HERE’S a remarkable statistic for you. Norton trainer John Quinn has barely 20 jumpers at his Highfield yard. Nearly half of them could go to the Cheltenham Festival.
What’s more, none of them are going to make up the numbers.
At National Hunt racing’s most prestigious meeting, where the cream of the sport claw with their fingernails to gain an entry into cash-laden races, Quinn has some live contenders with which to go to war.
It’s a testament to the trainer’s talents and his eye for an emerging thoroughbred that he can be so optimistic about next month’s trip to Prestbury Park.
The loss of Countrywide Flame, his star horse that won the Triumph Hurdle in Gloucestershire two years ago and was third in the Champion Hurdle 12 months later, might have been enough to sink lesser yards.
Some trainers wait a lifetime for a horse like him and the future for the Fighting Fifth Hurdle victor, who was only five-years-old when he pushed Hurricane Fly and Rock On Ruby up the Cheltenham hill, was bright.
A degenerative bone condition ended his career with so much still ahead of him.
But while the flame has burned out, new arrivals have come to take his place. Like Rutherglen, who has notched up a four-timer over hurdles and the Flat, and dual Doncaster winner Pearl Castle – both of whom will represent Quinn in the Triumph Hurdle.
“They are two nice horses,” he said. “I wouldn’t pick one over the other.”
He’s hugely keen on Cockney Sparrow, believing his filly can dethrone the Cheltenham queen Quevega in the OLGB Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day of the four-day meeting on March 11.
He revealed in The Press earlier in the week that she would run a “huge race” if she can cope with the two-and-a-half mile distance.
It doesn’t end there.
Forced Family Fun, Calculated Risk and Aurore D’Estruval could all give Quinn that winning feeling once more at the spiritual home of the sport.
“Definitely,” he said when asked if the appearance of a new breed had at all softened the blow following the retirement of Countrywide Flame.
“You can go two, three or four years with nothing and it is great to have some nice young horses.
“If you have a winner at Cheltenham it can only do you good. That’s the bottom line. We are all after a great horse and if you can win at the big meetings it can happen a bit quicker.
“We are looking forward to it. A winner would be great but it’s worth taking them.”
Five more Festival fancies
WITH Cockney Sparrow already identified as a major player, Quinn gives the lowdown on the rest of his main Festival prospects:
Rutherglen: “All being well he will go for the Triumph Hurdle. He’s in very good form.
He was on a mark of 128 for a month and we were thinking about running him in the Fred Winter but he got put up seven pounds and he’s now up to 135. He’s a very genuine horse and he has won his last four.
“I hope he’s got a sporting each way chance. He’s very tough, he’s well and he never knows when he is beaten. That’s an invaluable trait.
“There will be horses that are more fancied but he is a good, hard knocking horse.”
Pearl Castle: “The Triumph is also his aim. He is a fairly smart horse but he is very ground dependant.
“He wouldn’t want it too soft but the ground we have is drying. If there was a deluge of rain in Cheltenham week he wouldn’t run.
“He won at Doncaster earlier in the month and he got hampered turning in. He made a mistake at the second last that would get a lot of horses beaten and he had to switch to the left.
“He still won well and that’s the mark of a smart horse. It didn’t happen for him at all and he still won nicely.”
Forced Family Fun: “I am hoping he gets into the Fred Winter. It really is the race for him. He wants some cut in the ground and wouldn’t want it as soft as it was at Musselburgh last time.
“He nearly fell coming out of the back straight and he ran a better race than it looked (He finished fifth).
“He is better left-handed and only once has he had a truly run race which was at Doncaster and he won.
“I would love him to get in the Fred Winter. He would have a right sporting chance and a rating of 120 might get him in. He would have a squeak.”
Calculated Risk: “The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle would be his aim.
“When he won on Boxing Day he looked like he had improved for stepping up in trip. We thought we would have a crack at something decent and keep him for Cheltenham.
“He ran a blinder in the Greatwood Hurdle and ran very well at Sandown over two miles. Two-and-a-half will suit him and he has got a squeak.
“He was beaten by nine and a half lengths in the Greatwood and that’s a heritage handicap. He was staying on at Sandown in a race which has worked out well and I am pleased with him.”
Aurore D’Estruval: “She’s a good mare going forward. I am going to speak with the owner and we intend to run her at Cheltenham.
“If it is a question of too much too soon then there are lots of other opportunities. We got her around Christmas and I do quite like her. She has the making of a very good mare.”