IT was May 2019 when John Quinn first laid his eyes on the two-year-old Highfield Princess. First impressions are important in any walk of life. The daughter of Night Of Thunder was straight away a nice animal to deal with. She was a bit backward, nothing flashy, but she did have a very good temperament and she moved well.
She was somewhat audaciously named. John Fairley, her owner, is also Quinn’s landlord and the stables in which the Tipperary native resides are called Highfield Stables. Plenty of good fillies have also resided there down the years.
Fairley acquired the filly when she was in utero when he bought her dam Pure Illusion for 18,000 guineas at the Tattersalls December Mare Sale in 2016. Highfield Princess’s half-brother Cardsharp was a Group 2 winner at two. So the page was respectable already and she was sent to do her bit.
“I said to John she wasn’t really a two-year-old type but I’d hoped she’d get some action in the autumn,” Quinn recalls now. “Then she pulled some muscles behind in September and I said, she won’t be ready to run at all this year. John said no problem and then asked me what I thought of her. I said I think she’ll win a couple of races next year and he said fine.
“So we put her away, brought her back the following year and got her going. John rang me up again and said, ‘what do you think?’ And I said she won’t win a maiden but if we get her categorised, she’ll win a couple of handicaps.
“She got a rating of 57 and got beat in her first handicap. It just took her a while. She didn’t know how to race.
“She went on to win four that season. Shoulda won six. John rang and said he’ll keep her going and I thought, great, she’ll win a couple more as a four-year-old.”
When you track back on the story of any good horse, you’re always looking for that eureka moment, the realistion when connections first felt something special might be on the cards.
For the two Johns, it was at Haydock Park, in May last year.
“Ryan Moore had ridden her at York for her first start and he said you really like this filly don’t you? And I said yeah, I think she has improved. I think she could make into a nice handicapper. We went to Haydock and Jimmy Sullivan rode her and she absolutely danced up. I thought, aye aye, this could be something.”
Highfield Princess was something alright. Two starts later she blasted down the stands side rail to win the Buckingham Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. She was the last of 28 runners to get into the seven-furlong handicap but out on her own at the end of it. She’d win at listed level at Chelmsford on her next start before placing in group company at Goodwood, York, Doncaster and back at Ascot, finishing the season off a mark of 107 and hardened blacktype.
That was job done. The initial brief was covered and more. But Fairley, once the supremo at Channel 4 racing, was enjoying what his filly was doing on the track, where she’d come from and he wondered just how far she could go. He’d already turned down a significant offer for her. He sat down with Quinn and the decision was made to keep her going at five.
She went on to win the Fillies and Mares All Weather Final at Newcastle, before adding the Group 2 Duke of York Stakes and then finishing a close-up sixth in the Platinum Jubilee at Royal Ascot. All the time however, Quinn was aiming towards the Prix Maurice de Gheest. A Group 1 over the unique distance of six and a half furlongs, it was perfect.
She duly won it to give Quinn his second top-level success in France after The Wow Signal won the Prix Morny in 2014.
“We were over the moon coming back from Deauville. It was only then we started thinking about the Nunthorpe, but there was only a 12-day gap between the races. I said to John, let’s just leave her in and see how she is. As time moved on, she was eating the house down, bright as a button and moving as well as ever. I said to John, let’s declare her anyway, it’s only down the road, we’ll let it go to the wire.
“On the morning, I had a look at her and I was happy and she went and put on the performance of her life and won easily. To watch that first hand was amazing, it’s what it’s all about for a trainer. She is just a phenomenal mare.”
It’s hard to disagree with that. Numbers can tell a story and Highfield Princess’s numbers are startling. The Nunthorpe was her 29th start. During those runs she has improved from a rating of 57 to 120. She won a Group 1 over six and a half furlongs on good to soft in Deauville and then won a Group 1 over five furlongs on good to firm ground at York 12 days later.
How do you even explain it?
“I think the one great thing that helped her is that John never rushed me to run her as a two-year-old,” Quinn answers. “I think not running her at two gave her a chance. She has a very good pedigree, and Night Of Thunder was an unknown then and now he’s a phenomenal sire. And obviously it’s down to her, she is a special filly.
“I’d have to say the way she has been looked after from the lads and the lasses here has an awful lot to do with it as well. And I mean that.
“But you know, John could have sold her last year and multiple times this year. People were blasé enough to say, name your price. Of course I passed everything on to John.
“John has been a hugely successful businessman all his life. He’s had racehorses for 40 years and he’s never had anything to touch her. He said to me, ‘Look John, she’s not for sale, end of. We’re going to race her with the enthusiasm she has and then we’re going to breed from her.’”
The next chapter is the Curragh tomorrow where Highfield Princess will bid to win her third Group 1 in as many countries. The ultimate plan is the Breeders’ Cup.
“I love the Curragh, it’s one of the best tracks in the world,” Quinn asserts. “I think it will really suit her and it’s great to be going back home with her and to be going for a Group 1 in three different countries.
“Really our end-game is the Breeders’ Cup. We were out there before with Safe Voyage and even though it didn’t work out for him, it was a magical experience. When this mare started to up the ante this year, I said to my son Seán, I’d love to go to Keeneland for the five-and-a-half, around the two bends. She is dynamite around a bend.
