Cheltenham Races

Kerry Lee: Winning the BetVictor Gold Cup was special

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Happy Diva was a game winner of Saturday's BetVictor Gold Cup for the Kerry Lee team.
Happy Diva was a game winner of Saturday's BetVictor Gold Cup for the Kerry Lee team.

Following her success with Happy Diva in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham last weekend, we caught up with Kerry Lee to reflect on a marquee moment..

Cheltenham seems to be like no other racecourse for its ability to tell an enthralling story whenever it hosts a meeting, and last week’s November Meeting continued that feeling; with subplots which began as early as mid-week, when the weather threatened to take away the spectacle entirely. 

Friday's card fell victim to the rain, but the final two days of the meeting survived - headlined by the valuable BetVictor Gold Cup - which is widely-seen as the biggest handicap race of the season this side of Christmas.  

The narrative coming into the race belonged to the Colin Tizzard team and Slate House, who was sent off as a commanding 4/1 favourite having looked like a potential Graded horse in the making when winning at Cheltenham’s October Meeting, but he departed with a slithering fall two fences from home, leaving the door open for the Kerry Lee-trained Happy Diva to become the first mare to win the race since Lady Cricket back in 2000. 

It wasn’t just in an equine sense that the boys had rather dominated this race of late, either, and only two female trainers had previously managed to win the race before Saturday - with both of those coming in the previous century (Susan Nock with Senor El Betrutti in 1997 and Venetia Williams with Outback Way in 1999) - and Kerry, who’s had several days to allow this success to sink in, ranked this as one of her finest hours to date, but admitted that it still feels surreal;

“Winning the Welsh Grand National (in January 2016 with Mountainous) was my first big winner, but to win the meeting’s feature handicap at Cheltenham was very special. 

“Numerically it’s the most valuable race I’ve ever won, and it was at the home of Jumps racing.

"It’s a big race success on the feature meeting this side of Christmas, so it’s pretty thrilling.”

It’s coming up to five years now since Kerry took the reins at The Bell House in the Herefordshire countryside from her father, the dual Welsh National-winning trainer Richard Lee back in July 2015, and this certainly feels like a marquee moment for her - having celebrated a blistering first season with a string of high-profile successes, including a Classic Chase at Warwick and a Grade 1 success at Fairyhouse with Kylemore Lough to add to her Welsh Grand National win.

Things haven't always been plain sailing since, but she stressed that it has proven tough to maintain standards alongside the powerhouses of the sport on limited resources, operating at a yard which has a capacity of just 31 horses; 

“It’s very hard to maintain horses at a high level when you’ve got such small numbers compared to other yards - so to be competitive on a Saturday, you’ve got to be careful where you run your horses, and pick and choose your races and assignments accordingly.

“When you compare me to every other trainer in Saturday’s race - I think I’ve got 24 horses at the moment - most are double or treble that amount, so to be taking on the likes of the Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls, David Pipe and Venetia Williams, and beating them at the home of Jumps racing - it really does mean a lot.” 

It wasn’t just Kerry for whom Saturday’s success could open doors, however, as it provided a breakthrough moment for the conditional jockey Richard Patrick - whose career has rather mirrored that of Kerry’s;

“Richard couldn’t have given Happy Diva a better ride on Saturday. This is his first big handicap and he’s received a lot of attention and press for it, which is great, and rightly so. 

“He and I have worked closely together for both of our professional careers, and he’s a big part of the team here.

“He joined me as an amateur three seasons ago, before turning conditional last season, and he’s now about 15 winners away from losing his claim all-together.

“I certainly think he’s got what it takes. He’s very cool, calm and collected, and doesn’t seem to suffer from nerves like I do! He’s excellent in that respect. 

“He’s hard-working, intelligent and is a good judge of pace, so I’m a huge fan and I’m sure he’d do well in the future.” 

Patrick has been able to build a real rapport with Happy Diva, riding her in each of her last 13 outings, and although plenty have suggested next month’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup as a potential next port of call for the eight-year-old, Kerry was keen to stress that she will very much do what’s right by the mare;

“Happy Diva is an absolute pro, she’s very chilled and takes it all in her stride; a very easy horse to have around the yard. 

“She’s gone up 6 lb for this win, so personally, I’d probably be looking to stay against her own sex; I think maybe the listed Lady Protectress Chase (at Huntingdon) which she won last season will be on the agenda, but I certainly won’t be hard on her. 

“I think it’s quite a quick turnaround to go back to Cheltenham in December, I think she had a tough race - but never say never and she’ll tell us where she wants  to go next.”

Kerry Lee is a Grade 1-winning trainer, and writes an exclusive column for HorseRacing.net on the 2019-20 National Hunt season. You can keep read her latest article here.  

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