Apr 20

Rivals Wohler, Lees have much in common

Kris Lees’ Cup hope Lucia Valentina. Photo: Eddie Jim Kris Lees’ Cup hope Lucia Valentina. Photo: Eddie Jim

Kris Lees’ Cup hope Lucia Valentina. Photo: Eddie Jim

Kris Lees’ Cup hope Lucia Valentina. Photo: Eddie Jim

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In a geographical sense, Andreas Wohler and Kris Lees could not be further apart. In every other sense, they just about share everything.

The same syndicator, the same Melbourne Cup dream, even at various stages the same line of betting for the big race but perhaps no link is more profound than their origins in the training game.

Wohler, the master German trainer who has won three Derbies at home, was thrust into the racing game at just 24 when he downed his economic textbooks and took over the family stables after the death of his father Adolf.

Lees, too, was completely unprepared when his father Max succumbed to a cancer battle no one knew he was fighting two weeks after being ordered by his wife Vicki to see a doctor about his back pain.

The Newcastle trainer was eight years Wohler’s senior when a stable suddenly needed someone to step up.

Wohler has been at the wheel for almost 30 years since his father’s death and has won races all over the world but remembers how hard it was to even think about training at such a young age.

“I was studying – how do you say? – something like economics,” he said. “My father was ill for a long time and I had the stable running for already half a year. He took it over, but just for two weeks [before he died].

“I would have learned so much more [if he had lived longer]. The plan was to always be his assistant and get different experience in different countries and he would be my assistant later on. That was the longtime plan, but it didn’t happen.

“It was tough because it was our living for the family. We had to get on. To carry it on I had to do it, but I needed the backing of my owners.”

Lees, perhaps, was far more underprepared when the family’s business suddenly rested on young shoulders. He remembers sending a horse of his father’s to the races the day after his dad died in August 2003. It was called Carry On Mate. Fittingly, it won.

“Dad was irreplaceable and a one of a kind gentleman,” Lees said. “He was a family man and just a great bloke.

“He had County Tyrone for the first [in 2002] Melbourne Cup and then I had him for the second. That is a long time ago and it was a big learning curve.”

One man who has been there the whole time was syndicator and Australian Bloodstock director Jamie Lovett. Along with fellow director Luke Murrell, they remember the time Lees was just “shoeing a few” while foreman for his father.

“When Max passed away with cancer there was no contingency plan,” said Lovett, who races Protectionist in Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup with Wohler before it transfers to the care of his great mate Lees.

“I could remember the morning he had a sore back and we said ‘Doc, you don’t look too good’ as he was walking up the stairs.

“We took him to acupuncture thinking he had a sore back and his wife Vicki said three days later ‘Go and see a doctor’. He had cancer – was riddled with it – and died [two weeks] later.

“But now [Kris] has taken [the stable] to a level not many people thought he could have.”

Eleven years on and Lees has returned the family name to the Melbourne Cup book with Lucia Valentina. For once, Lovett and Murrell won’t be by his side in the mounting yard.

The pair lament the “one that got away” when another German they imported, Lucas Cranach, ran third in 2011. This time they hope to share the bulk of the $6 million purse with their fellow Novocastrian.

“If we can’t win it I hope he does … I really do,” Lovett said. “He’s a good mate of ours and we all grew up together. I’d love to win the race with Andreas and have Kris run second.”

And Lees would still be happy with that?

“He would, he’s that sort of guy,” Lovett said. “He’s one of the very few selfless guys who is not jealous. For a big race it would be lovely to have a couple of cowboys from Newcastle quinellaing it.”

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