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Published: February 2016.
For a country boy who was told he was too big to be a jockey, Rodney Quinn made the most of his opportunities and became very successful in the saddle, despite battling with his weight. His long tenure with Crown Lodge saw him win stakes races on the likes of Lonhro, Align and Viscount and now he is passing on his experience to a new generation of apprentices on behalf of Racing NSW.
IN A CAREER spanning nearly 40 years Rodney Quinn put together an exceptional record. During those years, for more than 20 of which he was a stable jockey for Crown Lodge, he rode more than 2000 winners and scored numerous Gr.1 successes.
Riding for such a powerful establishment brought him into contact with Australia’s best jockeys. Among those he competed against the names of Darren Beadman, Hugh Bowman, Corey Brown, Jim and Larry Cassidy, Peter Cook, Mick Dittman, Shane Dye, Roy Higgins, Malcolm Johnston, Kevin Langby, Mark de Montfort, Kevin Moses and Ron Quinton spring readily to mind. Now into his third year of retirement Rodney is, through an initiative of Racing New South Wales, giving the benefit of his hard earned experience to the up-and-coming riders of the modern era.
“My wife Alannah and I decided we would do some travelling around Australia after I retired,” Rodney said. The Quinns were driving through Victoria when he received a phone call from Maurice Logue, who is the general manager of Racing NSW’s training department. He asked whether Rodney would be interested in helpino train apprentice jockeys. The answer was an immediate “yes” and he began in his new role in February 2014.
“I watch the apprentices riding in races, mainly at Warwick Farm and Kembla, and assess their rides. Then I discuss what they’ve done right or done wrong and give them any pointers I can. If they find themselves in trouble with the stewards I go into the room and help them out there.
“Also, when requested, I go to the apprentices’ school where we watch replays and analyse them. We could do with more younger apprentices coming through but we do have some talented apprentices based in Sydney. Koby Jennings is a bit heavy but he rides well and we have good female apprentices such as Winona Costin, Jess Taylor and Sam Clenton. I am finding it all very interesting because I am involved and I feel I am putting something back into the game.”
However, one aspect of his new position that has stunned him is the size of the present day apprentice. “When I first started riding in Sydney I was told I was too big and that I wouldn’t last, because at 15 I weighed 44kg,” he said. “Now when I walk into the jockeys’ room I am one of the smallest there. The kids are bean poles and they are taller than I am, but fortunately they are finding things a bit easier with the minimum weight being 54kg nowadays.”
Surprisingly, although born into a racing oriented family in Forbes, Rodney was into his 15th year before he decided to take up an apprenticeship. In his formative years spent at Nyngan, which is a small town on the banks of the Bogan River some 600km west of Sydney; he was quickly immersed in racing and the equine world.
A grandfather Cy was a jockey and his father Kevin was a successful amateur before becoming a steward in the western region of New South Wales.
“Dad was a leading amateur jockey out in the west for quite a while and he rode in the Corinthian at Randwick one year,” Rodney said. “I’d go the races all the time with my father and kick around the jockeys’ room but was not even considering becoming a jockey.
“I was given a pony on the day I was born on June 25, 1960, and I was always around horses. I was riding from about the time I was five but I wasn’t able to ride the pony I was given until I was about 10 because she was so headstrong and hard to handle.
“As I grew older I started riding work and then, when I was about fourteen-and-a-half Dad asked me whether I was going to be a jockey. I hadn’t given it much thought until then although I guess that was always the direction I was going in. Even at that stage people were saying I would soon be too big, because the minimum weight in those days was 47kg, but I said I’d give it a go.”
With that he became apprenticed to Ray Burton, who had stables in Nyngan and was putting a capable team together. “About three or four months after I became an apprentice Ray moved to Warwick Farm and I went with him. Ray was there for two or three years and then moved over to Rosehill. I stayed with him until my apprenticeship was over.”
