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Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen is sitting comfortably in his armchair, reminiscing. Royal Ascot 2002, day three.

“That was a very good day,” the rider is saying thoughtfully, “but it was nearly a great day.”

The ‘very good’ came first, when Smullen went out on the Moyglare Stud’s filly Irresistible Jewel in the first race on the day, the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes, and won, bagging his first Royal Ascot winner in the process. The ‘nearly great’ came 75 minutes later, when he rode Vinnie Roe, trained, like Irresistible Jewel, by his boss Dermot Weld, to finish second in the Ascot Gold Cup, going down by an agonising neck to Johnny Murtagh on Royal Rebel.

Smullen has been busy in the decade that has flowed under the bridge since. He has gone back to Ascot and won that Gold Cup for starters, he and Rite Of Passage getting the better of Johnny Murtagh and Age Of Aquarius by a neck in another thrilling finish to the 2010 renewal. Same riders, same heads-up-heads-down drive to the line, same winning margin, just change the horses and reverse the decision. Fair is fair.

He has also won a 2000 Guineas, an Irish Derby, a few more Irish St Legers, a Prix de l’Abbaye, a couple of renewals of the Irish 1000 Guineas, a Prix Royal-Oak, a couple of Tattersalls Gold Cups and a Breeders’ Cup Marathon, and he has been crowned champion jockey four more times.

Then last month, went back and won the Ribblesdale Stakes again on Princess Highway, daughter of the 2002 heroine Irresistible Jewel.

“I can’t tell you how like her mother Princess Highway is,” says the jockey. “She has the same size about her, same scope, same big ears, same willing attitude, same class. She’s just like her mother.”

Always held in high regard by Smullen and by Weld, Princess Highway didn’t make her racecourse debut until October last year, in a seven-furlong maiden at Leopardstown. But that didn’t mean that expectations weren’t high.

“To say that I was surprised that I got beaten on her that day would be the understatement of the year,” smiles her rider. “The ground was soft at Leopardstown that day though, and maybe that found her out, but we were disappointed when she could only finish eighth.”

After a winter spent strengthening up, Princess Highway went back to the Foxrock track for a 10-furlong maiden in March this year, and she made no mistake, picking up nicely from two furlongs out and staying on well to beat the Ballydoyle filly Betterbetterbetter by two lengths.

After that, the plan was the Blue Wind Stakes at Naas, followed by the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot. Follow in her mother’s hoofprints. She wasn’t even entered in the Epsom Oaks.

“The Oaks can be a hard race on fillies,” says Smullen thoughtfully. “Epsom can be a tough track, and it can take a lot out of a filly so early in the season. You could ruin a filly for the entire season if she had too hard a race in the Oaks. The boss just decided that he would take his time with her.”

Astute decision. Princess Highway was impressive in winning the Blue Wind Stakes at Naas in May, a race that is, appropriately enough, named after Weld’s 1981 Epsom Oaks winner, and she was even more impressive in winning the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.

It didn’t all go to plan in the Ribblesdale, mind you. The rain that fell overnight, changing the ground from good to easy, was not in her favour, nor was her wide draw in stall 12 of 14.

“We were worried about the ground for sure,” confirms the jockey. “But we had lots of confidence in her ability. I had to settle her further back in the field than ideal because of her wide draw, I had to try to get in. Then they slowed it up down by Swinley Bottom, and I had to make my ground wider than ideal. But once I went for her at the top of the home straight, she picked up really well, and I was impressed with the way that she kept going all the way to the line.”

It wasn’t the plan to go for home from the top of the home straight, but the rider’s hand was forced. The favourite The Fugue made ground under William Buick on the far side, and Smullen decided that he wanted to get to the leader Shirocco Star before Buick did. It was a split-second decision, and it was the correct one. Easy to see it now, watching the replay in slow motion, not so easy at 35 miles an hour in the white-hot heat of combat.

Princess Highway got to the leader’s withers before The Fugue did, with the result that Buick had to switch around the two fillies in front of him. That made it difficult for The Fugue. Princess Highway probably would have beaten The Fugue on the day anyway, however the race had panned out, but Smullen’s decision maximised her chance. That’s what top class jockeys do: make correct decisions in an instant. The more experience you gain in races at the highest level, the better your decision-making ability becomes, and Pat Smullen is riding at the top of his game right now.

Just as the ground was a concern at Ascot, the ground is also a concern for Princess Highway today when she takes up her engagement in the Darley Irish Oaks at The Curragh.

“I have no doubt that she is a better filly on good ground than she is on soft,” says her rider slowly. “They have had a lot of rain at The Curragh all week, but we got away with it at Ascot, and I am hoping we will get away with it again on Sunday. I’m hoping that her class will see her through. But I have no doubt that we won’t see the best of this filly until she races on fast ground.”

Victory today would be significant for Smullen, not just because the Irish Oaks is one of the few big races on the Irish calendar that he has never won, but also because it would be special for Princess Highway’s owners, Moyglare Stud, whose supremo, Walter Haefner, died last month, aged 101.

“Mr Haefner was a great man,” says Smullen. “He invested so much in the game, he was a great man to ride for, and he was very loyal to me. It would be great for his daughter Eva-Maria if we could win the Irish Oaks for them.”

Today could be another one of those very good days.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd July 2012