Donn's Articles » Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen

The difference between the Brickfield a quarter of a century ago and the Brickfield these days is that there is a house in the middle of it these days. Pat Smullen worked on this land back then for Mr Cotton, four miles from his home in Rhode in County Offaly, herding the cattle, helping his dad, 44 acres in a sprawling farm of over 300. Now he and his family live on it.

If you were to write a happy-ever-after story like this one, it would be filed in the too-far-fetched drawer: boy works on farm, boys does good, boy buys farm, in a Marquis of Carabas meets The Godfather-type tale. Smullen relaxes in his armchair in the sun-drenched kitchen, cup of tea in hand, at one with his mind and with the world around him. This is his release, he tells you. The golf course does it for some, the back of the bar does it for others, but this is where Smullen is at his most content, this is where he wants to be when he is not sitting on the back of a horse, at home with his family and with his land around him.

Smullen and wife Frances Crowley are here just three months, just about as long as latest arrival Sarah has been demanding attention. They are only beginning to get things sorted, but already they have the important photographs on the wall. Vinnie Roe on the far wall, Smullen’s horse, the horse on whom he won an unprecedented four Irish St Legers and a Prix Royal-Oak and on whom he just failed in the Ascot Gold Cup and the Melbourne Cup, the horse that picked him up as a promising young rider and carried him to the very top; Saoire on the wall beside the door, the filly that Frances trained to win the Irish 1000 Guineas in 2005.

To say that this has been a good year for Pat Smullen is to enter for the Understatement of the Year competition. Any year that you ride three Group 1 winners and win the jockeys’ championship is a good year. All three Group 1s – all for his boss Dermot Weld – were special for different reasons. Any Classic win is special, but Bethrah’s win in the Irish 1000 Guineas was made all the more so because of the fact that she is owned by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, an owner for whom top class fillies are so important, and because it was his first Irish 1000 Guineas win since Willie Carson rode Matiya to win it for him in 1996.

Chinese White’s win in the Pretty Polly Stakes at The Curragh in June was quite unbelievable, another fairytale ending. Multiple listed and Group race winner, Lady O’Reilly’s filly had never won at the highest level. Four times she had tried, and all four times she had come up short. Now in foal to Cape Cross, the Pretty Polly was her last chance, her very last race before she retired to the paddocks. How fitting that she should deliver.

But ask Smullen if one of these achievements stands out, if there was one feat that was more important to him than all the others this season, and he has no hesitation: the Ascot Gold Cup, Rite Of Passage.

“The Ascot Gold Cup is one of the great races,” he says thoughtfully. “And it was especially sweet for us because the boss tried hard to win it a few times, Vinnie Roe going very close, Vintage Crop going very close.”

Funny thing. Smullen always thought that Rite Of Passage was a good horse, he was always held in high regard by him and by Weld, and by all at Rosewell House, but the rider thought that he was a good bumper horse, a good flat horse, not an Ascot Gold Cup horse.

“It wasn’t really until he won the November Handicap that I started to think, you know, this fellow might not be too bad,” he smiles. “He was in training as a two-year-old, but he was just one of those big horses that was slow to come to hand. He is a very tall horse, it just took him a long time to mature into his frame. But he was one of those horses who improved and improved, and just ended up where he did.”

Even as a bumper horse, Smullen knew Rite Of Passage well. Dermot Weld’s stable jockey, he rides most of the horses in all their work. He is in the yard every day, he takes an interest in all the new recruits, he knows each one, knows their ability, their level of maturity, each one’s rate of progress, and he ended up riding Rite Of Passage in the 2009 Cheltenham Festival Bumper.

“You’d be always looking out for a horse to ride in the Cheltenham bumper,” he says. “Universal Truth was in the picture that year as well, but the boss always said that this was the one who would hopefully win it for us.”

Smullen still thought that he had a huge chance. He still has a hankering to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, the bumper is the only race in which he can do it – he isn’t going to be touting for a ride in the Coral Cup any time soon – just one chance every year, and he thought that, in Rite Of Passage, he had a horse who was right up to the task.

“I got a lovely run around,” he recalls. “We were travelling well down the hill and into the dip, and I actually thought I was going to win. But as soon as that thought went through my mind, Dunguib arrived on my outside. To this day, I can’t believe that a National Hunt horse could arrive there with the speed that he did. He actually took a pull going around the home turn, I could hear Brian O’Connell saying wooah as he went past me, trying to slow him down. Then he just sprinted away from me around the bend and he was gone. It was unbelievable. Our horse ran a great race, but he was at a stage in his life when he was really only starting to come to himself, and Cheltenham is a very hard place for young horses.”

Rite Of Passage strengthened up during that summer, the summer of 2009. Smullen could see him getting better and stronger with every week that passed. He won his maiden at Ballinrobe that September, and he won the November Handicap at Leopardstown that, well, November, as easily as you liked. Probably too easily for a handicapper. If, indeed, he was a handicapper.

“The boss was away in America that day,” recalls the rider, “and I remember ringing him up to tell him how the day went. We had a very good day, Libano had won the listed race and Casual had won the last, but I was dreading telling him that I had won the November Handicap by eight lengths. He just said don’t worry about it, we won’t be worrying about handicaps for Rite Of Passage any more.”

