One win can do that. Overnight on Saturday, Jack Quinlan stopped being the most underrated jump jockey in the country, writes Tony Stafford. On Sunday, John Berry, speaking with his usual erudition on At The Races’ Forum, said Jack was “as good as anyone”, coming to school your horse and then riding him in the race.
Amy Murphy, who with Robin Dickin and James Eustace are Quinlan’s biggest supporters, took time to compliment her fellow 25-year-old after his emphatic victory on Kalashnikov in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. The “underrated” factor was then again at the forefront of her thinking, hardly surprising as the media still didn’t really “get” how Mr Unfashionable had been able to keep the ride from voracious fellow professionals.
Like many an aspiring rider, that situation had already occurred. Six years ago, Jack was riding for John Ferguson, in his first full season as a jumping trainer with some of the Sheikh Mohammed ex- and in some cases future high-class Flat stayers. He rode 27 winners that winter and looked set for a blossoming career when Cotton Mill won the Grade 2 Leamington Novice Hurdle at Warwick.
Quinlan had been on him for his two previous starts, but when the unbeaten jumper turned out for the Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle at the Festival a month later Denis O’Regan had the mount. Coming to two out, Cotton Mill was still a length up on Simonsig, the favourite and eventual winner, but he veered left and deposited O’Regan on the turf, leaving Simonsig to win easily.
I’ve never forgotten John Francome’s reaction when he was asked in his then Channel Four role what he would do to correct Cotton Mill’s errant ways: “Put Jack Quinlan back on”. He was, belatedly, in the saddle for the following year’s Betfair Hurdle as a 3lb claimer when only well-handicapped My Tent or Yours could better him in that 21-runner affair. Saturday must have been full and final retribution for the rider in the corresponding race.
As a friend of his father Noel, I’ve known Jack for quite a while and remember it was a surprise for me that he could fine down his body sufficiently to ride at the 9st7lb he needed to get the full 7lb claim in handicaps. He’d looked at least an eleven stone lad, fine when riding mum Jo’s point-to-pointers, but no use when it’s your job.
Between the initial Ferguson days, when he rode all the horses, to the humiliation of rejection in favour of ever more high-profile riders than O’Regan, with even McCoy, Geraghty and Aidan Coleman getting the gig, Jack had to retrench.
It was his good fortune that when Noel Quinlan’s own training career came to a halt a few years ago, Noel took a part of Michael Wigham’s sprawling yard in the Hamilton Road to pre-train his existing clients’ horses. Later, Amy, previously an assistant with Luca Cumani, but set on pursuing a training career in her own right, moved into Hamilton Stables.
Amy Murphy’s father Paul was steeped in racing; had a stud (which he has now sold) and had long been a highly successful jumps owner. When I saw him at Kempton after Mercian Prince won last month, I reminded him that Carole’s Crusader, a high-class mare he owned and from whom he bred a number of top-class jumpers, was a half-sister to Hitman, who I bought as a yearling.
Inevitably Amy met Jack Quinlan and was immediately struck by the same qualities that John Berry espoused yesterday morning. He’s modest, polite and a true horseman. If you have a dozen or so jumpers like Amy and you train in Newmarket, there simply isn’t another proper jockey based there.
So they teamed up with immediate success last winter, when Kalashnikov made a winning debut in a Wetherby bumper. I was at the track – on my way to Newcastle – for the then four-year-old’s jumping debut at Wetherby in November when he strode ten lengths clear of his field.
A month later at Doncaster, under a penalty, a similar result ensued and it was something of a shock when he could finish only a five-length second to Summerville Boy in the five-runner Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.
Amy Murphy’s decision to pitch Kalashnikov into the 24-runner Betfair Hurdle was either brave or logical depending on your view. Ms Murphy thought “we have to run, he’ll never have that weight again”, but others might say she would only be proven right if he actually won under that rating of 141.
That he did, after looking to be anything but a winner three out, when contrary to what an understandably-ebullient rider said afterwards, he definitely did not gain “lengths over his rivals”. Yet from that point to halfway between the last two flights, he galloped past half a dozen smart and more experienced opponents, and had only to avoid a loose horse at the last to win virtually unchallenged.
Much of the post-race debate has centred on whether Kalashnikov would have the speed for a Supreme Novice Hurdle’s two miles, pointing out that Quinlan had to be riding him a long way out both at Sandown – where he did lose a shoe in the bottomless going – and again on Saturday.
I think that when any novice, particularly a five-year-old, comes to the end of a 24-runner Betfair Hurdle with just three runs behind him and does what Kalashnikov did, anything’s possible – even taking on Samcro in the two and a half miler if necessary.
But for Jack Quinlan, whose 18 wins this season have brought easily his best financial return thanks to Saturday’s 88k first prize, all the work with his local trainers is finally paying off. His 166 rides have been shared among 21 trainers, 12 with Newmarket post codes and another five pretty much in the region. After Amy, James Eustace, who has provided 21 rides from nine horses, has been a stalwart supporter over the past three basically struggling seasons.
As mentioned above, Robin Dickin, provider of four wins from 29 rides on 13 horses, has been another major factor. Jack shares the Dickin rides with long-term stable jockey Charlie Poste, who runs a livery yard with his wife. Midlands-based Flat trainers Mick Appleby and Shaun Harris also use Jack on their few jumping horses.
It’s never easy to benefit greatly from a single, out-of-the-blue big winner: ask Laura Mongan, who won the 2016 St Leger, but has found it no easier to attract clients. Happily for Jack Quinlan, the upwardly mobile Amy Murphy is on his side. He deserves it and Kalashnikov can take the pair of them a long way. As he says, there are a lot of talented riders out there who never get the chance of riding a good horse in a major race. He won’t be passing up his chance, now it’s arrived.
- Tony Stafford