Countrywide Flame has established himself as a real Champion Hurdle contender for Norton trainer John Quinn. But, as he tells STEVE CARROLL, the four-year-old is by no means the only talented jumper at the historic Highfield stables.
HE’S been around long enough not to get too carried away with the ebb and flow of triumph and disappointment.
But it’s hard not to let the excitement – and the expectation – grip you if you have anything to do with John Quinn’s racing yard.
They had their greatest day at Cheltenham in March when Countrywide Flame, a 33-1 outsider, brought Ryedale its first Grade 1 Festival winner since Tim Easterby won the RSA Novices’ Hurdle with Barton in 1999.
That was an emotional occasion for everyone at the Highfield stables – the scene of so many historic racing triumphs.
Charles Elsey sent out six Classic winners from this legendary Norton base between 1948 and 1960, while his son, Bill, won the Oaks and the St Leger.
Who is to bet on there not being another halcyon day for this burgeoning yard back at Prestbury Park next year?
When Countrywide Flame put the odds-on favourite Cinders And Ashes in his place by 12 lengths to win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last Saturday, the bookies reacted by taking a scythe to his price for the Champion Hurdle.
There’s a long way to go before the Festival and some big reputations still to scalp if the hugely talented four-year-old is to get past contenders like the defending champion, Rock On Ruby.
But what the Fighting Fifth showed Quinn is that his horse is in the frame – a fact of which the trainer never had any real doubt.
He had considered sending Countrywide Flame up against Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle – “If I thought he’d stay” he said – but events at Newcastle removed any question of that.
It’s the Champion Hurdle, or nothing.
Being race fit certainly helped at the weekend, and the difficult testing ground means form students will probably be picking over the bones of the race until the Champion Hurdle field reaches the starter in the spring.
Quinn, though, is only encouraged by what he has seen, and continues to see, from his young horse.
“This year’s Triumph Hurdle is working out quite well,” he said, with a hint of understatement.
“He had a great run in the Cesarewitch on the Flat and we’ve been really happy with him.
“We didn’t dismiss him like a lot of people did in the Triumph Hurdle because he had never come up for air and we ran him in graded races.
“He had done very little wrong. He had to improve a little bit, but I think the better ground brought about that improvement in him.
“It was a great day for the yard. Plenty of Triumph Hurdle winners have won the Champion Hurdle.
“It’s a tough division. We were talking about it the other morning, there are a lot of good ones around.
“But he’s a four-year-old and he can only improve. The horse has been very well in himself.
“He improved a stone this year on the Flat, at Chester and the Cesarewitch. Hopefully, there will be more improvement in him.
“It was great. I enjoyed it tremendously, especially when he jumped the last,” he said following the Fighting Fifth.
“There’s the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and I’ve also put him in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29. That’s a possibility.
“Then he’ll have another run, then he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle. Every trainer needs a good horse and I’m glad for the yard.”
Countrywide Flame, though, isn’t the only iron Quinn could have in the fire come Cheltenham.
Kashmir Peak advertised his potential when winning a juvenile hurdle at Market Rasen by nine lengths and similar success could see him tread Countrywide Flame’s path to the Triumph.
“He’s quite a nice horse and we like him,” Quinn said. “He was impressive at Market Rasen and, when the other horse came to him going to the last, you wondered.
“It was between the two of them but he just quickened up like a smart horse. He doesn’t set the world on fire at home.
“He’s a decent work horse without being brilliant, but he is a very likeable horse. Everything in our minds is to try to get three runs into him before Christmas.
“It’s early days (for the Triumph) but you wouldn’t want to discount him. We’ve looked at all the three-year-olds and the Paul Nicholls horse that won at Cheltenham was really impressive.
“There was a Willie Mullins horse that was also impressive at Punchestown but our fella was lightly raced on the Flat and looked like he was improving.
“He wasn’t a horse that had finished on the Flat and I think he will end up at a decent gig in the spring.
“The Triumph is a very hard race to win but there are very good prizes out there for three and four-year-olds. It’s great and it is exciting to have something to keep you dreaming. We have a few nice ones to run.”
Then there’s Calculated Risk, a brother to Quinn’s stalwart Kings Quay, who won nine races including a Grade 2 Hurdle at Wincanton.
His sibling has won only once on the Flat at Doncaster but, ahead of his expected debut over hurdles later this week, Quinn is hopeful.
“He is a grand horse. We like him,” he said. “His brother was a very good horse. This fella is a scopier horse. He’s not as quick – and the form book says he is not – but, being by Motivator, you wouldn’t expect him to be and he’s a grand horse.
“I think he’ll make a nice dual-purpose horse. We’re planning to go to Market Rasen with him and, physically, he’s a big horse so he could improve a bit.
“He might want a little bit further. He could get two, two-and-a-half miles easy but Kings Quay was very, very tough and improved as he got older. We like him.”
Listed races for juvenile fillies are on the calendar for the first time this year and Quinn hopes he has found an opportunity for Cockney Sparrow on Saturday to win some valuable Black Type.
“She’s a nice filly and she’s schooling well,” he said of the three-year-old, a winner at Kempton and Beverley at the start of the Flat season. “There’s a lot of good opportunities for fillies. There’s a Listed three-year-old only fillies’ juvenile at Aintree. She’d only be running against her own age group and, if she happened to get a bracket, she’s worth more. It would be a very good result.
“She’s very good-natured and we thought she could improve from three to four because she’s a big filly. We like her.”
Hidden Justice, Exning Halt and O Ma Lad are another trio of promising runners to be campaigned, along with Zermatt, and don’t forget Recession Proof, the totesport Trophy winner at Newbury, who should return to the track soon following a near two-year absence after injury.
Fifth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle behind Al Ferof at the Festival in 2011, Quinn said: “He’s absolutely fine. We were trying to get a run into him before Cheltenham and he was ready and he got a bit of heat in his leg.
“He’s coming back in January. He’s a low-mileage horse and I could see him winning a good staying race on the Flat and over hurdles.”
They say a week is a long time in politics, so the waiting for the spring must seem like an eternity at Highfield.
But it’s a wonderful thing to have hope, and promise, and that will help the winter months fly by in Norton.