Smullen was looking forward to riding Rite Of Passage at Royal Ascot. He knew that he had been very well since he had finished third in the Neptune Investment Management Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, and he was hoping for a big run. That said, he was thinking, first three. If he could have finished in the first three, he would have been delighted. Weld thought differently, however. The trainer thought that he had a real chance of winning the race and, as he legged Smullen up in Ascot’s parade ring, he told him as much.

“I suppose that’s why he is the trainer that he is, the judge that he is, and why he has achieved so much, and I am just a jockey,” laughs Smullen. “I watched the horse during the winter, and he was working extremely well during the lead up to Ascot, but never for a moment did I think that he would win an Ascot Gold Cup.”

Smullen had been there before. Royal Ascot, 20th June 2002, he and Vinnie Roe arrive up on the outside of Wareed and Royal Rebel at the two-furlong pole. Smullen wants to have one shot at it, he wants to deliver Vinnie Roe with one burst that will take him past Royal Rebel, beat him for speed, but Wareed is between them and he is proving to be a stubborn opponent. By the time he gets past Wareed, Johnny Murtagh has engaged dogged gear on Royal Rebel, and he sticks his head out to deny Vinnie by a neck.

“Vinnie had speed,” laments Smullen, “but he just didn’t fully stay the two and a half miles. I had Royal Rebel beat everywhere, but my fellow just died on me in the final 100 yards. I think it was a similar story with Mick (Kinane) on Vintage Crop for the boss in 1994. To win an Ascot Gold Cup, you need a horse that’s going to stay extremely well.”

In the Dr Ronan Lambe-owned Rite Of Passage, Smullen had one this year. They went a fair pace through the race, there were five horses in contention rounding the home, but strength won out as Age Of Aquarius and Rite Of Passage pulled clear at the top of the home straight. Toe to toe they went, a two-and-a-half-furlong gladiatorial lung-burster at the end of a two-and-a-half-mile near-flat-out gallop.

The advantage oscillated like a swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock. One moment it looked like Age Of Aquarius was going to hold off Rite Of Passage’s challenge, the next it looked like Smullen was getting there. If you had stopped the race at the furlong pole and tried to project the next 200 yards, you would have bet 10/11 each of two. And even when Smullen forced Rite Of Passage past, both horses and riders giving their all, even when he went a neck up deep inside the final furlong, it looked like Murtagh was about to conjure another run out of Age Of Aquarius, Royal Rebel versus Vinnie Roe all over again.

In a sense, it was, but in another sense, it couldn’t have been more different. Crestfallen in 2002, deflated, defeated, jubilant in 2010, ecstatic, euphoric.

“Literally, it was, I’m going to get him, I’m not going to get him, I’m going to get him, I’m not going to get him,” recalls Smullen. “Then I thought, I have him, then it was, oh Jesus, he’s going to get me back. If I had been riding a lesser horse, or a weaker-minded horse, I would have got beaten, because Johnny’s horse was tough, I actually rode him in the Epsom Derby last year and he gave me a great ride, but our horse would gallop to the end of the earth for you.

“Going by the line, it was an absolutely amazing feeling. From the time I was a child watching races, to think about winning an Ascot Gold Cup, you couldn’t have imagined it. It was always such an important race, and it is obviously a really important race for the boss. As you get older, you tend to take time to soak it all up, enjoy the moment, which I did. It was a brilliant day.”

Actually, it has been a brilliant year.

Pat Smullen on:

The jockeys’ championship

I am very fortunate to have the job that I have which puts me in a position that I can challenge for the championship. We set out every year to win it, we give it 100% every year. The fact that Johnny just beat me in it last year made me more determined than ever to win it back this year. It annoys me sometimes to hear people saying, ah sure if I win it I win it, when deep down you know that everyone wants it. You always want to win it.

Rumours linking him to the Ballydoyle job

I have heard all the rumours, from I don’t know how many years back, and I’m still in Dermot Weld’s. You can never say never about anything. I remember one day saying that I’d never have anything to do with training horses, and then I end up marrying a trainer! You just don’t know what the future holds, but I couldn’t be happier than I am at the moment with the job that I have. I am very fortunate to ride for Dermot Weld and the people that I ride for.

The season going on until 10th December

If I was to be honest, it’s probably good in that it gives an opportunity to keep horses in training, and it is great that the all-weather facility is there, but from a personal point of view, I just think it is very hard to keep yourself mentally focused and physically right, in the cold, for one meeting a week that is dragged out until 10th December. I do think as well that the whole focus on the jockeys’ championship dwindles away. The best National Hunt horses are out by mid-December, you have flat racing only once a week, on a Friday night, so I think it takes a bit of the excitement out of it. You’d really want to be racing at least twice or three times a week to keep you sharp and focused, and keep everyone’s interest in it.

The future

I haven’t really thought about a point when I will give it up really. I have always said that I’d want to give it up before it gives me up, I want to be riding at the highest level when I do decide to give up. I don’t think I’ll be riding until I’m 50, like Mick Kinane, but I’m only 33 now, I think I’m only getting there as a rider, I think that it has taken all the years until now to really mature as a rider, and I think I’m getting there now. Hopefully I can give the next seven, eight, 10 years at that level.

© The Irish Racing Yearbook, 2011