By then he had made quite a name for himself after bringing up his first metropolitan winner on the Novalis gelding Ajana Lad at Randwick in August 1976. That led through to him being given opportunities by such luminaries as Jack Denham, Tommy Smith and Bart Cummings.
He made the most of those chances in 1977 by winning the STC George Ryder Stakes-Gr.1 on the Planet Kingdom gelding Command Module for the Denham stable. His other feature winners included the AJC Chelmsford Stakes-Gr.2 on Flirting Prince for T.J. and the Tattersall’s (NSW) James Barnes Plate-LR on Bazza for J.B. He was also given the honour of riding Flirting Prince in the 1977 W.S. Cox Plate-Gr.1 at Moonee Valley won by Family of Man from Raffindale and Vice Regal before a crowd of nearly 35,000.
“Flirting Prince finished 10th, from memory, but that was quite a thrill for a 17 year-old,” he said. “I won some really top races when I was 17 on horses with light weights, because they were only three year-olds. I could ride at 48kg in those days and I was firing. I did a little bit of riding for Bart Cummings on-and-off and I was getting on some nice horses, which was great.”
However, within a year or so Rodney was beginning to have problems with his weight. “When I was 18-19 I was fighting with my weight all the time and that was restricting my riding in town. I was still being booked for rides in town but I was doing a lot more riding around the provincials and in the country.
“I was still riding winners but I was doing it tough for a fair while. I was doing the country circuit by the time I came out of my apprenticeship, riding at Kembla Grange, Goulburn and places like that.”
In 1982, not long after completing his indentures, Rodney and Alannah were married. He soon had family responsibilities with Alannah having their daughters Ashleigh and Rebecca, who “don’t really” have much of an interest in racing at this point in their lives.
Looking back he believes his win on the Northern Spring (IRE) gelding Pride of Indies, trained by former jockey David Heywood, in the Wagga Gold Cup in May 1985 was the trigger for his rise to prominence in Sydney.
“I was struggling a bit before that but the win seemed to be the start of me getting better rides in the city,” he said. Not long afterwards a major break came his way when Jack and Bob Ingham established Crown Lodge at Warwick Farm, with Vic Thompson as trainer. Initially the flamboyant Shane Dye was the stable’s No.1 jockey and Rodney secured the position as the operation’s provincial and country jockey.
“Becoming connected to Crown Lodge, I think it was in 1985, was a real help and it was an association that lasted for more than 20 years. Vic Thompson was the trainer for the first five or six years I was there. Before I left Rosehill I had ridden for his father and I had ridden on-and-off for Vic when he was at Rosehill.
“I had moved to Warwick Farm and had been back there for a couple of years, riding for Normie Shinn and a few others, when they started to set up Crown Lodge and it fell just into place for me. It was handy because Crown Lodge had the better-type of horses, who were carrying heavier weights.”
Fortunately, by the time he reached his thirties, his weight had begun to level out. Also, during that era, racing authorities had come to appreciate the trouble the majority of jockeys were having meeting their weight commitments and had begun increasing the minimum.
“I stayed pretty much the same weight from my thirties onwards and during those years the weight scale came up to meet me so that helped. I was able to ride at 53kg and that meant I wasn’t losing rides the way I had been before.”
In 1993 John Hawkes, who had been training for Crown Lodge in Melbourne, took over from Thompson as trainer for the Inghams. Rodney began winning “a heap of races” for Hawkes and as he was nearing, and going into, his forties he found his opportunities in Group and Listed races were increasing. A series of victories in major events began when he won the AJC Sires-Produce-Gr.1 on the Night Shift (USA) two year-old Align, who was owned by Hawkes and his wife Jenny.
He won the classic again in 2001 on the Woodlands Stud Syndicate’s Quest For Fame (GB) colt Viscount, who continued on to capture the AJC Champagne Stakes-Gr.1. During that period he also had the privilege of being aboard Lonhro, for six wins and a second in the days when the Octagonal (NZ) entire was on his way to becoming a superstar.
