Donn's Articles » Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen

October 1996, Dermot Weld has two fillies pencilled in for the Group 3 CL Weld Park Stakes at The Curragh. The race is named after Weld’s late father Charlie, so it is a race that the trainer likes to win. The fillies, Absolute Glee and Token Gesture, work together during the week before the race. There is very little between them. Stable jockey Mick Kinane finds it tough to choose one over the other, but decides to ride Absolute Glee. She was just slightly more impressive in her work. Still he isn’t sure.

Pat Smullen is the latest teenage riding sensation. Champion apprentice in 1995, he is all set to retain his title in 1996, his last as an apprentice, riding mainly for Tommy Stack and John Oxx, feeding off the scraps that fall from Johnny Murtagh’s table and some that fall from Kinane’s. As it happens, Weld’s second jockey Pat Shanahan is injured, so Smullen gets the call up for Kinane’s cast-off Token Gesture in the Park Stakes. It is a call that is to have significant ramifications for Smullen’s career.

Smullen and Kinane dispute the running on the two Weld fillies in the early stages. After a couple of furlongs, Smullen allows Token Gesture stride on. She is a half-sister to Triumph Hurdle winner Rare Holiday, so stamina shouldn’t be an issue for her. She leads until deep inside the final furlong, when Kinane on the grey filly Absolute Glee come at her again, and Christy Roche on the Aidan O’Brien-trained Melleray come from even further back. The three flash past the post together, but there is little doubt that Token Gesture has clung on. A beaming Pat Smullen returns to the winner’s enclosure, job done.

It is a timely victory. The transition from apprentice to fully-fledged professional is a tough one to make, a rock on which many aspirant jockeys perish. While there are plenty of trainers who are willing to use youngsters when they can claim, thereby reducing the weight burden on their horses, fewer are willing to do so when they can’t, when they have to ride against Mick Kinane and Christy Roche on level terms. Why would you use P Smullen if you could get C Roche?

Catalysed by his ride on Token Gesture, Weld sees the potential in Smullen. In 1997, when Kinane’s association with Aidan O’Brien begins, and he is in the UK and further afield riding the Ballydoyle horses, Smullen comes in for a lot of the rides on the Weld horses at home. Then, in 1999, when Kinane is appointed stable jockey at Ballydoyle, Weld has no hesitation about naming Smullen as his number one. The 22-year-old is well on his way.


Pat Smullen is sitting on a bench in the park just outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin. He has made the journey for Horse Racing Ireland’s launch of the flat season. There is nothing obvious in it for him, no personal gain, but he has made the journey from Ballysax on The Curragh to help out nonetheless. He sees the big picture. His career is in racing, his life is in racing, the promotion of racing can only be a good thing. In order to promote racing effectively, you need the media. In order to get the media, you need the top people in racing. Pat Smullen is one of the top people in racing and he’s happy to go along, to give up his time. He might even stick around for the fashion show later on, you’d never know.

Smullen is at ease, happy with where he is at present in his career, in his life. Doing what he loves to do, operating in the Premiership of his profession with one of the top jobs in racing, married to Frances Crowley, a leading trainer and sister-in-law of Aidan O’Brien, two kids, Hannah, five, and Paddy, bursting for his first birthday on Irish 2000 Guineas day this year. In fairness, sitting on a bench under a sultry sun, the stillness broken only by the hush of the fountain, the fulcrum of the park, it is difficult not to feel content. But don’t confuse contentment with nonchalance or casualness. Here is a man who is still going places.

“I’m 31 years of age now,” he says thoughtfully. “I hope I can improve more as a rider. It’s something you work on every day. I’m happy, of course I’m very happy with where I am, but to ride more Group 1 winners is really what I want to do, and to try and raise my profile even more. Hopefully that will come, we’ve got a lot of very nice horses this year. There could be big opportunities around the corner. You just have to keep on raising the bar for yourself. If you don’t, you’ll just get found out in this game. Content, for sure, but want to do more.”

