Donn's Articles » Pat Smullen
As you drive into the village of Rhode in County Offaly, just after the sign that tells you that you are driving into the village of Rhode in County Offaly, there is another sign, a photograph of a horse, with the rider – a local lad – punching the air, and an inset of the same local lad receiving his trophy from The Queen.
“Congratulations Pat Smullen on your Epsom Derby victory, from all in Rhode.”
Pat Smullen was just getting out of his car at Dublin Airport early on Derby morning when Dermot Weld’s secretary Martina Dunne called. The rider’s heart sank, it couldn’t be good news. There was a little bit of a problem with Harzand, Martina said. The horse had pulled a shoe off at the airport on the way to Epsom and there was a doubt about him running.
Here we go again, Pat thought: Derby prospects up in smoke. Free Eagle was a Derby horse in 2014, he had Derby class, but he never made it to Epsom. Zawraq was another live Derby prospect last year, he won Leopardstown’s Guineas trial on his seasonal debut by three and a half lengths, but injury meant that he had to miss the rest of the season.
Pat hung around Dublin Airport for a little while, not sure if he should even get on the plane. There was a decent meeting at The Curragh that evening, the boss had a few horses running, so he could just cut his losses, forget about Epsom altogether and go to The Curragh.
Then the news came back that Harzand was making progress, so he boarded the plane and flew into the history books.
“It was some effort by all the staff to get him to even run,” recalls Pat now. “And thankfully, Jim Reilly, Jim Bolger’s farrier was there on hand. He was great. But all morning it was touch and go. I was sitting in the weighing room, wondering if I would stay and watch the Derby at all, if I wouldn’t just get an early flight home. These are the things that go through your mind. It wasn’t until one o’clock that he was confirmed as a runner.”
Turns out, the race itself was the easy part. Smullen had his race plan: get an early position, track Idaho, kick on early, and the race followed the plan, all the way down to the ‘track Idaho’ part. Unbelievable. Hundreds of riders plan hundreds of Derby rides, and none of them could ever have worked out as well as this one did.
“To be honest, my main concern was he wouldn’t have the pace to get and keep an early position. But he jumped from the gate well, and he was able to lie up with them easily. I wanted to track Idaho, he is a very good horse and I had a feeling that Seamus (Heffernan) would ride him handily.”
Harzand got the better of Idaho on the run to the furlong pole but, just as he hit the front, Smullen saw the white head of US Army Ranger at his boot. He asked Harzand to pick up again and he did. The Ballydoyle horse just couldn’t get past. Harzand was strong all the way to the winning post and Pat Smullen punched the air when he passed it. That’s the photograph that you see on the way into Rhode. That’s the history-making shot.
“It was brilliant. It was the highlight of my career so far, no doubt. I suppose with the uncertainty about his participation, I was a little more emotional afterwards than I might have been.”
The days that followed that Derby win were good days. Call it serendipity but, as it happened, he didn’t have any rides at Listowel the following day, so he was able to relax at home, watch the video again with his wife, Classic-winning trainer Frances Crowley, and their kids, allow it all sink in. Derby winner.
Frances didn’t go to Epsom. She thought about going, but she thought it better to stay at home and watch it from there. When they watch the video now, the kids pause it just as Harzand looms up on the outside of Idaho, around a furlong and a half from home: it’s around about here that Mum started to go crazy!
Then Harzand and Pat Smullen went to The Curragh three weeks later and won the Irish Derby.
“The Irish Derby was up there with Epsom for me,” says Smullen. “It was almost as good. Obviously, he was a short-priced favourite, so that brings with it its own pressure. And against a high-class horse like Idaho. It was a hell of a battle, it was a great race between the two of us, and to win it in front of your home crowd. That was very special.”
It has been a special year all around so far for Pat Smullen. As well as his Epsom Derby and Irish Derby wins on Harzand, he has won the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup on Fascinating Rock, all for his boss Dermot Weld. He has just about an unassailable lead in the Irish jockeys’ championship, he is on his way to his ninth title and, with 93 winners already in the bag, he is set to ride more than 100 winners in Ireland for the third year in a row.
On top of that, Smullen has been in great demand in Britain this season, as finally his talent is becoming universally recognised there. He has ridden Group winners this season for British trainers Hugo Palmer, Mick Channon, Roger Charlton and Sir Michael Stoute, and he has had more rides in Britain already in 2016 than he has ever had in an entire season previously.
Next weekend is Irish Champions’ Weekend, a busy weekend for Pat Smullen. Both Harzand and Fascinating Rock are on track for the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday and, all things being equal, both horses will run. It will not be an easy decision for the rider, both have big chances, especially if this rain continues and there is an ease in the ground. But you couldn’t get off a Derby winner though, could you?
“Fascinating Rock is a top class horse, but Harzand is a top class horse who has the potential to be even better. He is only three, he is probably still improving.”
More history beckons.
© The Sunday Times, 4th September 2016