Racing: Lee still relishes the grind of reality after week of fantasy

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The Independent Online

There's icing, there's cake and then there's bread-and-butter. For National Hunt's professionals the scene shifted yesterday from the sunlit uplands of Prestbury Park back to the more prosaic surroundings here, at a course which would be flattered by the epithet run-of-the-mill.

There's icing, there's cake and then there's bread-and-butter. For National Hunt's professionals the scene shifted yesterday from the sunlit uplands of Prestbury Park back to the more prosaic surroundings here, at a course which would be flattered by the epithet run-of-the-mill.

In such a mundane setting Graham Lee, the leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, began his day's work in mid-division on the ordinary mare Gargoyle Girl. "This is real life," said the hero of last week's hour. "It can't be the other all the time." Lee, a 29-year-old from Co Galway, has enjoyed a meteoric 12 months, launched by his victory on Amberleigh House in last year's Grand National.

His upward spiral into the limelight - he needs only 10 winners to beat last season's best-ever tally of 94 - has been fuelled by the injection of high-octane horsepower into the care of his boss Howard Johnson, in the shape of millionaire businessman Graham Wylie's powerful string. It was three of those - Arcalis, No Refuge and Inglis Drever - who gave him the grail at the sport's holy of holies. Yet he was 20-1 to take the Cheltenham title at the start of play. "It was as unbelievable for everyone else, apparently, as it was for me," he said yesterday. "One winner would have been a dream. Three is something that happens to other people."

No one begrudges Lee his glory, for it has been all his own doing. Perhaps unusually for an Irishman, he was not brought up among horses, but there must have been something there deep in his genes, for he found himself drawn to his local racecourse as if by a magnet. "No horses in the family," he said, "but I just always wanted to be a jockey."

His early days, with Noel Meade and Dessie McDonagh in Ireland and with Mary Reveley in this country, brought little reward. "I was shit," he said disarmingly, "make no mistake about that. But then I began to believe in myself a bit, and with belief that I could ride a bit, actually was a jockey, came confidence. And it's amazing what a bit of confidence can do. And, of course, riding good horses. Put yourself in a Ferrari and Michael Schumacher in a Lada and I know which one I'd back. They say good horses make good jockeys, and it's true. Riding a good horse is much easier than riding a bad one."

He is too self-deprecating. Good horses help, but there have been, and are, jockeys with top-class ammunition at their disposal who remain unstylish and devoid of tactical nous. Lee's natural and developed talents have merely been thrown into sharp relief by his association with the Ferraris now garaged at Johnson's White Lea Farm in Co Durham.

He was unwilling yesterday to split the pleasure each of his Cheltenham winners gave. "Arcalis I'll always remember, because he was the first," he said, "and they did a fantastic job with him at home to get him to the races in that sort of form after his previous run. No Refuge is such a tough horse, hard as nails, a real trier. And Inglis Drever was particularly satisfying because he'd been beaten at the meeting the previous year."

Lee's afternoon here progressed unremarkably; another day, but no dollars. He pulled up on Fields Of Home, finished fourth on Hidden Bounty, 10th on Vicario, sixth on Deep Water, fifth on Seymar Lad. Down to earth, but not literally, though a fall is not necessary for blood to be spilt. Yesterday his chin was disfigured by a five-stitch gash, the legacy of a head-butt by his partner Backbeat in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase. "Last week was amazing," he said. "This was a day at the office."

There was better luck here for some of the others in the Festival limelight. In the traditional after-the-lord-mayor's-show feature, the Midlands Grand National, Paul Carberry found in Nick Williams' charge Philson Run a partner slightly more co-operative than flouncy Champion Hurdle runner-up Harchibald. Timmy Murphy, victorious on Contraband in the Arkle Trophy on Tuesday for the mighty Martin Pipe stable, brought home another novice chaser, but for a very different outfit: Glen Warrior was his trainer Julian Smith's first winner since last May.

There was no joy, though, for Ruby Walsh, who had produced one of the seminal moments of Cheltenham 2005 when employing his silkiest skills on Thisthatandtother in Thursday's Festival Trophy. It takes some cool nerve to stop riding 10 strides from the post, with your rival alongside in overdrive, wait, gather and then thrust for a half-length success, and it was jockeyship beautiful to watch. But yesterday his technique fell foul of the stewards, in the shape of a four-day ban for marking Howdydoody, third in the big race.

Alan King, on the mark with Penzance in the Triumph Hurdle, sent out potentially the best horse seen here, the five-year-old hurdler Halcon Genelardais, who won the two and a half mile novices' race by eight lengths under Robert Thornton, who had been pipped for the Cheltenham title only by dint of Lee's superior placings haul. But Peter Bowen, whose charge Take The Stand ran the race of his life to finish second in the Gold Cup, experienced the other side of the sport's ever-spinning coin when Famous Grouse broke his back in the second race.

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