It is a long way from Rhode in Co Offaly to Dublin 4 and talk of more Group 1 winners. The son of a farm labourer, young Pat always loved animals, but horses and racing didn’t feature much on his radar until his brother Sean, horse-mad Sean, got a job with Joanna Morgan preparing horses for the breeze-up sales. Pat used to go with his father when he was dropping Sean off to work, and Joanna spotted him, a young light fellow who was at ease around animals. It was a waste that he didn’t have a horse underneath him.

Pat started by prepping and exercising horses, and riding them at the breeze-up sales for Joanna, and he quickly realised that riding was all he wanted to do. He started going down to Tom Lacy, a small trainer who had just about 15 horses at the time, but who was only three miles from Smullen’s home and well within reach of a 14-year-old lad with a bicycle.

Success came easily young Smullen. That’s what happens when you have natural ability pumping through your veins and a blinkered single-minded drive to succeed. Nothing else mattered but riding horses. From riding his first winner at Dundalk in 1993, Vicosa for Lacy in an apprentice handicap, it took just two years before Smullen was crowned champion apprentice with 26 winners, a title he retained the following year with 29. In 1997, at the age of 20, he rode his first Group 1 winner when he partnered the Tommy Stack-trained Tarascon to victory in the Moyglare Stud Stakes at The Curragh.

More big winners would follow. Refuse To Bend in the National Stakes and the 2000 Guineas, Grey Swallow in the Irish Derby and the Tattersalls Gold Cup, Nightime in the Irish 1000 Guineas, Benbaun in the Prix de l’Abbaye. But if there was one horse that did more for Smullen’s career than any other, one horse that propelled him into the stratosphere, it was Vinnie Roe, who carried Smullen to victory in an unprecedented four Irish St Legers, and almost captured an Ascot Gold Cup and a Melbourne Cup. Vinnie Roe ran in 29 races in his life. Smullen rode him in 28.

This season, Smullen has scorched out of the traps, as is his wont, and is already clear in the jockeys’ title race, a title he has claimed four times, including three times in the last four years. It is more than just a number game, however. This year, the Offaly man has some top class horses from the Dermot Weld yard to look forward to. There is the Theatrical colt Winchester, who beat the well-regarded Ballydoyle filly Moonstone in a hot maiden at Leopardstown three weeks ago, the Dalakhani filly Chinese White, who won a listed race easily at Gowran Park last Sunday and was immediately promoted to favouritism for the Epsom Oaks, a race she may not go for now, and Famous Name.

“Famous Name is very good,” says Smullen. “Any horse who wins a maiden by six or seven lengths like he did in Naas has to be high class. The form of the race he won at Leopardstown has worked out very well. He definitely has to have an ease in the ground but, on what he has done to date, you’d have to be very hopeful. He’s a horse who will compete at the highest level this season, I just hope he’s good enough to be able to win those races. But all the signs are good at the moment. He might go straight to the Irish 2000 Guineas now.”

Mad About You may make her seasonal debut in the Irish 1000 Guineas.

“Her run to finish third behind Zarkava in the Prix Marcel Boussac was a very good run,” says the jockey. “I always thought that she would improve from two to three, she is a big filly, and her homework suggests that she has. I’m excited about riding her now.”

This afternoon, Smullen has an enviable book of rides at Leopardstown. Carribean Sunset in the 1000 Guineas Trial, Tian Shan in the Amethyst Stakes, and Casual Conquest in the feature, the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial.

“Casual Conquest has run only once,” says Smullen. “He won his maiden over seven furlongs last September, when he quickened up nicely off the home turn and stuck it out well. That was a decent maiden, and we like him a lot. He is training like he will go a mile and a half. All the boss’s horses come on for a run, but he is straight enough to run and he has been working well. We will know a lot more after Sunday.”

Those Group 1 wins are well within range this year. Once accomplished, they will add to the contentment. For now, they just fuel the drive.
© The Sunday Times, 11th May 2008