SEAN QUINLAN is the first to admit that he has had better weeks.
As he was being rushed to hospital following a sickening fall over Aintree’s Grand National fences, his girlfriend Lizzie Butterworth was marooned on the first floor of the couple’s Cumbrian home as the flood waters rose relentlessly.
Yet, as Quinlan reflects on a traumatic week, he was grateful that he could actually spend his 32nd birthday yesterday riding at Doncaster.
“At least no one has died,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “There are a lot more important things to life than riding winners. It’s a week you just want to forget.”
Quinlan, now attached to Sue and Harvey Smith’s in-form yard at High Eldwick, is unlikely to get his wish – it will be many months before he, and his girlfriend’s family, can move back to their ruined home at Bolton near Appleby, one of the historic towns submerged last Saturday.
As the River Eden rose remorselessly the previous evening, the family – the Butterworths are farmers and racehorse trainers – drove their vehicles to higher ground before getting up at 6.30am to move furniture, and other valuables, to relative safety on the first floor.
Thinking they had escaped the worst, Quinlan then left for Aintree – a 20-minute journey to the M6 took two and a half hours because of flooded roads – where a stressful day was to take an even more dramatic turn for the worse.
Thanks to his burgeoning association with the Smith stable following the shock retirement of 2013 Grand National-winning jockey Ryan Mania just over a year ago, he had two fancied rides over the Merseyside track’s iconic fences.
It did not work out. No Planning, heavily-backed in the Betfred Becher Chase ultimately won by Middleham jockey Henry Brooke on Highland Lodge for Cumbrian trainer Jimmy Moffatt, did not meet The Chair – the biggest fence on the course – on a perfect stride and Quinlan was thrown to the rain-sodden turf.
Having walked away with nothing worse than hurt pride, he then watched two Smith-trained horses prevail at Wetherby, wondering whether he would have won on them, before getting the leg-up on the likable Mwaleshi in the Betfred Grand Sefton Chase.
It looked like he was getting the dream ride. Unlike No Planning, this diminutive horse, owned and trained by the Smiths, relished the formidable fences and was taking them in his stride until calamity struck at the obstacle before Becher’s Brook.
“He was too brave for his own good,” said Quinlan. “I was just leaving him to it, but he was a little bit too long – he was coming down when he should have been coming up.
“It totally stopped his momentum and fired me out of the saddle. Looking back at the replay, it looks like I got a bit of a kicking off Rocky Creek.
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get any air for 30 or 40 seconds. They were trying to give me oxygen and I had this pain in my stomach. They were worried about internal bleeding.”
While Quinlan was being taken by ambulance from the racecourse straight to Aintree Hospital, he had no idea that his girlfriend, and her mother Barbara, had been forced to decamp to the first floor of their home because the living area was under at least six feet of water. It was either that, or swim for their lives.
As he waited for scans – there were concerns that the main vein to his heart was bruised – he was unaware that Cumbria was at the epicentre of a national emergency.
The Injured Jockeys Fund’s almoner Karen Sharpe stayed with Quinlan throughout his ordeal and it was only later that the jockey realised the seriousness of the situation back home.
There was little he could do – apart from hope. Yet some respite did come the following morning when Quinlan was discharged from hospital and the flood waters had receded sufficiently so that his girlfriend, and her mother, could make their own escape.
There was further good news – the flood waters just failed to breach the stables where the Butterworth family keep their string of racehorses.
Their luck was fianlly turning and Quinlan says they were soon swamped with goodwill messages from friends and wellwishers.
In the past, he would have been exasperated at finishing second aboard Polarbrook yesterday, and picking up a two-day careless riding ban, after being beaten a head in a tight finish. Now he is far more phlegmatic.
Born in County Tipperary, Quinlan has gradually accumulated winners since moving to Britain 10 years ago to work for Richard Phillips and Kim Bailey before moving northwards.
Despite being a much-respected horseman, he is looking for that special horse to take his career to new heights, though he is full of gratitude for the opportunities being provided by the Smiths and also his agent Bruce Jeffrey.
“Sue and Harvey, they’re always giving little tips on how to present a horse to a fence,” added Quinlan. “Their horses jump and gallop all day. They’re also very straight-forward people. They won’t say you’ve given a horse a good ride when you haven’t.
“If there are any spare rides going, Bruce is the first man on the case. He’s got me into Joanne Foster’s and some other yards. I just need to stay in one piece – and on dry land. Onwards and upwards.”