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Brian Lee, Fifty Years Of Notebooks And Still Running Strong

Racing
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16 December 2022

By Graham Thomas

Regular readers of the Western Mail may have noticed something missing from the paper’s horse racing coverage in recent times – Brian Lee. 
 

Widely recognised as Wales’ most respected and experienced horse racing writer, author of countless books on the sport as well as on local history, Lee’s words of wisdom have disappeared from the paper. 
 

Still, their loss. 
 

At 86, he can hardly complain it was a bolt from the blue, although admirers of his work will be relieved to hear he has no intention of packing up the writing game altogether. 
 

Bob Dylan is still touring at 80, Warren Buffett is still making money at 91, and Queen Elizabeth II was a major racing enthusiast at 96, so why should Brian put down his pen? 
 

“I had written for the Western Mail for half a century,” says the man who is one of the most recognised faces at Chepstow Racecourse and was a winner of the Lifetime Achievement honour at the Welsh Horse Racing Awards two years ago. 
 

“But the newspaper industry is going through a lot of problems at present and so they have had to drop my column.” 
 

Lee’s writing career has so far outlasted many of the Pembrokeshire newspapers he started on, as well as the defunct Barry Gem, so it would take a brave man to bet against him not being around longer than the Western Mail. 
 

For the time being, though, this multi-talented, skilled adjuster to new technologies is confined to occasional pieces on various websites, as well as race day publications and magazines. 
 

It all began in 1952 when a fresh-faced boy from the Cathays area of Cardiff was taken to his first point-to-point meeting at the age of 15. 
 

“I was a young lad who had just started working in the steelworks. 
 

“My father, William Lee, liked to bet on the horses with the streetcorner bookies"
 

“Everyone had a nom de plume in those days. You couldn’t give your real name as it was illegal and if the police came along they would have all the names!"
 

“My father had taken me to see the 1949 Welsh Grand National, but I was very young then, so it was the point-to-point at Rhiwbina Farm, just outside Cardiff, that was the real eye-opener."
 

“To see the horses, the jockeys in their colours, the excitement and noise of the bookmakers – it was just magical. It made a big impression on me. I still have the race card.” 
 

So, that was that. Trap set, baited with the intoxicating flavours of a fifties racecourse, he was hooked. 
 

But how did he go from race-going fan, and occasional punter, to racing journalist? 
 

“The results of local races in my area were not being covered, so I wrote to the Horse and Hound magazine and complained,” he recalls. 
 

“They said, ‘well, you seem to know a lot about it. Do you want the job?’ And that’s how it all started, with covering point-to-point for Horse and Hound and then The Sporting Life.” 
 

And so it began, a lifetime of watching, note-taking and record-keeping in thousands of scrapbooks, that he confesses take up far too much room in the house for Mrs. Lee’s liking. 
 

He got nearer the newspaper industry when he took a job in the old offices of the Western Mail and Echo in Cardiff, firstly sweeping the floors and then looking after the linotype machines in the print room. 
 

He did 28 years before taking redundancy and combined his roles with the presses with writing on point-to-point and then racing under rules for the Western Mail, firstly under the initials BJL (Brian James Lee), and then under the byline of his full name, Brian Lee. 
 

Other readers knew him as “Pointsman” in the South Wales Argus and other half-forgotten “ghost names” in newspapers like The Hereford Times. 
 

From his immovable vantage point, Lee has seen them all come and go – generations of jockeys, trainers, owners, bookies and various chancers and rogues that have taken their moment on the stage. 
 

“I’ve got cuttings from reporting on Evan Williams’ mother when she rode point-to-point. Then, Evan came along and I covered him. Now, I’m reporting on his daughters – so I’ve done the lot right through to the grandchildren."


“I don’t think many can claim that"


“There have been so many memorable people, colourful characters along the way. I was around when Prince Monolulu was a tipster at Cheltenham"


“He used to shout, ‘God made the bees, the bees made the honey. You have a bet, and the bookie take your money!” 


“Then there was Gully-Gully, who wore a gown and mortar board, a chap known as The Captain, from Cardiff – he used to give away pencils and notebooks – and The Dodger, Simon McCartney, a professional punter, so-called because he’d dodge his way through the crowds. 


“There were a lot of these characters at the courses which you don’t really get today.” 
Chepstow remains one of Lee’s favourite courses, but he says the venue he would be transferred to in his dreams would be one long gone. 


“I’ve covered a few great Welsh Grand Nationals at Chepstow and have tremendous memories, it’s a lovely place, but perhaps my favourite days were at the old Penllyn racecourse. 


“Those were really enjoyable days, a natural racecourse with the slopes under Penllyn Castle. It was wonderful. 


“It was hectic, bustling. Nowadays, you might get six bookmakers at a course. In those days, we had 34.” 


Brian lists his career highlights as watching Welsh riding greats Hywel Davies and Carl Llewellyn winning the Grand National at Aintree – jockeys he used to cover in their formative days in point-to-point. 


He was there when Norton’s Coin won the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 100-1 in 1990, a horse he had seen winning point-to-point races, ridden by Tim Jones and his sister Pip. 


“The saddest moment was when Tim and Pip’s father, Lloyd, was killed in a race riding accident some years ago. That was awful.” 
 

He says the careers of trainers Peter Bowen and Evan Williams have given him great pleasure but admits: “Before I go it would be nice to see a horse actually trained in Wales win the Grand National. We haven’t had one since 1905. 


“But it’s been such a great pleasure to have reported on the likes of Tim Vaughan, Evan Williams, Christian Williams and seeing them take over as trainers. 


“And to get to know great characters like Dai Burchell.” 


If that sounds like a retirement speech, then that’s one bet you shouldn’t take. Not quite yet, anyway. 


“I don’t get out to meetings as often as I used to. I still keep my old scrapbooks and race form annuals, even though my wife is playing murder about them."


“But If anybody wants me, I will carry on. I have been privileged to have reported on Welsh racing for well over half a century."


“And it’s wonderful to see the current success in Welsh racing, with trainers and jockeys. It gives me a lot of pleasure"


“Overall, it’s been a labour of love.” 


Time to scrap those scrapbooks? Not just yet.

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