17 October 2004

Last Saturday Graham Lee went to Hexham and rode his 31st winner of the jumping season, his ninth victory in the last fortnight. Yet he had begun the day not on horseback but in the gym. Winning the Grand National last April followed by the Scottish National two weeks later was not a climax to what is already, at 28, a 16-year racing involvement. It was the chance to make the top drawer his own.

“I ended up with 94 victories, and was third in the table to A P [McCoy] and Dickie Johnson,” Graham said as he swept his sponsored Audi sports car up to the huge, gleaming state-of-the-art David Lloyd gym outside Stockton that morning. “I had had over 600 race rides, I don’t smoke or drink and, at 5ft 6, I don’t have a weight problem. But I was still getting tired at the end of the day, still feeling that I was a class below the top boys. I wanted to take myself up to a higher level.”

So, early in the summer, the award-winning sports guru and former Jockeys’ Association supremo, Michael Caulfield, set up Graham with Middlesbrough FC’s fitness team just as he had brokered McCoy’s successful rehabilitation with Arsenal in 2003. “I thought I was as fit as anyone in the weighing room,” said the jockey, fishing his bag out of the boot. “But when they did the first tests it was embarrassing. The run on the treadmill nearly killed me, my upper-body strength was a joke and my core strength, the stomach muscles and pelvic drive which should hold everything together, was practically nil.”

The smiling sadist who imparted these tidings of doom is a compact, open-faced physiologist who had pulled into the sports centre right behind us. Six years ago Chris Barnes was working at the University of Teesside when Steve Gibson, the Middlesbrough chairman, needed a full scientific specification for the multi-million new training centre he was planning for the club at Rockcliffe. In football terms, Barnes has never looked back but, before Caulfield introduced him, he had never met a jockey, never heard of Graham Lee.

“It was an interesting challenge,” said Barnes as he watched his protege pedal away furiously on the exercise bike among the usual Saturday morning clientele of middle-aged joggers, bulge-defying grannies and odd head-swiveling leotard. “I didn’t have a clue what to expect. It turned out that his legs were quite strong, his basic stamina was quite good, his eight per cent body fat level was at footballer’s level, but the rest, and particularly his diet, was terrible. But he wanted to change, so I worked him hard.”

That morning Graham had wolfed down a bowl of high protein cereal, and said: “Before meeting Barnesy, I would never have breakfast and I bet that 80 per cent of the jockeys were the same. I was having Coke, and sandwiches and chips, and all sorts of dreadful things. Now I understand the point of putting good fuel into the system and my wife Becky is wonderful at making me keep up with the vitamin pills and fish oil tablets that I have to balance things up.”

In the gym the new convert has been brought over to a strange semi-cylindrical rubber base on which he goes through assorted stomach-stretching and leg-balancing exercises that Barnes has devised to test the muscles not used in the intensive but strictly defined disciplines that a jockey’s body goes through. “For three months, through three 90-minute sessions a week,” says the trainer, “he has worked very hard. We had to make some adjustments to avoid him putting on weight but I can say his core upper-body fitness is now 50 per cent better than it was. We have got there and now that the season starts full time, we will have to adjust the work load to maintain what we have got.”

Graham Lee, stung by Barnes telling him Middlesbrough’s Nemeth can do 30 wide-arm pull-ups, marches across to the bar and pulls 10 where at first only two or three would be possible. “I am still a wimp,” he says, “but not the wimp I was. Nobody knows I have been doing this. They will take the mickey something desperate when they find out but I want to do everything in my power to take myself forwards. In the past, I have lacked confidence; this can make me more secure, better able to recover when things go wrong.”

That admission says a lot about the man and the myth-dominated sport in which he plies his trade. Lee, brought up near Galway racecourse, but never sitting on a horse until he was 12, always had the jockey’s dream, although with a grandfather who played for Kilmarnock and a younger brother, Evan, who is an Ireland Under-16 international, it was at football that he was talented. “It seemed too easy,” he remembers, “I didn’t like training, and, even at 13, I wanted to leave home. People like `Mouse’ Morris and Noel Meade were very good to me but I was crap and when Dessie McDonagh jocked me off something I spat out the dummy and came to England.”

His arrival at Mary Reveley’s Saltburn stables, in 1993, was hardly to a fanfare but the long journey upward had begun, a task immensely helped a year later by his future wife, Becky, joining the yard. “It has been hard,” he says, as we rocket back to the immaculate Lee homestead in the biggest private housing estate in Europe, “but Becky has been a diamond, I am lucky to have a terrific agent in Richard Hale and with what Barnesy has done for me, I can believe in myself more.”

Such musings are well buried a couple of hours later after we have travelled north-west to the hill-top Hexham racetrack, hard by Hadrian’s Wall. Cheltenham and Aintree may be jumping’s big-time, but Hexham remains a splendidly bucolic gathering of Geordies and gentry on a steep bank looking out over the racetrack, fields full of sheep, heather slopes and the Pennines beyond. Fancy philosophising and physiology don’t cut much here, but winners do. Lee makes all on a big chesnut novice chaser called Dante’s Brook in the first.

In the saddle he is neat and tight and persuasive, without the extravagant long levers of McCoy or the busy bustle of Richard Johnson. He is in charge but not dominant, yet as Dante’s Brook begins to tie up on the run in you can see the jockey’s power and hunger clamp in. It is a sight that racegoers may begin to treasure, especially when clad, as in Hexham’s last race, in the black and beige colours of Graham Wylie, founder of Sage software and in the last two years the biggest single investor jump racing has seen.

The Wylie runner is a distant but undisgraced second. Afterwards the rider does his usual, so serious debrief with the owner and trainer Howard Johnson, before going in to watch the replay, pulling on the sports drink he always now brings with him. It was all a long way from the days when we used to have a bottle of Guinness below the bench, not for alchohol dependence, (well not all the time) but because we seriously believed that was the best `refuelling’ aid.

Hexham is a gorgeous, timeless place, but time, even in jump racing, moves on. Jockeys, particularly those heavier and less successful than Graham Lee, have desperate schedules to square. But at heart they are athletes and both they and we should recognise the chime of the future as Lee finally throws down the gauntlet. “I want everyone to know,” he says, “that in the weighing room there will be no jockey who is better prepared.”

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