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A repeat Triumph on the cards for John Quinn?
Countrywide Flame and jockey Dougie Costello are pictured, centre right, en route to winning the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last year
DOES John Quinn believe in déjà vu? The run-up to the Cheltenham Festival seems eerily similar to 12 months ago if you are a follower of the trainer’s Highfield Stables – and we all know what happened then.
Countrywide Flame surged up the famous hill at Prestbury Park to land the Norton trainer the JCB Triumph Hurdle, landing a 33-1 gamble for his supporters and giving the town its first Grade 1 success at the celebrated National Hunt meeting for more than a decade.
This feeling isn’t just because Quinn’s five-year-old stable star is having another bash at glory, this time looking to stun the principals in the Champion Hurdle on the four-day event’s opening day – Tuesday, March 12.
He could also repeat his Triumph success of a year ago with the help of a duo of promising performers in Kashmir Peak and Hidden Justice.
“I honestly thought he had a chance in the Triumph,” said Quinn, reflecting on Countrywide Flame’s win last year. “He was the horse in the race with graded form along the way.
“These two, this year, are two solid horses and I think the two of them have the same chance as he had last year.
“They are two solid horses that are good enough to turn up with chances.”
Déjà vu, lightning striking twice, whatever you want to call it, Quinn will definitely take the same result in the Triumph.
With Countrywide Flame, however, he is eyeing a far bigger prize.
The Champion Hurdle has been the target ever since the gelding handed out a beating to Cinders And Ashes in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last December.
Cheltenham’s championship race is, of course, another matter entirely.
He’ll have to beat Hurricane Fly, Zarkander and the reigning champion Rock On Ruby if he is to have a chance of grabbing the huge prize.
But the uphill run to the line, that has done for so many contenders at Cheltenham in years gone by, doesn’t worry Quinn in the slightest.
And it’s not just because Countrywide Flame has scaled it gloriously once before. He feels that with a strong gallop, the Champion Hurdle might just play into the hands of his talented horse.
“He’s in good form, in fine fettle, said Quinn. “He has worked well and he is an uncomplicated little horse. He likes this bit of better ground and, at the moment, it is quite dry.
“It was a very good performance in the Fighting Fifth. You can only beat what is put in front of you and he slaughtered them. When he gets a proper end-to-end gallop, he stays very well.
“I was pleased with him at Doncaster last time out. He was leading two very good horses (Rock On Ruby and Darlan) round into a strong head wind.
“The Champion Hurdle winner went by him and looked like he was going to win by ten lengths. But he gnawed away at him and it was down to only three at the line.
“They will go a nice gallop, he can get into a nice rhythm and be comfortable in his jumping. If he was staying right up to the second last, then he would get involved. He will stick on very well up the hill.”
Added Quinn: “Rock On Ruby is a very good horse and he looks the one.
“Hurricane Fly looks unbeatable when he runs at Leopardstown, but it is whether he would be as good if the ground dries.
“They command a lot of respect and it is very much on the day. He is a really useful horse though.
“It’s great to have him in the frame. That’s what we all want. He’s only five. He hasn’t come up for air in the last 18 months and he has rarely been out of the money in the races he has run.
“There are no easy Champion Hurdles but, if everything went right, he would have an each-way chance.”
Should Countrywide Flame fail to get Quinn’s Festival off to a fabulous start then he could end it superbly with Kashmir Peak and Hidden Justice in the Triumph on the meeting’s final day.
“We think Kashmir Peak is a fair horse,” he said of the fourth favourite, a general 16-1 chance. “We really like him.
“At Musselburgh last time, he jumped the hurdles perfectly well, he nearly fell but it hasn’t scared him at all.
“He has got good speed, a high cruising speed, and he stays. He likes good to soft ground. The other fella (Hidden Justice) is a very good horse and his form stands up well against anything else in the race.
“He beat the winner of the Victor Ludorum (Only Orsenfoolsies) by 15 lengths on debut at Wetherby. A lot of winners came out of that one but he was good at Catterick and, if the ground is soft, he has a right old each-way chance.
“Good to soft ground would be fine for him but then Kashmir Peak might have the edge.
“We’ve also left Calculated Risk in the Triumph and I have to speak to the owner, but we might go for the Fred Winter.
“We really like him as well. He won first time and then disappointed at Huntingdon and the ground was too soft for him at Kelso.
“Cockney Sparrow is also in the Fred Winter and she is a very good filly. She was second at Aintree in a fillies’ race and then she won at Doncaster and I was too quick in running her again after that.
“She is guaranteed a run in the Fred Winter but I have got to speak to the owner and see whether Cheltenham would be for her this year. I don’t know.
“We have entered her to give us the option, but she is a big filly and it might be too much too soon.”
The waiting is almost over and to go to the jump theatre’s showpiece with hope and optimism is what delights Quinn the most.
“I am very pleased,” he said.
“They all have chances, good chances, and this is what it is all about. It’s great to go to these big Flat and jumps meetings and have some live contenders.”