A WEEK is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson once observed, but a year is a lifetime when it comes to horse racing’s fluctuating fortunes.
Take Graham Lee. Twelve months ago, he was preparing for a new jumps campaign aboard horses of the calibre of Kalahari King, De Boitron and Divers – a season that would see the North Yorkshire-based rider record his 1,000th career winner shortly before he suffered another sickening fall that left his injury-hit career in serious doubt.
Now he is preparing to ride Michael Bell’s hugely-talented Wigmore Hall, one of Britain’s top middle-distance Flat horses, in today’s Sky Bet York Stakes – the feature race on yet another well-supported York card which is, once again, the most valuable in Britain.
Bell has no qualms about using Lee on his stable star, who came to prominence when winning the John Smith’s Cup on Knavesmire two years ago before travelling across the Atlantic to land the Group One Canadian Stakes at Woodbine last autumn.
He believes Lee, who won the 2004 Grand National on Amberleigh House, has the perfect hold-up tactics for a horse like Wigmore Hall. “Graham has never ridden for me before but he’s an experienced rider and a very good jockey,” said Newmarket-based Bell, who trained the 2005 Epsom Derby hero Motivator.
“I was impressed with him over jumps and he seems to be doing very well on the Flat. Hopefully, horse and rider will get on well together.
“He’s a course and distance winner and I’m hopeful he’ll give a very good account of himself. The ratings suggest he has a good chance, the ground is fine and he seems in really good nick. He’s had some tough asks of late and this looks the most winnable opportunity he’s had for a while.”
Lee’s transition from the jumping game – he was West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy’s stable jockey – could not have been more successful despite the rider’s nagging fear of failure.
He may lament the absence of a big-race winner, but he has had 30 successes to date from just over 300 rides – a very respectable strike-rate – and was third on Jim Goldie’s Hawkeyethenoo in Royal Ascot’s Wokingham Stakes. Horse and rider hope to go two better in next Saturday’s Stewards’ Cup at Glorious Goodwood.
Lee, a father-of-two from near Bedale who recently won the Group Three Chipchase Stakes at Newcastle on Maarek, has also been helped by his wealth of experience over jumps; he has made the transition far quicker than the likes of Jim Crowley, PJ McDonald and Paddy Aspell, who are now plying their trade on the Flat after cutting their teeth over jumps in Yorkshire.
While Lee says the soggy summer has helped, with the bottomless ground slowing down the speed of races, Richmond-based Aspell says the switch is not a straightforward one.
“A lot of people think it is easy because there are no jumps and you just go in a straight line up and down,” Aspell told the Yorkshire Post. “However, things happen a lot quicker and there’s a lot more race riding involved. Poor decisions will cost you more on the Flat because you haven’t got time to recover.
“If you get checked in a sprint, and lose two or three strides of momentum, it will cost you the race. In a jump race, you’ve usually got time to pick up again.
“There’s a lot more to it than people think. A lot also depends on how the ground is riding. You think you’ve got a good draw and then conditions change on the day – it’s why so much time has to be spent walking the track.
“Because we’ve had such bad weather, tracks have been giving the going description better than it was to cut down on the non-runners and get people through the gates.”
Aspell’s finest hour over jumps came when partnering Chief Dan George to victory in the William Hall Chase at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival.
He completed the 2011 Grand National on the Jimmy Moffatt-trained horse; a race that saw the aforementioned Lee appear to have a winning position on Big Fella Thanks at the penultimate fence before the horse’s stamina ran out.
“Who would have thought two riders from that National would be riding full-time on the Flat?” said Aspell.
Though he regularly rode on the Flat in the summer before making the switch on a permament basis after last year’s National, it is still taking time for Aspell to establish himself – despite his assocation with Sheriff Hutton training legend Mick Easterby.
Nearly 200 rides this year have yielded just seven winners. “It’s going to take myself a little longer than the likes of Graham,” says Aspell, who will be in action at Pontefract tomorrow when the Yorkshire Summer Racing Festival ends.
“A lot of trainers do still regard you as a jump jockey and that puts them off. The more wins you have the better.
“Graham is helped by his agent, Richard Hales. They’ve been together a long time. Also you can’t call Paul Hanagan a Northern jockey any more and Silvestre de Sousa is no longer up here – Graham has come through at the right time to fill the void.
“PJ McDonald has been doing it a lot longer than me – don’t foget he won the 2007 Scottish National on Ferdy Murphy’s Hot Weld – and he says it does take time.
“You just need a bit of luck, keep your weight right and keep busy – and things will come. But it definitely helps if you’ve ridden a thousand winners over jumps – you don’t do that unless you’re a horseman who trainers trust and like.”
As for Wigmore Hall’s rivals, Marco Botti says quickening conditions are giving him cause for concern for Planteur, who finished third in the Dubai World Cup.
Sir Henry Cecil saddled multiple Group One winner Twice Over to win this contest 12 months ago and has another major challenger in the shape of Jet Away, who also carries the colours of Khalid Abdullah.
Well beaten by the Michael Owen-bred Brown Panther at Pontefract last time out, the drop back in trip and faster surface is expected to see him in a better light.
Huby trainer Ruth Carr is double-handed with in-form Klynch and Head Space in the £50,000 Sky Bet Dash, a sprint headed by David Barron’s admits Colonel Mak.
The prolific Klynch already has winning form at York this year over the six-furlong trip, landing the Charles Henry Memorial Handicap on Macmillan Charity Day in June. Head Space has also won twice.
“Head Space is unexposed compared to Klynch and quicker ground will suit him,” said Carr.
One of the dangers to the Carr pair is one-time jump jockey Nigel Tinkler’s Misplaced Fortune, the mount of that man Graham Lee, who is jumping up the Flat jockeys’ table with every winner.