The turf

What makes a champion jockey

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

Write a few books and you have to listen politely at parties as people who have never opened yours tell you, at some length: ‘I’ve always felt I had a book in me.’ Many things in life look easy until you have to knuckle down to it, hence the golfer Gary Player’s sardonic comment to someone who remarked on his good fortune: ‘Yes, and it’s strange how I’ve found the harder I practise, the luckier I get.’

Player’s remark came to mind after Jack Quinlan’s success in Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury when he rode Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov to a convincing victory in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle, the richest of its kind and the hottest contest yet this season. A month ago, after the pair won a Kempton chase with Mercian Prince, I wrote that the enthusiastic rookie trainer would be winning more races with Mercian Prince and with Kalashnikov and that Jack Quinlan, who rides schooling for most of the few Newmarket trainers with jumping horses, had talents beyond his high workrate that deserved more recognition. Not every piece of betting advice in this column bears fruit, but Mercian Prince won again a fortnight later at 7–2 and when the mud-spattered Quinlan brought Kalashnikov home a clear winner in the Betfair, it was at the satisfying starting price of 8–1.

Like this season’s great discovery Bryony Frost, Jack Quinlan is as interesting to talk to after a race as he is to watch in the saddle. He was quick to pay tribute to Amy Murphy and her father Paul, who owns Kalashnikov (and who had preregistered the horse’s name ready for when she had ‘a serious weapon’ in the stable). But he acknowledged that despite being quickly out of the gate his mount couldn’t go the early pace in the conditions and had to be slapped down the shoulder all the way. ‘He’s a brilliant jumper and that’s what kept him in it. He was winging hurdles and making lengths. He’s so brave and game he finds a bit for you.’ Jack Quinlan added that he’d been lucky enough to ride some good horses for John Ferguson when Sheikh Mohammed’s former right-hand man trained ex-Godolphin stayers over jumps from a Newmarket base. ‘But a lot of them were Flat horses coming jumping. This is a proper jumps-bred horse with a huge future over fences.’ (Kalashnikov is the son of a full sister to Kicking King.)

The last time we had met, Amy Murphy, only two years older than her 23-year-old jockey, was genuinely angry that more trainers weren’t giving Jack rides, and at Newbury she was quick to praise his part in their success: ‘He’s formed a partnership with this horse from day one and he’s been the making of him.’ Jack himself noted, ‘I live in Newmarket. I’m the only jump jockey there and have carved out a little niche. My father Noel used to train there and I started with Mr Ferguson, so I’ve stuck to my roots. There are a couple of jumps trainers there, and some Flat trainers like James Eustace and Nick Littmoden who will always have the odd jumper and keep me going.’

What he didn’t say about his days riding as an amateur and conditional for John Ferguson was that as the yard started winning bigger races, the top opportunities mostly went instead to more established professionals like Denis O’Regan, A.P. McCoy and Aidan Coleman. Now he is with a young team who have the confidence to put him up on their best horses.

Another of this column’s earlier recommendations was to keep a keen eye on the mounts of 5lb-claimers Bryony Frost and Mitchell Bastyan, conditionals attached to Paul Nicholls and Evan Williams respectively. There seems to be a growing tendency for trainers to make use of such talented claimers in big races (which of course makes it harder for talented young jockeys like Jack Quinlan, who have lost the right to claim a weight allowance, to get the breakthrough rides they need).

Starting as a conditional less than a year ago, Mitch Bastyan rode his first 25 winners quickly and although successes haven’t accumulated at the same rate lately the combined appeal of his basic ability and his 5lb claim recently earned Bastyan the accolade of a first ride for champion trainer Nicky Henderson. Evan Williams doesn’t oversell horses or riders, so I was intrigued to see him comment not long ago that there are plenty of talented young race-riders available. When they are getting allowances of 7lb or 5lb against the professionals, ‘then, if they can only half ride, they will ride winners.’ The bigger test he insisted was one of character: ‘Riding is one thing, it is getting your head around everything else that matters.’

Aspiring jockeys, said Evan, need to be good with people and with timekeeping. They have to have the work ethic and the temperament. He clearly believes that young Mitch Bastyan is passing that crucial test.

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