After finishing second at Lonhro’s debut in November 2000 Rodney guided the youngster to his first win over 1100m at Rosehill on January 27 of the following year. He partnered Lonhro to further successes in the AJC Ming Dynasty Quality-Gr.3 and STC Heritage Stakes-LR in September 2001 leading up to his win in the MRC Caulfield Guineas-Gr.1 with Darren Gauci in the saddle. In February 2002 Rodney again rode the champion to victories in the AJC Royal Sovereign Stakes-Gr.2 and Hobartville Stakes-Gr.2 before Darren Beadman took over.
“He was an amazing horse,” he says of Lonhro, who retired to stud with a record of 26 wins, three seconds and two thirds from 35 starts for earnings of $5,790,510. “Soon as you got on him you knew he was something special . . . and he knew it as well.”
During that era Rodney also won the STC The BMW-Gr.1 on the 100/1 shot Curata Storm, by Dieu d’Or, in 2001 and the next year’s George Ryder on Lord Essex, who was by Scenic (IRE).
“John was always telling the owners Curata Storm had a lot ability but he had a bad back and we couldn’t win a race with him,” he said. “He finally came good and won his maiden at Hawkesbury by 15 lengths so John ran him in The BMW to get his prize money up for the Derby. Everything went according to plan for him in The BMW and he simply outstayed the others, which got him into the Derby. He could only finish fourth and his back went on him after that.”
As 2002 was unfolding Rodney was offered a contract by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which he accepted, leaving Sydney in August. “I was over in Hong Kong for three–and-a-half months and rode seven winners, it was quite an experience. Then I was able to link up again with Crown Lodge when I came back, which meant everything worked out well.”
However, it was Gwenda Markwell who provided him with his next Gr.1 winner in The BMW in 2004. He was triumphant on the highly fancied Grand Lodge (USA) three year-old Grand Zulu, who produced a superb performance to defeat Mummify and Makybe Diva. In November 2008 when John Hawkes parted ways with Crown Lodge Rodney was beginning to feel the strain of constant dieting, long walks, exercising in a gym and immersing himself in sauna baths. But he will always be especially grateful for the opportunities the association had given him.
“I was very well rewarded with rides while John was at Crown Lodge. I would never have got to ride some of the top horses I did, if it hadn’t been for my association with Crown Lodge. John backed me all the way and he put me on some top horses in big races, which was great. I stayed on at Crown Lodge for about another 12 months after he left but it was getting pretty tough for me by that stage,” he said.
During the period Rodney was riding for Guy Walter and a number of other trainers. That opened the way for him to add two further Gr.1 wins to his CV in 2011. Those came on Chris Waller’s imported Hawk Wing horse Stand To Gain (IRE) in the AJC Sydney Cup and on the Guy Walter-trained Doctor Doom in the AJC Spring Champion Stakes.
“Although I was still riding winners I was finding it hard to keep doing the things I had to do to keep my weight until control.” He did not realize at the time what a momentous occasion it was when he landed Merlin Mustang a winner at Rosehill on July 1 2013.
It turned out to be his last ride in a race. The next day he slipped over while stepping out of the sauna and twisted his knee.
“Alannah and I had been planning a trip to Europe as a break from my riding so we went on the holiday. When we came back late in July my weight had gone up to 61kg.
“I thought the holiday would freshen me up and that I would be keen to ride again, only that didn’t happen. I was trying to get my weight down and people were ringing and asking what was happening. As the months went by I knew I’d lost the urge to keep doing what I had been doing for so many years. I just couldn’t do it any more and once I made the decision I was comfortable that it was the right move, even though I felt I was still riding well enough.”
So, as a result on November 23 2013, Rodney, long renowned as one of the nice guys of racing, announced that the curtain was being brought down on his career as a jockey.