All roads point to Cheltenham in March for Countrywide Flame, following his scorching victory at Newcastle on Saturday, which lit the fuse on his exciting Champion Hurdle campaign, writes Tom O’Ryan.
Not only did the John Quinn-trained gelding produce a winning performance in the prestigious Fighting Fifth Hurdle, he did not need to be asked a serious question to score by a yawning margin of 12 lengths from hot favourite Cinders And Ashes after the four-runner contest developed into a straightforward duel from the penultimate flight.
Denis O’Regan, riding Countrywide Flame for the first time, was coolness personified on the winner, who was slashed in the ante-post betting for the Champion Hurdle by all the leading bookmakers.
Stan James, sponsor of the Fighting Fifth and also the Champion Hurdle, cut him to 8-1 from 25-1, while Bet365 went the same price and Paddy Power reduced him to 10-1. The most generous readjusted odds were offered by Betfred, who pared them to 14-1.
Quinn was understandably over the moon with the performance of Countrywide Flame, who was providing the Highfield trainer with his second Grade 1 triumph, eight months after supplying him with his first in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Since then the four-year-old has finished a gallant runner-up in the Cesarewitch Handicap at Newmarket.
“He’s improved a stone on the Flat this year and it looks like he’s also improved a stone over hurdles,” said Quinn.
“He needed to if he was to become a Champion Hurdle horse, but now we’ve learned a bit more about him. I couldn’t be happier with him.”
Quinn, replaying the race in his mind, reflected that “it looked like he’d just jumped in on the home-turn,” so well was Countrywide Flame travelling.
He added: “He’s a championship two-miler. I have been lucky enough to train some very good horses, but he might be the best.”Trained earlier in his career by Kevin Ryan, Countrywide Flame was shrewdly identified by Quinn as the sort of tough Flat handicapper who could shine as a hurdler.
A deal was done privately to purchase the horse last year and the rest, as they say, is history.
It could be, though, that history is re-written in the future.
Ryedale has not had a Champion Hurdle winner since Sea Pigeon triumphed for a second time in 1981 and continued a remarkable record in the race for Peter Easterby, who also won it twice in 1976 and 1977 with the brilliant Night Nurse, having recorded his first Champion victory in 1967 with the tearaway Saucy Kit.
Talking about Countrywide Flame in the same breath as Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon, who both became racing legends and who are laid to rest, side-by-side, in a paddock near the former trainer’s Great Habton home, is somewhat fanciful and wholly premature.
But among the very few four-year-olds to have won the Fighting Fifth, Night Nurse was one in 1975, and now Countrywide Flame is another.
Furthermore, he is the first Ryedale-trained winner of Newcastle’s showpiece event since Tim Easterby’s Barton won in 2000 – a success which came hot on the heels of Dato Star, who scored in successive Fighting Fifths in 1998-99 for Malcolm Jefferson, Quinn’s neighbour.
Plans for the tough and talented gelding are likely to revolve around a return to action over the Christmas period, with Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle and the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown the two Grade 1 options open to him in the same week.
“We’ll consider both races, but I would favour taking him to Ireland,” said Quinn, who trains Countrywide Flame for the Estio Pinnacle Racing partnership.
Back in 1990, when Quinn was a jump jockey based in Norton, he rode Past Glories to finish third in the Champion Hurdle at odds of 150-1.
Come March, he will be back there as a trainer with a contender who will not start at anything like as generous a price.
Countrywide Flame is the sort of horse on which dreams are made. He has already made two dreams become reality. And he may not have finished yet.