THE aptly-named Grand National hopeful Takingrisks personifies jump jockey Sean Quinlan’s roller-coaster year.
This is the horse that provided Quinlan with the biggest win of his career when landing the Scottish Grand National at Ayr.
Yet, within weeks, the jockey was in intensive care after an unlucky fall on Sue and Harvey Smith’s gallops.
And then, after several months on the sidelines, Quinlan’s big race decision to stay loyal with Takingrisks paid off.
The Nicky Richards-trained veteran then got up on the line in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase to deny, amongst others, Top Ville Ben, the horse that Quinlan could also have ridden in the race.
However, as rising star Tommy Dowson develops his partnership with the Phil Kirby-trained Top Ville Ben – they were a fine third at Cheltenham last weekend – it left Quinlan free to ride the ever popular Lady Buttons to victory at Doncaster last weekend.
Leaving it late in a slowly-run tactical affair, Lady Buttons then surged clear in the evocative purple and white colours of Yorkshire pub owners Jayne and Keith Sivills to provide 36-year-old Quinlan with another day to remember as he deputised for Dowson and luckless injury victim Adam Nicol.
“Unbelievable,” he told The Yorkshire Post before today’s meeting at Wetherby. “We have been watching her for the last couple of seasons up north and me, and a lot of other jockeys, probably didn’t appreciate how good she is.”
Yet, as other jockeys conspired to make it a slowly-run affair, Quinlan had to use years of experience to make sure that the 10-year-old mare was not left flat-footed when the pace quickened.
“When she hit the front, she hung a little bit right. As soon as she got the running rail, I knew she would pick up and gallop to the line,” said the jockey who was surprised by the noise of the crowd. “She showed her class – her last two runs have probably been career-best performances – and she deserves to go to Cheltenham for either the Mares’ Hurdle or Champion Chase.
“She’s just a good mare, Phil has done well with her, and it’s unbelievable she’s now won 15 races. Hurdles, fences, it doesn’t matter. Half of Doncaster was shouting for her and half of them were wearing Buttons scarves. She’s one of the most popular horses in the North – probably racing – and it’s good to see these good horses getting better.”
It’s the same with this jockey. Just over five seasons ago, Quinlan’s career was going nowhere – five wins from 117 rides was not enough to sustain a career. Yet a chance conversation at Catterick with Yorkshire showjumping legend Harvey Smith changed everything. “When I came up north, he got me going again,” said a grateful Quinlan who recently became engaged to his girlfriend Lizzy Butterworth, daughter of Cumbrian trainer Barbara.
“I was going around in circles. Harvey said I could ride out. And then he and Sue said they’d give me some rides. They got me going again when they didn’t have to. A lot of it is down to them. Hard work. My agent Richard Hale. And Harvey giving me a chance.”
Fast forward five years and Quinlan was recording 50 winners for the first time – the 2018-19 campaign would ultimately yield a career-best 61 successes that culminated with the memorable victory of the aforementioned Takingrisks at Ayr.
Now used by many of the North’s leading stables, the unavailability of Brian Hughes enabled Quinlan to ride Takingrisks, owned by Frank Bird, to victory at Carlisle in March last year – and then in the Scottish National a month later.
“My best day in racing,” reflects Quinlan before apologising to fans of Lady Buttons. “It was brilliant. Nicky (Richards) takes his time with his horses. he brings them on nicely. When I rode him at Carlisle, I got to keep the ride for Ayr. He jumps, travels, stays and has a bit of class.”
Qualities that saw Quinlan stay loyal to Takingrisks this season –“you can’t get off a Scottish Grand national winner” – he is looking forward to riding the staying steeplechaser in the Randox Health Grand National this April following a pleasing run over hurdles at Haydock last month.
Yet he’s aware of racing’s fickle fate. If it wasn’t for Takingrisks, says Quinlan, he would probably not have been asked to ride Lady Buttons at Doncaster because he would have gone to Cheltenham to ride Top Ville Ben.
And that he’s been able to ride such good horses is down to another piece of fortune. Schooling a horse at the Smith stables on Baildon Moor last summer, it hesitated at an obstacle and threw the jockey over the fence before landing on the prone Quinlan.
“I didn’t realise how bad it was,” said the jockey. Then he began to lose consciousness. And then 999 paramedics began to discover the extent of his injuries as they rushed Quinlan to hospital in Leeds with a lacerated liver, punctured lung and nine broken ribs.
In intensive care for two days, a prolonged perioud of recuperation gave Sean Quinlan a chance to put his career in perspective before re-establishing himself as one of the North’s top riders.
“It was a simple fall. I’ve had a lot worse falls and come out with not a scratch on me,” he adds. “When I felt the horse jump on top of me, it felt bad but I didn’t realise how bad it was. I passed out, probably through pain, and when I woke up, the ambulance crew were there.
“There are not many jobs when you go out there and an ambulance follows you every day. When you get on the back of a horse, you know there is a chance you’re going to get hurt. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Or taking risks.