The Pat Smullen Column: California Dreaming

Muhannak and Pat Smullen after their Breeders' Cup victory at Santa Anita | Racing Post


Though there's no real banker or stand out from Europe this year at the Breeders' Cup, especially now that Magical (Ire) has been scratched, the team out there is bound to be competitive. For whatever reason, at Santa Anita the European horses seem to adapt to Californian racing quicker than they do when the Breeders' Cup is on the east coast, and that's something that's always fascinated me. Maybe it's just the fact that they flourish with a little bit of heat on their backs at this time of year, but they have run consistently well there over the last number of years. In my opinion, Santa Anita Is really the only place to run the Breeders' Cup—I know some people may disagree with me on that but it's an amazing race track in a beautiful setting and it all just seems to work really well there. Hopefully we will have some of the same this year.

Obviously there have been problems this year with the track at Santa Anita but they seem to have it under control and they are doing everything they can to ensure that horse welfare will be as it should be. In America every workout is scrutinised much more closely because of the system of training on the track. In Europe training is conducted much more privately. None of us want it to happen, but the simple fact is that sometimes horses are injured or occasionally have fatal accidents in training. That is not documented publicly in Europe in the same way as it is on a racetrack in America. There are photographers, reporters and gallop-watchers present every morning on American tracks, and the reality of it is, whether it is human athletes or equine, there will be injuries.

We can run around in circles about it but it is never going to go away because in competition, and in training to be in competition, we are never going to be able to prevent injuries completely. Those involved with racing are doing their utmost to try to minimise the risk of this happening and to ensure that we have the best facilities and the best surfaces to give the horses the opportunity to be trained in the safest environment.

Savour The Build-Up
My one and only Breeders' Cup win was the first running of the Marathon, which I won on Muhannak (Ire) for Ralph Beckett. I've been lucky in California—at the old Hollywood Park as well, where I won the Matriarch Stakes with Dress To Thrill (Ire). It's a place I always love going to and this coming weekend will be a time when I will really miss the race riding.

From an Irish perspective there's Shane Foley having his first taste of the Breeders' Cup action, as well as Chris Hayes. I've been speaking to them both over the last couple of days about going over to compete and it's a huge experience for them. It's the two days of American racing that I would really love to be taking part in.

The Americans really do know how to put on a show. The build-up to the weekend is fantastic, from the previous Sunday when the shippers get in and through all manner of activities during the week. I used to love going down to Clockers' Corner when I had finished riding my own horses to watch the others train and meet people.

I had thought about getting over there this year because a good friend of mine, Brendan Walsh, was to have had two good runners, including probably the best 2-year-old in America this year in Maxfield. Sadly, Maxfield was ruled out of his run in the Juvenile on Tuesday, which I am sure is a real disappointment both for Brendan and Godolphin.

There is an awful lot more interaction between jockeys, trainers and the media in America and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that they are training on the track every morning and everybody is mixed in together from all over the world. It is part and parcel of a jockey's life to have to interact with the media, though here am I saying that, but when I was race riding, leading up to a big day I would be ducking and diving trying to avoid reporters. But when you sit back and look at it now, there's a responsibility for all of us on the inside to try to sell the sport, and I think it's more important now than ever before with the various issues faced by racing.

Mike Smith A Perfect Role Model
From a jockey's perspective, I have always admired Mike Smith. The way he conducts himself, both professionally and personally, is really impressive and I think he's a good role model to any young rider looking to ensure longevity in their career. Mike is into his early 50s and he rides like he's in his 20s, and that is because he conducted himself in a professional manner from the early days. The way he interacts with the press and promotes the sport is fantastic, and I think that is rubbing off on a lot of the younger riders in America.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of going on a trip to Japan with Johnny Velazquez. He is a real gentleman; very similar to Mike in that he is extremely professional in the way he goes about his work. He has ridden a lot of winners for Dermot Weld in America over the years and I've always spoken to him and given him advice on the horses I wasn't able to do the weight on that went to America. Johnny has plenty of good rides lined up on favourites this weekend and deservedly so. With Johnny and Mike, it's not just the way they behave on the track but also how they are in the jockeys' room, and how they train and prepare for races. I think that has led a new generation of jockeys to consider themselves as athletes and behave accordingly.

Honing Skills Stateside
Any experience jockeys can get in other parts of the world is always beneficial but there's no question that going to America is a huge advantage and I wish I'd done more of that myself when I was younger. I was however fortunate that I spent a lot of time in Dubai working for Erwan Charpy. He was assistant trainer to Neil Drysdale for many years, so he trained in the American way and he taught me how to ride against the clock and about getting horses out of the gates sharply.

It's not surprising that we have seen John Egan send his son David to America for two winters, and now Kieren Fallon is sending young Cieren to Christophe Clement in Florida for the winter. It's not by chance—they know what they're doing.

Frankie Dettori has always said that spending winters in California in his youth was of huge benefit to him. It's a proven method of educating jockeys and I will always advise young riders here to go and spend at least one winter in America to help them sharpen their skills.

I'm really looking forward to two of the best days of international racing and wish everyone at the Breeders' Cup the best of luck, but I'll especially be rooting for Brendan with Vitalogy (GB) in the Juvenile Turf.



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