Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or the only fish swimming around a puddle? Few are better qualified to make that judgment than Jack Quinlan, possibly the only remaining authentic jump jockey in the surprisingly underused National Hunt location of Newmarket, writes Tony Stafford.
Home for thousands of choicely-bred and often highly-priced Flat racers, all but a handful of horses are kept to that discipline. The occasional jumper has the chance to use the excellent facilities of the Links, close to the centre of town where they are more than likely to share the parking areas with golfers, often jockeys, at the local club.
Until a couple of years ago Neil King’s team was the best equipped to win jumps prizes and Trevor Whelan took the lion’s share of his boss’s mounts. Now they are plying their trade in Wiltshire at a yard close to namesake but un-related Alan King at Barbury Castle.
Unsurprisingly, when Whelan was in town, he and Jack often found themselves in demand for schooling horses, but as son of former HQ trainer Noel, Jack’s lucky break came when John Ferguson began overseeing the training of some of the Godolphin overflow stayers over jumps up the road at Cowlinge in a property once owned by the Mintons.
At first it seemed to outsiders that Fergie would probably be playing at it, a sop by his employer Sheikh Mohammed to Ferguson’s original wish to be a trainer. He, like Simon Crisford, started out as a young assistant, in his case to Sir Michael Stoute until switching to his long-term role with the boys in blue.
Firstly as an amateur and then as a conditional, Jack got onto the Ferguson team riding nine winners in 2010-11 and a career best 27 the following year. But then, ironically he was a sufferer from the success of the Bloomfields project – the Godolphin jumpers run in that corporate entity – as increasingly the top jockeys were employed as the stakes rose.
Initially Denis O’Regan, then Tony McCoy and latterly Aidan Coleman got pretty much all the rides, but even those relative riches for HQ riders ebbed away early this year when John Ferguson reverted to a more central role as Godolphin’s supremo, closing down the jumping operation.
Many of the horses were either sold or transferred to Godolphin’s Flat-race handlers, so even the odd winner that Quinlan still got had disappeared by the start of this season. He’d collected 10, then 19, 16 and 18 in subsequent seasons but often must have thought he should have listened to the suggestions of many friends that maybe he should re-locate outside Newmarket.
The snag for young Master Quinlan – he’s still in his mid-20’s - is that he comes from a close-knit family, with two sisters and a younger brother all steeped in the business. Noel still retains his old contacts and does some trading and preparing horses while his mother Jo spent many years taking the kids to various shows around East Anglia and beyond and training the family’s point-to-pointers.
In mid-summer, Jack’s hopes revolved around some largely unexpected opportunities for Robin Dickin and that West Midlands trainer has supplied Jack three winners from 15 rides, usually when stable jockey Charlie Poste is otherwise engaged. But that, apart from his riding the dribs and drabs of jumpers from around 20 Flat-race operators in the town, seemed to be that. And then along came Amy.
Amy Murphy, that is, daughter of owner Paul, who had plenty of success with among others Charlie Longsdon. His mare Kalane once ran third to Annie Power at the Punchestown Festival but now is probably team leader for Ms Murphy at the stable she occupies in Michael Wigham’s Hamilton stables in the Hamilton Road.
That accident of location – Noel in also based there – meant Jack would be an obvious choice for picking up schooling duties in what is beginning to look like becoming a bit of a powerhouse.
Amy can’t be too slow. As recently as November 3 she went along to Tattersalls Ireland Ascot sale and for the princely sum of £3,500 came away with a dual winning five-year-old out of Gordon Elliott’s burgeoning yard.
I’d be surprised if Gordon’s even noticed he’s no longer there. A couple of weeks earlier he’d taken two runners to a four-horse claiming hurdle at Stratford and came away with a 1-2. The runner-up Tajseer was the better fancied and was claimed afterwards by an owner of Phil York’s for £5,000. The winner, maybe because nobody could get anywhere near to pronounce his name, was left alone after a two and a quarter length success under Gordon’s much-respected amateur, Lisa O’Neill.
Lisa was the highly-proficient rider of Wrath of Titans, the ill-fated Kerry National winner in the autumn from six Elliott runners. On the same day that Shan Dun na NGall won the claimer at Stratford, she was also successful on the heavily-backed Presenting Julio, owned and trained by Liam Lennon. Her only other UK ride this season brought an unlucky unseated from a David Pipe horse at Cheltenham’s Open meeting.
The Stratford victory encouraged the jumping handicappers to give Shan, you know the rest, a rating of 117. The Racing Post analysis suggested 110, his mark before race, would be testing enough, but Amy did not waste too much time in deciding his future.
Four weeks to the day since his purchase at Ascot, old Dunny was sent to Chelmsford for a 13 furlong Flat-race handicap, from what now looks a gift mark of 48, almost 70lb less than his jumps figure – so probably 25lb too little. Starting 16-1 and ridden by Lemos de Souza, a Brazilian like namesake of former champ Sylvestre, he bolted in.
The official reaction was to adjust him 4lb to 52, and last Saturday he made it two out of two for Amy, her partner Lemos (and owner Mr Melo) by running away from his opposition over two miles at Newcastle.
If it was a red-letter day for the couple, they couldn’t keep JQ out of it, as three hours previously at Doncaster, he’d steered Kalane to a 17-length win over the Doncaster fences – her first chase success and Jack’s second win for the trainer after ex-French Mercian Prince’s easy victory at Southwell in late November.
After a couple of months with a licence, Amy Murphy has already reached five wins, two from seven on the level and three from 14 in her main sphere of operation. I’ve never met the trainer or her father, but a good friend bumped into them at the stable recently and says there’s plenty to come from some classy, unexposed horses. Clearly this looks like a project that could come to fruition probably sooner than even Amy and her two “boys”, Lemos and Jack, could have believed possible. Maybe Newmarket’s jumping pond is going to get a little bigger!