IN the end, it wasn’t to be, the championship was just out of reach. But what an effort, what a journey. What a season.

Billy Lee is in contemplative mood as he reflects on it all. Turning points? Several. The four-timer at Gowran Park in April.

The treble at Roscommon in May. The double at Dundalk in October that took him from one behind Colin Keane to one in front with eight racing days left. The ban he picked up on the same evening that ruled him out for the last two days of the season.

“I had no complaints,” says the rider now. “I went one over the limit. That’s the rule. I know that I appealed it, but I was just hoping. I had a great season, no regrets.

“I had my best season ever, I gave it my best shot, I know that I did, and I was happy with that. That’s all that you can do.”

On the day that his appeal was unsuccessful, Colin Keane rode one winner at Dundalk and Billy Lee rode none, and that left the challenger one behind with no more ammunition left to fire.

The title was Colin Keane’s again, a worthy champion, but Billy Lee would also have been a worthy champion, a real challenger, an adversary who brought the champ all the way to the wire.

It was always about horses for Billy Lee, and it was always about speed. From a farming and point-to-point background, he did some showjumping when he was younger but, even then, it was about getting from the start to the finish as quickly as he could.

It didn’t matter to him how many poles he knocked down while he was getting there. Pony racing was much more like it. A nine-year-old with a need for speed.

“Vincent Rossiter was a friend of my mother’s, from Rathkeale. I remember, he was in the house one day and he said to my mother that I should go into Tommy Stack’s.”

The start

Young Billy was 14 and he was on his Halloween break from school. That was the start of it. He kept going into Tommy Stack’s during school holidays, completed his Junior Certificate in 2002 and was in Stack’s for the summer.

He rode his first winner, Zeno in a maiden at Sligo in August 2002, and his second, Zeno, in a handicap at Sligo two weeks later, and he was off.

“It was all about National Hunt racing for me when I was younger. I used to love watching Charlie Swan ride. But I loved riding on the flat straight away.”

He had lots of good days with Tommy and Fozzy Stack. He rode his first listed race winner over hurdles for them, Wanango in a listed novices’ hurdle at Haydock in 2005, and his first group winner on the flat for them, Pollen in the Lodge Park Stakes at the Curragh in 2010.

His association with Willie McCreery really started with Fiesolana.

“I had ridden a few times for Willie before Fiesolana, but only a few times. Colm O’Donoghue had ridden Fiesolana to win the Ballyogan Stakes at Leopardstown in 2013, but Colm was out injured for the Brownstown Stakes at Fairyhouse, so I got the call up to ride her, and she won.

Then she ran in the Fairy Bridge Stakes, I rode her in that, and she won again. Then we won the Group 2 Challenge Stakes at Newmarket.”

Billy Lee and trainer Willie McCreery after winning the Group 1 Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes with Fiesolana \ Healy Racing

Fiesolana went to the sales at Newmarket that December, it looked like the end of the journey, but she was bought by the Niarchos Family, she was sent back into training with Willie McCreery, and Billy Lee rode her to win the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown the following September, a first Group 1 win for her trainer and for her rider.

This season started like most seasons have started in recent times for Billy Lee, full of optimism, high on potential. Goals? Beat last season’s total, try to bag a few group races, don’t leave too many races behind.

Check. Check. Check.

And the horses were there. La Petite Coco, who had won her last three in 2021, who had battled on to get the better of Love in the Group 2 Blandford Stakes on her final run in 2021.

Pearls Galore, trained, like La Petite Coco, by Paddy Twomey, winner of two Group 3 races in 2021, second in the Matron Stakes, second in the Prix de la Foret. Their stable companion Limiti Di Greccio, who won two of her three races in 2021 for Paddy Twomey, including the Listed Staffordstown Stud Stakes on her last run of the year. And Insinuendo, trained by Willie McCreery, winner of the Blue Wind Stakes and the Kilboy Estate Stakes in 2021.

“It was a pity that Limiti Di Greccio didn’t make it to the racecourse in 2022,” says the rider. “She was cantering away in the spring, then she had a little setback, and we never really got her back after that. And Insinuendo hit the bar a few times, she ran some big races.”

You can’t really be thinking about the championship until after Galway. Walking out of Galway, I was still there, I was still in with a shout.

Big races

La Petite Coco ran some big races too. The Tattersalls Gold Cup was an option for her early in the season, they always thought that she had the potential to be a Group 1 filly, but she wasn’t quite there in time, so she made her seasonal debut in the Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh on Irish Derby weekend.

“She wouldn’t show you anything at home. Really. She wouldn’t pass a pony. But she had half shown us a little bit, her work was quite good in the lead up to the Pretty Polly. For her. We knew that she was well.”

Paddy Twomey’s filly was great on Pretty Polly day. Her rider got her nicely settled and into a nice racing rhythm early on, in third place behind Lyrical Poetry and Tranquil Lady. He allowed her move up on the outside as they rounded the home turn, moved into second place at the two-furlong marker, hit the front on the run to the furlong pole and stayed on strongly to withstand the late challenge from My Astra, getting home by a half a length in the end.

