Being fired brutally hard into the Southwell turf is not most people’s idea of divine intervention but Graham Lee was certain about it. “As I lay there,” he said of the vicious blow which closed his jumping career in February eight months ago, “I thought that’s the man above telling me, and I looked at the sky and said ‘yes, I swear on my life that I will listen to you now?’”
Rational thought isn’t easy when you are writhing in agony with a dislocated hip and Lee’s head was soon spinning from the effects of sipping the pain relieving gas the paramedics were feeding him. So when the jockey he regards as emissary on earth for “the man upstairs” reached the ambulance room and asked if he knew where he was, Graham joked “Taunton, Paul Nicholls put me on that Kauto Star which has only gone and buried me.” AP McCoy was not fooled and neither was he going to change the message he had been relaying for so long.
“Graham has always been struggling to keep the weight on for jumping,” said McCoy last week, “And when he had a bad bang on the head at Huntingdon a few seasons back he dropped down to nine stone but when I told him he ought to have a go on the flat he kept on that people would say he ‘had lost his bottle.’ I told him this was nonsense but he would not listen. So at Southwell, there he was, high with sipping all the gas, and I said ‘now this time you are going to promise me you are going to start on the flat and then you will never ride over fences again.’”
Decisions are one thing, delivery quite another and the journey Graham Lee has made from that ambulance room to his current place in the top ten of the flat jockeys table has already become one of the great achievements of this or any season. In 20 years riding over jumps 36 year old Graham has won the Grand National (on Amberleigh House in 2004), been leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival, third in the NH Jockeys table, twice ridden more than a hundred winners, three times totalled more than £1 million in prize money and in January this year joined the select band who have ridden a 1,000 winners over jumps. Since he jumped from the stalls on the slow starting Hot Rod Mama at Thirsk on April 21st Lee has logged up 77 winners with such style and consistency that his sane and sober agent Richard Hales freely predicts that he will be the first jockey in history to pass the 1,000 mark under both codes. But if you want the glow of self-congratulatory satisfaction G Lee is not your man.
For a start he had tried flat racing before, having 36 rides without success in 1996 mostly for Mary Reveley in North Yorkshire whose stables he had joined as an 18 year old when he had burnt most of his bridges back in his native Ireland. “I hated flat racing in those days,” said Graham on Wednesday from the home he shares with his wife Becky and their son and daughter near Bedale, “hated everything about it but then I wasn’t right in myself. It was doing my head in because I really wanted to make it as a jump jockey and I seemed to be blowing my chances. This time it is not a rehearsal but I was and am very conscious that I have so, so much to learn.”
Such ruthless self-analysis became a central part of the Lee persona as he built one highly successful career and now sets about a second life on the flat. On Wednesday he was talking during a rare day off from an increasingly crowded schedule which on Monday had featured a treble at Pontefract including a stakes win on a two year old called Willie The Whipper for his neighbour Ann Duffield. Ann could not go to the races so the saddling was done by her husband George who rode 2,500 winners on the flat and has been fascinated by the challenge that Graham has taken on board.
“We had a long chat before he started,” said George speaking from the Duffield’s picturesque yard near Middleham, “and I told him that his biggest problems early on would be the sprints, because everything happens so fast, and with two year olds where you have to do so much for them. He was very worried that he might make a mess of things but he has adapted unbelievably well and this horse (Willie The Whipper) was just his sort of ride. What I like is that he is so patient, lets a horse take him in to a race and cajoles it and squeezes it. He really gets them to run for him and when he comes back he has really thought the race through. Mind you if he thinks he has made a mistake he can hardly speak. His intensity can be almost frightening.”
Part of that intensity can be traced back to 2001 when, with northern racing closed because of Foot and Mouth restrictions, Graham Lee lodged for two months with A.P. McCoy near Lambourn and rode out daily for John Gosden at Manton. By then the boy from the mostly football family in Galway who had run away to the local stable as a twelve year old had, by his own admission, not made the best of his opportunities. “In Ireland,” he remembers, “people like Mouse Morris, Noel Meade and Des McDonagh were good to me and over here I had got going a bit but by 2001 I was twenty five years old and just a twenty winners a year man. Staying with A.P. opened my eyes as to just how little work I was really doing. He is the best jockey we have ever seen, but he is an even better man.”
The statistics tell the story: from 25 winners Lee’s total climbed to 58, 66 and on up to 94 in the 2003/4 season which was crowned by Amberleigh House’s Grand National glory. But, characteristically, Lee still felt he was underperforming and took himself to sports scientist Chris Barnes, then head of fitness at Middlesbrough Football Club where he at first felt humiliated at the comparative weakness of his upper body and the ludicrous lack of nutrition in his no breakfast and a cigarette start to the day. Barnes transformed Lee’s overall fitness and it was to him, now based with West Brom, that Graham once again turned this spring when the challenge became taking weight off rather than putting it on.
“He used to be around 9 stone 10,” says Barnes who this week will also be supervising the England Under 21 Rugby League squad, “and is now a stone under that so obviously had to lose a bit of muscle mass which means he can’t be quite as strong as he was. His fitness levels are still very high but whereas he would have been doing 10 to 14 repetitions of an exercise in four or five sets he would now do 6-10 and three to four sets, and instead of intense cardiovascular sessions he would do much longer ones on his bike. We have made sure he has kept taking his vitamin supplements to boost his immune system and he still eats very well, having a good breakfast, healthy snacks through the day and never going to the sauna. He did look very pinched at one stage but is now a shining example of how it can be done.”
