The Irish-born rider was heading for oblivion – on and off the racetrack – before he encountered Yorkshire’s showjumping legend at Catterick.
“I saw Harvey at the races and asked if I could come and ride out for him and Sue,” Quinlan told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“He said ‘we won’t promise you anything but there will be opportunities if you work hard’. They were the people who got me going again – Sue and Harvey. They believed in me.”
The results speak for themselves. Five seasons ago, 117 rides accrued just five winners for the jockey before the reformed character moved North for a fresh start.
Yet he has already amassed 55 winners in the 2018-19 campaign from 452 rides as he becomes established as the North’s most prolific freelance jump jockey. And this culminated with last weekend’s unforgettable Scottish National win on Takingrisks – a victory emblematic of Quinlan’s enlightened approach to life.
His unexpected success on the Nicky Richards-trained chaser earned congratulatory plaudits from the likes of Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Paul Townend.
Yet Quinlan drew as much satisfaction from the fact that he was at a minor meeting at Carlisle last month when he won on Takingrisks for the first time.
It was, he said, reward for being in the proverbial ‘right place at the right time’ – and then making the most of the unexpected opportunity.
“Winning the Scottish National was brilliant, but a bit of a surprise,” he continued. “Going to Ayr, I thought we could do with a bit of rain to slow the others down. The way it happened, he travelled really well for four miles apart from nearly being knocked over at the first.”
With 23 runners – including Vintage Clouds for the aforementioned Smith stable – jostling for position, Takingrisks was among those squeezed for room. “He went down on his nose and the reins slipped,” explained the rider.
“I was hanging on out the back door. You just hope gravity doesn’t take over. It was just fear keeping me on and a quick prayer.”
So, too, was Cumbrian-based Richards whose late father, Gordon, had first won the Scottish National 50 years earlier with the Ron Barry-ridden Playlord.
Now Richards and Quinlan harbour dreams of the 10-year-old Takingrisks, owned by Frank Bird, lining up in next year’s Aintree Grand National. “He jumps very well and stays very well. That could be the plan next year – hopefully,” said the jockey.
And the word ‘hopefully’ is spoken with added emphasis because he knows that there are no certainties in racing.
It is, he says, 14 years since he moved to Britain to become the latest promising rider to make the trip across the Irish Sea.
Yet, while he worked for trainers like Charlie Longsdon, Kim Bailey and Richard Phillips, he never became established as a stable jockey.
And when the rides and winners began to evaporate, Quinlan, by his own admission, spending “too much time messing about”.
This culminated with the most embarrassing episode of his life – a suspended prison sentence in 2014 for his role in a violent pub brawl.
However, by now, a chastened Quinlan was coming under the tutelage of both Smith – the retired showjumper is a great believer in giving people a second chance in life if they work hard and turn up on time.
He is also grateful for Bruce Jeffrey, his then agent, for showing faith in Quinlan, building up contacts and alliances, before a switch to Richard Hale helped take his career to the next level.
And while Quinlan still rides for the Smiths, and won Wetherby’s Castleford Chase on Ann Ellis’s Cracking Find last December, he is also used by, amongst others, Brian Ellison, Phil Kirby, Jennie Candlish and the aforementioned Richards.
“Sue and Harvey are such loyal people – and they don’t use very many outside jockeys,” he said. “They were the people who got me going again. Harvey has years of experience and started with nothing.
“He sat me down and said that you ‘only get out what you put in’. He was right. As always...”
Quinlan also credits calming support and influence of his girlfriend Lizzy Butterworth who runs Hambleton Racing and whose mother, Barbara, is a trainer in Cumbria.
“It’s very important. She gets everything sorted at home so that all I have to do is focus on riding. I couldn’t do it without her,” he says. “As Harvey keeps saying, work hard now – and then party and do other things – when you retire. In the past, I was mixing them both – riding and also going out at night – and it went wrong.”
Yet, after his Scottish National win, Sean Quinlan hopes that this season’s resurgence is just the start.
“I just hope to get as many rides as I can and get on them good horses on a Saturday – and those big days,” he added.