JACK QUINLAN is still coming to terms with a mud-splattered Kalashnikov outgunning 23 rivals to win Europe’s most valuable handicap hurdle.
“It’s a new experience,” the still shellshocked jump jockey tells The Yorkshire Post. “All the messages of congratulation are overwhelming. It’s surreal. Old school friends, old school teachers, people who I didn’t think followed racing have been in touch, I didn’t realise so many people knew about a horse race at Newbury on a wet Saturday.”
They do now. Quinlan – and second season trainer Amy Murphy – now have next month’s Grade One Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in their sights. Yet both attribute the horse’s rise to the top to the deliberate decision to race at Wetherby and Doncaster last year.
After making a winning racecourse debut in a Bumper at Wetherby last March, Kalashnikov – owned by the young trainer’s father Paul – was even more impressive when making a winning debut over hurdles at the West Yorkshire track on Charlie Hall Chase day.
Victory for the horse, who is still a novice, then followed at Doncaster before the horse was second in Sandown’s Grade One Tolworth Hurdle last month, his only defeat to date. “He only knows the A1. When we turned left, he didn’t know where he was going!” jokes Newmarket-based Murphy, 25, who is Britain’s youngest licensed trainer.
“We always said we would keep him to big flat galloping tracks early in his career – Doncaster and Wetherby both ticked the boxes – because of his sheer size. His early education was always going to be very important. It’s all about nurturing these young horses that have talent and channelling it the right way.”
Quinlan concurs. Born and bred in Newmarket, the home of Flat racing, he says he now knows what it feels like for one of the town’s jockeys to win a Classic.
Quietly ambitious, he’s made himself indispensable to National Hunt trainers in the area, riding out at all hours, and has become integral to Murphy’s team since she decided to take out a dual purpose licence in 2016.
“Amy’s father had reserved the name Kalashnikov many years ago. When she started training, and thought she had a nice horse, we would use it,” said Quinlan, 25.
“When he came from Ireland, we knew straight away that he was the one. You couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Excuse the pun, she said to her father ‘this is the one – the weapon we’ve been looking for’.”
They’ve been proved right from the moment Kalashnikov made a winning debut at Wetherby. “He was always a bit of a playboy at home because he found everything so easy,” explained Quinlan who spent his formative years riding for Sheikh Mohammed’s then bloodstock agent John Ferguson. “He learned a lot, knuckled down and won very impressively.
“We targeted Wetherby from quite a way off. It’s a lovely big galloping track. It’s a very fair track – you don’t get many hard luck stories – and they do a great job producing decent ground. He’s a big horse and needed to find his feet.”
After Kalashnikov spent the summer strengthening and filling out, Quinlan had even more equine ammunition when returning to Wetherby for a 16-runner race in early November when the gelding beat Al Shahir, a well-regarded horse from the all-conquering yard of Dan and Harry Skelton, by 10 emphatic lengths.
“It’s easy to say with hindsight, but we would have been disappointed with anything other than a win,” he said. “We expected him to win but we didn’t expect him to do it that impressively. It was the same at Doncaster. Every time he’s had a race, he’s come back a better horse and it all came together at Newbury.”
This bond between horse and rider meant Quinlan did not panic when Kalashnikov was outpaced early on in the Betfair Hurdle – he knew the horse would do his best work in the second half of the contest.
He’s also incredibly for the loyal support of the Murphy family who could have chosen a more high-profile jockey. “I’ve never felt the carpet was going to be taken away form under my feet,” says Quinlan. “I have lot of friends and colleagues who would like to be in my position. I’m very privileged.”
Though Cheltenham is still on the agenda, both Quinlan and Murphy say they will not jeopardise the horse’s long-term future if he’s not 100 per cent after this four-and-a-half length win on bottomless ground.
“Amy keeps accusing me of wishing her life away because I can’t wait to pop him over a steeplechase fence,” adds Quinlan who waved his white arm, and whip, flamboyantly in the air as he passed the Newbury winning post. “Clear the last, I tell myself to be ‘calm, collected, professional’. I don’t know where it came from. It just shot out. The more I think of it, why not? The early cold mornings, hundreds of miles on the roads, it’s what we do it for.”