When Lee first asked Barnes if he could get a stone off his body weight and still keep his fitness, the coach said “yes, but you will hate me for it” but the masochist in the jockey has taken some enjoyment as well as satisfaction from the project with both of them delighting in the fact that he was able to do it at all. “It was a huge, huge bonus that the injury was a dislocation not a fracture. In all my time I have never seen the hip joint come out like this, (an ‘anterior dislocation’ means the joint was pushed out of the front of the socket). If it had been a fracture he could have been off for six months and recovery can be more limited.”
While Lee began his physical recovery in the best possible hands, his professional re-invention was in the equally sure grip of agent Richard Hales who masterminds the careers of a clutch of northern jockeys from his Lake District base near Penrith and who has had Graham on his books since he was a three pound claimer. “Because the jumping rides were drying up in the north,” says Hales, “we had already discussed having a go on the flat in the summer but the injury clinched things. I was pretty sure he would make it because he has always seemed to have plenty of time in his races and even in that very first one at Thirsk I could see the same thing happening on the flat. He went some ten days before a winner and you always worry but then the first one came at Musselburgh and he had that double at Chester and he was flying.”
That opening victory was on 20-1 shot Northern Fling for Scottish trainer Jim Goldie for whom Lee has ridden fourteen other winners this season including a magnificent photo-finish triumph on the evergreen Hawkeyethenoo and an equally significant four way photo verdict on Jack Dexter at Chester on May 10th. “Grand National winning jockey scores on the flat” is a quick and easy headline but what Graham Lee did round the Roodee bends on that sodden “Ladies Day” at Chester was in every sense a statement of the long term. Because both on Jack Dexter and on the Donald McCain Absinthe, the first leg of his double, Lee had shown the two things that you most need in a jockey, physical and mental control. He understood what he was doing – Absinthe was from the front, the sprinter Jack Dexter coming through the splits off the bend – and had the balance and strength to shift the horse beneath him. Above all, he could use his body.
In an earlier life Richard Hales handled the young Kieren Fallon when was he was blossoming under the guidance of Jack Ramsden. “The great thing about Kieren,” was that he could use his body and Graham does this too. He will never get suspended for the whip because he only uses it as an extra, what he really likes to do is to squeeze them along.” The jockey himself is very happy to accept this assessment adding, “I think so much soft ground has been a huge bonus to me this season. It has slowed things down and it has meant that squeezing them really helps.”
The esoterics of such riding mechanics should not be dismissed as “too much detail” because they lie at the very heart of flat race riding and Lee’s own example is but part of a trend much enhanced by the acceptance, by punters as much as jockeys, of the new whip rules and so putting the emphasis on what a jockey can do with his mind and body rather than very visible but often counter-productive belabouring with the whip. With the Lee that rode the double at Chester that body use is very obvious because it was the same jockey that we knew driving home Kalahari King over fences at Aintree or Inglis Drever in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham. But the Lee that landed the treble at Pontefract looks smaller, shorter legged and tighter to his horse that you could conclude, especially on his easy final winner Tiger, that he just perches there and lets them run. What happens is a bit more complicated than that.
“I have pulled my leathers up a couple of holes over the season,” says Graham, “but that has just happened naturally and seems to keep me tighter to the horse. But I still believe in what McCoy taught me, to squeeze and squeeze them to get them to go forward. I didn’t go for the whip on that Tiger as we closed on them up the hill at ‘Ponty’ but I was squeezing the heart out of him so that he got there without me having to go for him. Every horse is a challenge and when I get on one I am trying to listen to him to find the best way to get it to run for me. Sometimes I can come in fourth of fifth and be really pleased because I have got a moderate horse to really run his heart out for me.”
By any normal standards Lee should be pleased with how his season has gone but is as desperate not be seen as smug about success as he was phobic about people thinking that the only reason he was going on the flat was because he had “lost his bottle.” “Riding over jumps for the last twenty years,” he says, “has been the best possible apprenticeship for what I am doing now. It has taught me never to get ahead of yourself and that hard work is never wasted. Flat racing is more intense and there are times when the sheer amount of it (he has already had almost 700 rides since April) can do your head in. But the beauty of this job is that if something goes wrong half an hour later you have another chance to get things right. Of course there is the world of difference driving half a ton of horse up the hill to buck over the last at Hexham and spinning down the five furlongs at Catterick but a horse is still a horse and you have to listen to them and work out quickly the best way to help them. I am a huge believer in keeping things simple and you have to live in the future not the past.”
So what winners, what big job awaits Graham Lee in 2013 and beyond? Richard Hales plans only to push on as he has done his season. “There are actually very few ‘big jobs’ around,” says Hales, before adding with quiet emphasis – “there are worst things to be than a much in demand freelance.” As for the jockey he won’t be putting any numbers on his ambition. “That what I learnt from my jump jockey ‘apprenticeship’” he says, “but this has been a season beyond my wildest dreams and I still have so much to learn. The beauty of it is that I have been given a fresh outlook and an education in the tracks, the horses, the lads, jockeys. I am understanding things like who you can follow, where to go when the weather changes like Catterick on the stands side when it is soft. Yet most of all I want to say from the bottom of my heart how grateful I am that my body has given me this chance and that the man above finally made me listen.”
Graham Lee is not asking for any further Divine Intervention. Once might be quite enough.