Pat Smullen: Class Matched Only By Courage

|

Pat Smullen wins the Derby on Harzand | racingfotos.com

By

At a time when the planet seems more divided than ever, there came a moment on Tuesday night within the notoriously conflicted world of horseracing that gave us all pause for thought. Thought and utter sadness.

The news of the death of Pat Smullen at the age of just 43 was followed by a flood of heartfelt tributes. They came both from within the racing world, united for once in sentiment, and from those outside its sphere, including the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

As befits a man of his sporting prowess, Smullen was revered beyond the shores of his home country but he stayed true to Ireland throughout his prolific career, despite some lucrative offers to ride abroad. His achievements can be measured not just by his nine Irish Champion Jockey titles and 12 Classic victories but in his extraordinary longevity as stable jockey to Dermot Weld. In a riding career that spanned 25 years, he spent two decades at Weld’s Rosewell House on the Curragh, a fact that says as much for his outstanding riding ability as it does for the loyalty and dependability of the man himself.

Patrick Joseph Smullen was born on May 22, 1977, in Rhode, Co Offaly. From first sitting on a pony as a 12-year-old, he was, like his elder brother Sean, quickly drawn to horses and left school at the age of 15 to pursue his dream of a career as a jockey.

Apprenticed to his local trainer Tom Lacy at Tullamore, Smullen did not take long to record the first of his near-2,000 winners when riding Vicosa to victory at Dundalk on June 11, 1993.

Lacy’s son Tony paid a moving tribute to Smullen from Kentucky on Wednesday.

He said, “Pat set a standard that we’d all like to achieve but never could. Not just in his riding career, but when you look at the outpouring of grief, it comes from everyone, even the President of Ireland. Pat was a farmer’s son and honesty was personified in his father Paddy. The man Pat was came from his family. His mother is humble, gracious and sincere, his brothers the same way.”

Recalling his early association with the teenage pony racer, Lacy added, “His father had approached my dad and said ‘Pat doesn’t want to go to school, he wants to be a jockey’. He’d been learning some riding skills by going in at the weekends to Joanna Morgan and he had such determination. That is the one way I would describe Pat in his early years: determined. You often see young people coming through and wanting to be a jockey but they rarely have the true determination and focus. But the first thing that struck me about Pat was that he was a young guy intent on improving himself, who was buying and watching VHS tapes of Mick Kinane. He idolised Mick Kinane and studied him really carefully.”

Smullen underlined his closeness to the Lacy family when reflecting on his riding career last year.
“They took me in and treated me like one of their own,” he said. “They gave me an opportunity to ride and one of the achievements that I’m most proud of was being champion apprentice two years running while I with Tom. That was something very special.”

It was quickly apparent to the racing world that Smullen was himself something very special. He served a spell working as second jockey to Johnny Murtagh for John Oxx. Then, just six years after riding his first winner, he succeeded his idol Mick Kinane in one of the plum jobs in Irish racing at Weld’s powerful stable, thus beginning one of the most enduring partnerships of the turf.

Kinane’s were no easy shoes to fill but Smullen quickly adapted to the role. Having been champion apprentice in 1995 and 1996, he claimed his first professional title in 2000, the year after joining Weld.

“He was the professional’s professional,” said the trainer of his long-time ally in a video to commemorate Smullen being presented with the Cartier Award of Merit in November 2019.

Smullen retained the championship in 2001, the year in which he formed an even more important alliance with his marriage to Frances Crowley, whom he had met when they were both working in Dubai. The first female to be crowned champion amateur rider in Ireland, Crowley also trained successfully, first from Piltown at the base used with distinction by her father Joe Crowley, brother-in-law and sister Aidan and Annemarie O’Brien, and now by her nephew Joseph O’Brien. With Smullen, she moved to Clifton Lodge to train on the Curragh, where she recorded the greatest success of her training career when saddling Saoire (GB) (Pivotal {GB}) to win the Irish 1000 Guineas in 2005. It was a day made even more special by her husband winning the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup aboard the Weld-bred and -trained Grey Swallow (Ire) (Daylami {Ire}). Having made another entry in the history books by becoming the first woman to train an Irish Classic winner, Crowley relinquished her licence three years later to concentrate on raising their children.

Smullen acknowledged his wife’s contribution to his career last year when announcing his retirement in his TDN column.

“Our best day as a family was when she won the 1000 Guineas with Saoire and I won the Tattersalls Gold Cup on Grey Swallow on the same day for Dermot Weld,” he recalled. “She was a great rider herself and an exceptionally good trainer, and she gave it up to support me in my career and to raise our family. You can’t ask for more from one person than what she has given me.”

