Smullen Still Making a Difference Through Cancer Trials Funding

Pat Smullen with his friends and fellow champions AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh | Racingfotos


Four summers ago, TDN had the privilege of having Pat Smullen as our weekly columnist. It would be easy to imagine that someone with as much knowledge of the racing game as the nine-time Irish champion jockey would just reel off a few thoughts and consider it job done, but that was not the way with Smullen.

It was clear in our weekly chats that he took this new role every bit as seriously as he took race-riding, which he had to give up, reluctantly, at the age of 42, after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Smullen's role at TDN was for him a bit part compared to his ongoing involvement with Moyglare Stud, Dermot Weld's stable, and his ambassadorship of Irish Champions Weekend, but the feedback his well-planned column received each week was testament to how much his incisive and thoughtful commentary on the sport that he loved touched a nerve with readers.

When Smullen announced his retirement in TDN in May 2019, he ended that week's column with the words, “I've been very fortunate, I'm content with the decision and I'm looking forward to being able to contribute and give something back to the industry in some shape or form.”

That he did in his typically selfless fashion in the 17 months Smullen had left to live. Later that year, it became clear that he was giving plenty back beyond just the horseracing industry. On Irish Champions Weekend, more than €2.5 million was raised for Cancer Trials Ireland, with Smullen at the forefront of a Herculean and emotional fundraising effort which saw nine of his former weighing-room colleagues come out of retirement to ride in the Pat Smullen Champions Race at the Curragh.

His death, almost exactly a year later in September 2020, was by no means the end of the fundraising, despite a temporary pandemic-enforced hiatus. In recent weeks, the application process has begun for the newly created Pat Smullen Chair in Pancreatic Cancer at University College Dublin (UCD). The position will be funded by the Pat Smullen Pancreatic Cancer Fund at Cancer Trials Ireland, with matched funding from the HSE National Cancer Control Programme.

Smullen's wife, Frances Crowley, remains deeply enmeshed in the ongoing efforts to fund vital cancer trials which will one day ease the plight of other cancer sufferers. While admitting that she would rather remain behind the scenes, the modest Crowley, herself a highly respected former jockey and Classic-winning trainer, is currently engaged in a hectic print and TV media schedule to promote the new position, which carries with it the ambition of making Ireland a global centre of excellence for the treatment and research of pancreatic cancer.

“We had the big day in 2019 and then obviously nothing happened in 2020, but the following year we had our first Coast to Curragh Cycle,” she says, the latter being the charity initiative set up in association with Gavin Lynch to commemorate both his mother and Smullen. 

“The cycle finished at the Curragh but in the first year we weren't able to do a whole lot as things were still a bit closed up because of Covid, but we raised lots of money.

“Last year we made it bigger and better and we were able to do a charity lunch at the races and organise more fundraising in between the two days. Since the big day I think we've raised an extra €375,000, so we're hoping to get to the half-million mark this year.”

Next month, the Pat Smullen race day returns to the Curragh on August 26, featuring not just the conclusion of the Coast to Curragh Cycle but also the Pat Smullen Cancer Trials Ireland Charity Race, in which it is hoped that 10 to 15 riders will take part in memory of a family member or friend they have lost to cancer, or to support anyone currently living with cancer. The race is over a mile and a half of Ireland's most famous racecourse, and riders, who are asked to raise a minimum of €3,000 to take part, will have access to mentoring sessions prior to competing.

Crowley continued, “Eibhlin Mulroe [CEO, Cancer Trials Ireland] contacted me last November to say that something really exciting was going to happen, and that was the Chair in pancreatic cancer at UCD. They were in the process of organising for a world-class expert in pancreatic cancer to be recruited to take up this role, which includes a clinical position at St Vincent's University Hospital, where Pat had his treatment, and will have the educational and research role at UCD.

“It will basically be bringing on the research for trials, bringing trials to Ireland, and driving investment for trials, which will be a great step forward. It is such an honour and we are delighted that this is going ahead.

“The Pat Smullen Fund will fund this for the next five years, which is a commitment of €900,000, so we will have to keep up the fundraising. Pat's name will stay on the Chair, however, with UCD taking on the funding in the future. It's a great legacy that he has left.”

'Pat very much felt that if he could use the profile he had to make some kind of a difference then that was what he wanted to do'

The commitment to the charity has brought a lot of extra work for Crowley, who is also involved in breeding future stars of the racecourse at her farm in Rhode, Co Offaly, close to where Smullen was born and raised. It is not just four-legged participants, either, as the couple's eldest daughter, Hannah Smullen, will take her first ride in the ladies' bumper at Killarney on Thursday evening. Meanwhile their younger children, Paddy and Sarah, are both keen riders competing all over Ireland.

“It's good to keep busy,” says Crowley with a laugh. “Hannah rode in a charity race and is having her first ride at Killarney. She's doing law and she's flat out this summer but she really wanted to have a few rides and give it a shot. Paddy and Sarah are both competing and we're in the middle of weaning foals.”

Crowley's ongoing association with Cancer Trials Ireland, though never actually discussed with Smullen, appears to have happened not just through her sense of duty but also a form of spiritual guidance.

“At the time I remember that Pat very much felt that if he could use the profile he had to make some kind of a difference then that was what he wanted to do. To be honest, I don't think even he dreamt of how big it would be,” she says. 

“But you know what, I feel like Pat is still directing it all and that we are all just going along with it. So many coincidences have happened; things like when I was up in UCD and talking to someone there who had visited the National Stud for the first time ever and he was literally patting [Smullen's Gold Cup winner] Rite Of Passage when the phone rang and it was Eibhlin talking to him about this.”

Crowley adds, “To keep the momentum going for the fundraising, I honestly feel like Pat has his own hand in it and is doing it all from wherever he is.”

With the various events taking shape for the Pat Smullen race day, Crowley is pleased to report that the tables for the lunch and auction are “selling like hotcakes” and that Smullen's old friend and fellow multiple champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy has once again signed up for the Coast to Curragh Cycle. 

“Horse Racing Ireland did a huge amount of work for the big day in 2019,” she says. “Barbara White was assigned to it and she did nothing else for months. She's still a huge part of it and is involved in the race day with the team at the Curragh who are all doing such great work. It is hard work but we're delighted to be doing it.”

Whatever beliefs each of us hold, it is impossible to deny that, either in spirit or influence, Pat Smullen is still making his mark. In Ireland and beyond, he was revered as a great sportsman. His greater legacy, however, is inspiring all who remember him with love and admiration to continue his final and most important piece of work.

Further details of the Pat Smullen Pancreatic Cancer Fund can be found here. 


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