“That was a good day. The disqualification of Paddy’s other filly Rosscarbery from third place took a little bit of the gloss off it obviously, but La Petite Coco was great. I was delighted to ride Paddy’s first Group 1 winner. And it was great for the owners, Barry Irwin and Team Valor, a lot of them were over, Barry was over, so it was brilliant that the filly won.”

It was a first Group 1 win of the season for Billy Lee, his first since he rode Romanised to victory for Ken Condon in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville in 2019, and he rode his next in September, when he booted Pearls Galore home in the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown on Irish Champions’ Weekend.

Pearls Galore ridden by Billy Lee after winning the Group 1 Coolmore America Justify Matron Stakes \

Pearls Galore started the season well, she won the Listed Heritage Stakes at Leopardstown in April and she won the Group 2 Lanwades Stud Stakes at the Curragh on Irish Guineas weekend in May. But she was beaten by Order Of Australia in the Group 2 Minstrel Stakes at the Curragh in July, and she could only finish fifth in the Prix Rothschild at Deauville in August.

“We were a little disappointed with her at the Curragh and at Deauville. She was beaten fair and square both times, but we didn’t think that she gave her true running. The ground was fast both days, so maybe that was it.

“We used to think that she wanted quick ground, but as she got a little more mature, she appreciated a little bit of an ease. The ground was perfect for her on Irish Champions’ Weekend.”

Score to settle

She had a score to settle in the Matron Stakes. A year earlier, she had finished second, beaten a neck by No Speak Alexander. She wasn’t unlucky or anything, but to get so close, to go down by a neck in a Group 1 race, you’re always going to want another go at it.

Pearls Galore was allowed go off at 16/1 for the Matron Stakes in 2022, but Billy Lee rode her with confidence.

He kicked her out of the gate, got her nicely settled in front, dictated a pace to suit his filly. He held onto her as they raced past the three-furlong marker, squeezed her along as they hit the crown of the home turn and, just as Saffron Beach was starting to move up on her outside, he kicked, and Pearls Galore responded. Still about a length in front as they passed the furlong marker, she stretched out willingly through the final 200 yards, and hit the line three lengths clear of her pursuer.

The season wasn’t just about the Group 1s. Rosscarbery won five times in 2022 for Billy Lee and Paddy Twomey, improving from a handicap rating of 81 to a rating of 110, a dual Group 3 winner and second in the Group 1 Prix Jean Romanet, beaten a neck.

Erosandpsyche won two and finished second in the Group 1 Flying Five. Earl Of Tyrone won three, improved from a mark of 79 to a mark of 106 and finished third in the Ebor.

Billy Lee won listed races on Teresa Mendoza for Ken Condon and on Cigamia and Are We Dreaming for Willie McCreery. Star Girls Aalmal for Henry de Bromhead, Betterdaysrcoming for Andy Oliver, Mary Salome for Andrew Kinirons, Kodi Red for Adrian Murray, Lady Tilbury for David Marnane. He rode winners for 26 different trainers in 2022.

“I’m very lucky, the trainers I ride for. It seems to work well. I always try to ride the best horse and they understand that. I’m lucky that they all get on well, and Kevin (O’Ryan) does a great job as my agent.”

His title challenge began early and was sustained. Very early in the season, he and Colin Keane broke clear of the pack. It was a match from a long way out, and there were very few points in the season at which there was more than a handful of winners between them, all the way to the last day at Naas on November 6th.

“You always get to Galway, and then you have a think about it after that. You can’t really be thinking about the championship until after Galway. Walking out of Galway, I was still there, I was still in with a shout.

“I got great support too from so many trainers then. So many people were so good to me. Ken Condon put me up on Moss Tucker. I hadn’t ridden Moss Tucker for a little while, but he put me up on him at the Curragh in October and he won well. Fozzy Stack put me up on Run Ran Run in a maiden at the Curragh on the same day. I had a great end to the year.”

He ended with 89 wins for the season, just three short of Colin Keane’s 92. Ninety-seven wins for the calendar year.

His best before that was last year when he had 65. That’s an increase of almost 50% and that’s massive. Add one in Britain, Treasure Trove in a listed race at York’s Ebor meeting, and that’s 98. And that’s just the quantitative side of it. The quality was there too. Two Group 1 wins and seven group race wins among them.

Billy Lee will relax this Christmas, with wife Catriona and daughter Síofra. Go up to Catriona’s family in Downpatrick for a day or two, maybe go racing in Limerick on one of the days. Wednesday or Thursday maybe. Recharge.

Then look forward to next year, another season stretching out in front of him. Lots to look forward to, the young horses, see how they progress. And baby due in April, please God, a sibling for Síofra.

New goals. Exciting times.

Full of optimism again.