Royal Ascot win was a significant one in flourishing career of jockey Clifford Lee

CLIFFORD Lee has ridden many final furlong finishes in his burgeoning career. None have meant as much to him as his rain-sodden Royal Ascot win on the aptly-named Significantly.

North Yorkshire jockey Clifford Lee after his Royal Ascot win on Significantly.
North Yorkshire jockey Clifford Lee after his Royal Ascot win on Significantly.

It felt, said the jockey, like the longest furlong of his 25-year life as he feared the winning post would never come as the pursuers closed at the end of the Palace of Holyroodhouse Handicap.

Now, a week later, the North Yorkshire rider, who is attached to trainer Karl Burke’s Leyburn stables, still grins with pride whenever the words ‘Royal Ascot-winning jockey’ are used to describe his new-found status.

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“It’s unreal, to be honest,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “This is what I’ve been aiming for since I left school. To get a Royal Ascot winner is great, brilliant.

Clifford Lee on board Significantly (R) on their way to winning the Palace Of Holyroodhouse Stakes on day four of the Royal Ascot meeting.

“There was a photo-finish, but I knew I had won it. It was only when I pulled up, and Harrison Shaw said ‘well done’, that it started to kick in.”

The hardest furlong as owner Jeff Laughton’s horse began to tire, it was also the final race on Royal Ascot’s longest day after a deluge, and waterlogging, threatened the Royal meeting’s penultimate day.

Unplaced in the first race, Lee then had a three and a half hour wait in the weighing room to contemplate tactics on bottomless ground for the Palace of Holyroodhouse – a five-furlong contest for three-year-old horses.

Yet, while other riders might have become distracted ahead of such an important race, Lee was unfazed and became even more convinced of the need to break early and head for the favoured stands side rail as the rain continued to fall and leave his riding goggles, and breeches, covered in mud.

Jockey Clifford Lee in action at Beverley earlier this year.

“I was getting excited – but nervous too. Butterflies. The more racing was going on, the more I wanted to get out the track. By my race, the ground was very heavy – hard work.

“I rode my race and, at the two (furlong) pole, I am thinking ‘I am in with a right shout’. At the furlong pole, I was really riding him (Significantly) forward.

“In the last half furlong, I was trying whatever I could do to keep going forward, driving him forward. Unbelievable.

“The last furlong did feel a long furlong. The line couldn’t come soon enough.”

Lee, who lives in Catterick, has a clear affinity with Significantly who is known in the yard as ‘Steve’ and looked after by Burke’s daughter Lucy. “He’s a right character,” says the jockey. “A little bugger at times.”

Yet what makes the jockey’s achievement even more meritorious and noteworthy is that he does not hail from a racing background.

Born in Orpington, Kent, he owes his passion for racing to his uncle Ted Baker who had horses. “I was doing a lot of showjumping as a kid and my uncle said I should go into racing,” reflected Lee.

“I was about six stone and riding – very light to be riding those big 17-hand jumpers – but it taught me a lot about riding, learning to stand up in the saddle and being a jockey.”

From there, the then teenager went to the racing school in Newmarket before a two-year stint with trainer Ed Walker before the apprentice rider joined Burke’s much-respected Spigot Lodge Stables.

Here it has been a question of steady progression – and waiting for the opportunities to come in the bigger races that are so important to ambitious jockeys who can be accustomed to biding their time in and out of the saddle.

Like so many riders, Lee has watched from the sidelines while more established jockeys have ridden some of the Burke-trained horses in bigger races – notably multiple Group One winner Laurens when PJ McDonald was injured.

Yet he’s spent the time watching how other riders conduct themselves, notably William Buick, James Doyle and, in particular, Adam Kirby who rode Adayar to victory in the Epsom Derby earlier this month.

“He’s very hard working and the weight he does is unreal given how tall he is and how he’s so cool about it.”

And the likable Lee, who is due to partner the Burke-trained Ainsdale in the Group Three Chipchase Stakes at Newcastle’s Northumberland Plate meeting today, will be to looking to build on his 30 winners this year at a strike-rate of 15 per cent, the highest of his career today.

“I wouldn’t say I struggle with the weight. I wake up at 8st 12lb or 8st 13lb, and can do 8st 6lb with a few days notice,” he adds.

“For the rest of the year, hopefully ride as many winners as I can, improve my riding and become stronger in a finish.

“It would be nice to win a Group race. The dream is races like the Derby and the Guineas – but I have to just keep working hard and, hopefully, the chances will come.”

It is why Clifford Lee will, in time, look back on his Royal Ascot win as the most significant of his career. To date.