By that stage, big-race wins were almost a formality for Smullen. He claimed two Irish 1000 Guineas himself, the first on Nightime (Ire), the filly who became the first Classic winner for her sire Galileo (Ire), as well as two Irish Derbys and an Irish Oaks. Of his many successful partnerships on the track, Smullen counted his four Irish St Leger victories aboard the super-tough Vinnie Roe (Ire) (Definite Article {GB}) as being among his most memorable achievements.

His position with Weld gave Smullen the opportunity to ride for many of the sport’s great owner-breeders and it is well documented that for him, the best of days came when winning the 2016 Derby on Harzand (Ire) (Sea The Stars {Ire}) for the Aga Khan.

However, it was perhaps fitting that his first Group 1 victory, from before his time with Weld, came aboard Tarascon (Ire) (Tirol {Ire}) for Tommy Stack in the Moyglare Stud S. of 1997. Later, it was the Haefner family’s Moyglare Stud with which Smullen was most readily associated. Among the major wins recorded for Moyglare came his first British Classic success in the 2000 Guineas with Refuse To Bend (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells). He also won the G1 Prince Of Wales’s S. with Free Eagle (Ire) (High Chaparral {Ire}) and the GI Matriarch S. at Hollywood Park on Dress To Thrill (Ire) (Danehill). Following his retirement from the saddle last year, Smullen was appointed racing advisor at Moylgare Stud for Eva-Maria Bucher-Haefner, working alongside his friend Fiona Craig.

In the year Smullen achieved his crowning glory as a rider at Epsom, he also secured his ninth and final jockeys’ title, having been at the top of this list in three consecutive seasons since wresting the championship from his nephew Joseph O’Brien. Only Mick Kinane, with 13 titles, has been champion jockey in Ireland on more occasions.

In the countdown to the start of the turf season in March 2018, Smullen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The driven, sometimes inscrutable character he had been in his race-riding days gave way to one who became a candid ambassador, both for racing and for fellow cancer sufferers. The ice in his veins melted under his own warmth of personality and, one hopes, the love and support shown to him by his many friends and admirers after the news of his illness was announced.

Through two major operations and bouts of chemotherapy in that first year, it was clearly Smullen’s intention to return to the saddle. When he started his popular weekly column in TDN in March 2019, he talked openly about how horses were an important part of his therapy.

“As a rider I always loved the mornings,” he said. “I loved getting the feel of a good horse and I think my feedback in the mornings was pretty good as well. I’m looking forward to getting back to riding work. It will give me that buzz that I need. That’s what strengthens me, the excitement of getting back on a horse and the sooner that happens, the better.”

Smullen returned to riding out later that spring and, though fully accepting of the medical advice that he should not put his body through the rigours required to make a competitive comeback, he was already planning one last hurrah as part of a grand fundraising drive for Cancer Trials Ireland. As it transpired, the Pat Smullen Champions Race, run on Irish Champions Weekend in 2019, would not feature the man himself in the saddle. Though visibly struggling after the cancer had returned, he was however there in person to greet some of his greatest former rivals returning from retirement to honour their friend.

In his crusade against pancreatic cancer, the racing world marched behind Smullen, willing him on. The goodwill and respect he earned throughout his career helped the fundraising campaign to accrue more than €2.5 million towards important early diagnostic and treatment techniques to combat the disease. In July, Smullen was photographed handing over a €100,000 cheque to St Vincent’s, the Dublin hospital where he underwent his treatment and where he died on Tuesday evening, exactly one year after the memorably emotional scenes on the Curragh for the race named in his honour.

“I’d like to think I achieved a little bit,” he said in 2019 when reflecting on his career as a jockey. “I might not have done anything brilliant, but I think I was consistent the whole way through. I think that’s very important in a stable jockey’s job, and that’s what I loved being, the stable jockey.”

Those words alone point to why he was deeply loved for a modesty so often lacking in today’s world. In shining a light on the achievements of others in his weekly bulletins in these pages throughout last year, his qualities beyond great jockeyship were reflected: as a mentor to the young riders following in his wake and as an eloquent representative for the sport which he loved.

“I’d like to think that I treated people with respect throughout my career and I think that all came back to me in a time of need,” he said.

For Pat Smullen, success went hand-in-hand with humility and gratitude. And when adversity came knocking, he didn’t shut the door and hide away. Instead, he gave it that famous blue-eyed stare and, in confronting the unwelcome visitor we all dread, set an example of courage and fortitude to which we all must aspire.

We wish for the same strength now for Pat’s wife Frances, children Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, mother Mary and brothers Sean, Ger and Brian, to whom we offer our sincerest condolences.

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.