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Monday Musings: Jump Racing’s Newmarket Interlopers

There was plenty going on around the country on Friday and Saturday and there was no disguising the authority with which Epatante won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on her reappearance, indeed her first sighting on a track since winning the Champion Hurdle back in March, writes Tony Stafford. If there’s anything more exciting on a jumps racecourse than a horse sprinting home after being waited with in the way she was under Aidan Coleman, I’ve yet to see it.

So she sets a very high standard and with that single lapse at the previous Cheltenham Festival in the mares’ novice hurdle last year as the sole blemish on her record for Nicky Henderson, she looks on target to dominate the two-mile division for some time to come.

The stayers also came into sharp focus with Friday’s Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury where Thyme Hill stepped up on the level of his novice achievements to show too much speed for former champion stayer Paisley Park, the pair drawing well clear of the favourite McFabulous.

There seemed no fluke about the result, Thyme Hill under Richard Johnson looking a more complete hurdler than he had last season. He had been unlucky when only fourth in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle but after Friday’s display I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t reverse the form with the trio that finished ahead of him in March if and when they meet again: Philip Hobbs clearly has a contender for this season’s Stayers’ Hurdle.

That’s not to under-estimate Paisley Park who had been unstoppable for two seasons before his failure to complete the double in the big race at Cheltenham, a lapse explained afterwards by the discovery of a heart murmur. Emma Lavelle has brought him back steadily and no doubt owner Andrew Gemmill will have been delighted at how well he ran on this comeback. The prospect of a re-match with Friday’s winner, no doubt spiced with various Irish pretenders will make it one of the best races next spring.

My favourite performance on Saturday, though, was that of Pink Sheets in the mares’ Listed novice hurdle which opened the Newbury card and, while this daughter of Gold Well is most unlikely ever to be anywhere near the class of her two-month older contemporary Epatante, she’s clearly improving very fast.

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When she was acquired by Micky Quinn on behalf of his principal owner, Kenny Bruce, boss of the Purple Bricks estate agency, she had just won a Huntingdon bumper by 16 lengths for the Mick Channon stable. Channon not only preceded Quinn as a former top footballer to take up training horses, but he also spent time as Quinn’s mentor, employing him as his assistant while teaching him the rudiments of the business.

The pair were both barn-storming strikers and until he got immersed in racing, Channon had a time as a football pundit, best known for the way he pronounced in his Hampshire burr “The Boy Line-acre!” on Match of the Day and such-like.

Quinny, while never an international, had considerable on-field achievements. He scored in each of the first four games he played in the Premier League and had the effrontery (sorry distinction) to score a hat-trick for Coventry against Arsenal. For many years he has combined training from his compact yard just off Newmarket’s Hamilton Road with regular spots on Talk Sport radio when his easy-going Scouser style made him popular with listeners, as it does with interviewers whenever his horses win on the track.

From the time of his first licence in 1998-9 – can you believe it Micky, 22 years as a trainer? – he has put together a tally of 183 wins and that with only ever a small string. Over those two decades he has had jumps runners only sporadically, a total of just 68 spread over the time until the start of this season with a couple of big gaps.

But then there was Pink Sheets. The Quinn jumping blank was still intact and it wasn’t a case of instant success with the mare either despite the ease of the Huntingdon win. It took two runs in bumpers from Quinn’s yard, one behind the smart Urban Artist and then three exploratory outings over hurdles before she was anywhere near the finished article. Then suddenly at Warwick eight weeks ago she finally clicked, beating Commander Miller comfortably off a mark of 103 and giving the trainer his first ever jumping winner. That opened the floodgates, the mare following up on the same track off 110 ten days later before completing the hat-trick at Kempton beating two higher-rated rivals from the Alan King and Olly Murphy stables despite carrying a double penalty.

So, coming to Newbury on Saturday her mark had already gone up by a stone and a half to 124, time then for Micky to give her a shot at Listed class. Despite the wins and this time running without a penalty she was allowed to start at 10-1. Jack Quinlan, who had been on her for all her previous outings sent her off in front and she went exuberantly over her hurdles, jumping fast and never getting challenged. The final margin was three and a half lengths over the well-backed Ahorsewithnoname (Henderson) and the favourite Mrs Hyde who had won four of her five previous starts for Brian Ellison.

The Racing TV coverage admired the performance but reserved final judgment for a comparison on the time she took compared with the later Intermediate Listed handicap hurdle for second-season jumpers. Henderson’s Floressa, rated 141, won that well-contested affair and got round in only 0.70 seconds faster than Pink Sheets.

I’m so pleased for Micky who proves it’s never too late for talent to shine through and that should be Quinlan’s motto too. It’s nine seasons since, as the conditional taking most of the rides for embryonic Rules trainer John Ferguson, Noel Quinlan’s son compiled his best season when still in his teens, with 27 wins.

I know it came as quite a shock towards the climax of that season with Cheltenham on the horizon when Sheikh Mohammed’s former right-hand man started putting Denis O’Regan on some of the better horses. The one-time assistant to Sir Michael Stoute, clearly enjoying the celebrity of his new role, presumably felt Quinlan was too raw for the bigger stage.

The stable, based at Cowlinge outside Newmarket, was home to many useful staying horses surplus to requirements in the Sheikh’s main-line Godolphin team, being sent with the idea to exploit them over jumps rather than sell them on at the horses in training sales as had been the practice in the past. It proved an instant success. Cotton Mill was probably the best of them, so after Quinlan had won a Grade 2 novice hurdle on the gelding at Warwick, he could hardly wait for the Festival.

But it was O’Regan rather than Jack in the saddle when Cotton Mill took on Simonsig for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and the young man had to watch on as Cotton Mill moved comfortably up to Simonsig going to two hurdles out. Then disaster happened for Ferguson, Cotton Mill running out to the inside of the obstacle and depositing O’Regan on the deck.  Afterwards, John Francome, working on Channel Four television was asked by a fellow commentator what he would do with Cotton Mill. Without hesitation he replied: “I’d put Jack Quinlan back on him.”

Sadly Ferguson never really had a change of heart and for most of the ensuing time, Jack had to settle into the most singular niche role in jump jockeyship. For almost a decade he has been just about the only senior jump jockey in Newmarket. He schools for most of the stables that train jumpers in the town and rides a good proportion of all the town’s runners.

A combination of the two has been enough to keep him busy and since those 27 wins brought so much optimism as a 3lb claimer in 2012, his subsequent seasons of successively 10, 19, 16, 18, 23, 23 again, 21 and just 10 in the latest truncated campaign have made many consider he has been out on a limb. Just as many people reckoned Jack should have extended his horizons beyond his home base of Newmarket, but the lasting association with Amy Murphy and especially with her best jumper Kalashnikov, on whom he has won seven times including in the Betfair Trophy, have kept him within touching distance of the big time.

But now, with still five months of the 2020-21 season to go Pink Sheets has helped put him on to 20, so only seven shy of his best. I’ve also detected a much better appreciation of his ability. For years his name never got a mention in the press or on television after a win, the horse and trainer always getting the credit. Now, though, some of the younger course commentators and television pundits like Mick Fitzgerald are quick to register a good ride and he was given plenty of credit for Saturday’s enterprising win.

As to being a Newmarket jockey pure and simple, the facts are pretty compelling. All of the 20 wins this season have come from Newmarket-trained horses, and more than 100 of his 132 rides have come from representatives of 15 different Newmarket stables. Jack Quinlan is truly Mr Newmarket where jumping is concerned and, at last, he’s a man whose talent is getting fair recognition after all these years. Maybe even sometimes outside the Newmarket town limits!