“Obviously we have to jump through a few hoops and Sunday is the next hoop, but I’d love to end up in Keeneland.”
Chase the dream
It’s been a long time since Quinn left these shores to chase the dream in England. From Athnid, just outside Thurles, he spent his earliest days working for Edward O’Grady and Dessie Hughes before he arrived in Yorkshire aged 21 and began to work for Jimmy Fitzgerald.
“I rode about 25 winners for Jimmy,” Quinn recalls. “Then I freelanced for about five or six years. I think I stopped riding when I was 30 and I then I ran a livery yard, bought and sold a few. Then I started training with two horses.
“We chipped away as everyone does, but it took us a good while to get going. It was just me and my wife (Sue). We hadn’t much backing at all, only ourselves, and it takes you a long time to get going without a big backing, and that’s if you’re lucky. A lot of very talented people don’t get going.
“But we started getting good results in big races from 2006 on, and when you start training big winners, you attract owners who can send you better horses.”
Blythe Knight was probably his first flagbearer. He won a Lincoln, two Group 3s and the Grade 2 Top Novices’ at Aintree. Pevensey gave him a first Royal Ascot winner in 2007. Two years later he was off the mark at Cheltenham with the Jamie Codd-ridden Character Building in the Kim Muir, joining an elusive club of trainers to have won at both major festivals.
Then there was Countrywide Flame, a Triumph Hurdle and Fighting Fifth winner. Then there was The Wow Signal, a first Group 1 winner. Then there was Signora Cabello. Then Liberty Beach and Keep Busy, Safe Voyage and El Astronaute. Now there is Highfield Princess.
“Sometimes I don’t know how these good horses end up here but they just do,” Quinn says. “Sue, my son Seán and daughter Kelly are a huge help here. We’ve always gone out and got our own horses, taken our own chances.
“Like, with Blythe Knight, the owner came along and told me he had 80,000 to spend on a horse. I said I don’t know whether it will buy him, but I did say I think I’ll get him for less than 100. Now the owner was on holidays in Devon and he could barely hear me, and all I could hear down the phone was two words, ‘buy’ and ‘him’. I didn’t ask him what he said, I just said good man, thanks.
“We gave 90,000 for him and he won 56 back when he won the Lincoln. If we didn’t go out and look for horses, we’d never get them.”
Getting the horses and subsequently the owners is hard enough, but it is becoming harder, with prize money levels in a chronic state in Britain. In July, Ralph Beckett spoke in this feature about how racecourses were the crux of the problem when it comes to prize money and Quinn readily agrees.
“I think we all realise now that driving 250 miles for £3,000 is a non runner and we’ve got to be very selective,” he says. “I won’t name names but there are lots of places in the winter now that I will not go. If it means two people going somewhere to run for £3,000, it’s just not feasible.
“I think it’s shocking really, people are always blaming the bookmakers but the racecourses here are robbing the job. They’re getting supplemented right, left and centre. No one supplements me or any other trainer, but racecourses are getting help everywhere and it’s at the owner’s expense.
“If the prize money was better, the owner gets more money and the owner is the one providing us all with the job. Aside from that, the stable staff would get more money and that’s very important as well. There are not as many young people coming into this game as before.
“Prize money is improving slightly but racecourses are very guilty. How they have so much power when the person who provides everything, the owner, has such little power, that has me beaten.
“There is far too much racing. The summer racing is shambolic. They were going to take away 300 meetings which would have been great because it also would have taken some pressure off staff and everything but then they rescinded and did a u-turn. A lot of us have the stance now that we’re not going to turn up or go a long way for small money and we’ll target the tracks where there is better money.”
For all the difficulties, Quinn still loves his job, loves working with horses, and he’d do the same all over again.
“You’ve good times and bad times but I really love it,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by racing. I came from a jumping origin, I still have some jumpers and I’d never turn one away, but the people I’ve been training for over the last 15 to 20 years were far more flat orientated. But I’d like nothing more to train another Cheltenham winner.
“There’s so many very good trainers out there but I guess the art is trying to work every horse out. Any top yard I’ve ever worked in, there has always been top-class staff. I placed great value and faith in my team here. We trained our 1,000th winner two or three years ago and we’ve had a couple of hundred more winners since then, so we’re lucky enough.”
Safe Voyage (far side) has already given Quinn an Irish Champions Weekend winner \ Healy Racing
Alongside Highfield Princess, Quinn has travelled over Safe Voyage this weekend, already a winner on Irish Champions Weekend and due to take his chance in the Sovereign Path at Leopardstown today, and Mr Wagyu, who’ll go for another big handicap success at the Curragh in the Bold Lad tomorrow, having won the Scurry earlier in the season.
“It’s great to be coming home,” he says. “You can write this, I came from the best county in Ireland to live in the best county in Britain!
“We used to go back to Ireland an awful lot but then Covid messed that up. I wasn’t in Ireland in two years and that killed me. There is no place like home, and so to be coming home with this mare, and have a favourite’s chance in a Group 1, it’s brilliant.”