more
Asherla – Nov 17, 2021 – Doomben

Asherla – Nov 17, 2021 – Doomben

Asherla Nov 17, 2021 Race 5 - Doomben Margin: 3.80 Kris Lees / A Mallyon $35,000 4 AUSSIE HEROES FOUNDATION Fillies and Mares Class 1 Handicap 1050mASHERLA (Astern x Heritage Lane) showed price tag is no teller of fortune as the $6k filly raced away to score by 4...

read more

Pin It on Pinterest