Donn's Articles » Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen rode a double at Down Royal on Friday. He book-ended the card, Kasbah in the opening maiden, Notable Graduate in the concluding handicap, and he brought his tally for the 2014 turf flat season to 94. His win on Free Eagle at Leopardstown yesterday brought it to 95, equaling the highest tally that he has ever achieved in a full season before now. He has never ridden a hundred winners in a season. He would love to ride a hundred winners in a season.

He would also love to be champion jockey. Again. He has been champion jockey in Ireland six times, most recently in 2010. In 2011, Johnny Murtagh beat him by four. In 2012, Joseph O’Brien beat him by three. This year, however, he is 28 clear of Joseph, and things are looking good for a seventh title.

Every year, he sets out to be champion. When you are fortunate enough to be riding for a trainer like Dermot Weld, he tells you, when you have the ammunition with which his job provides you at your disposal, you would be crazy not to set your sights on the championship. It’s every jockey’s ambition, every sportsperson’s ambition, to be champion, to be the best in your field.

“I had a very good feeling at the start of this season,” he says. “I just thought that we had a lot of good horses who could win good races during the year. The boss is after assembling as good a group as owners as you could possibly assemble, His Highness the Aga Khan is a huge addition, and we just seem to have a lot of very good horses.”

The flow of winners from the Weld yard has been constant all season. It started with a double on Irish Lincoln day, the first day of the season, Vote Often in the Park Express Stakes and Stuccodor in the Irish Lincoln itself, and it has continued unabated since. Weld himself said at the end of May that they had used up a lot of ammunition early in the season, that a quiet spell was imminent, but the quiet spell never arrived. Smullen actually rode more winners in June than he did in May, and he rode more winners in July and August than he did in June.

But it is not only about quantity. The quality is there too. Smullen has ridden 15 Group winners this season so far.

“Our three-year-olds and our older horses in particular are very good. It goes back to having the ammunition, having a constant flow of good horses.”

It also goes back to Pat Smullen, his talent, his determination, his application. Rarely does Dermot Weld miss an opportunity to remind people of Smullen’s ability, of his importance to the yard’s success. Smullen is not a flashy rider, his riding style is rarely going to be the story. He majors in the simple, and that’s what makes him so good. No-nonsense rides for maximum efficiency. He rarely gets beaten when he is on the best horse, and he often wins when he is not.

That said, Smullen’s ride on Short Squeeze in a big one-mile handicap at York last month was a headline-grabber. Riding a horse who does not like to see daylight for any length of time, he buried him in behind horses and, resisting the temptation to go wide for a clear run in the home straight, charted a passage through horses, delivering the horse on the line with a perfectly-timed run to get up and win by a head.

That ride increased demand for Smullen’s services in Britain. Last Saturday at Haydock, he had five rides for four different trainers. He can’t get to Britain every Saturday, his priority is obviously in Ireland, his commitment to the Dermot Weld horses. However, when his commitments allow, he enjoys going riding in Britain.

It does provide a window into the fickleness of this game, mind you. Smullen has won most of the top races in Ireland, he has won a 2000 Guineas, an Ascot Gold Cup and a Sun Chariot Stakes in Britain, he has won a Prix de l’Abbaye in France, a Breeders’ Cup Marathon in the States. He is a world-class rider. Yet, it was his come-from-behind ride on a four-year-old gelding in a Class 2 handicap that got people talking about him in Britain.

“It’s nice when it all works out,” says the rider, down-playing the quality of the ride. “A lot of people were talking about that ride afterwards. But, while it probably looked good, that is how the horse needs to be ridden, and it all happened to work out well. It doesn’t always work out that well.”

That was a good day, but it was not as good as the second day of Royal Ascot this year, when Smullen won the Jersey Stakes on Mustajeeb for Weld, then went out a half an hour later and won the Queen Mary Stakes on the Eddie Lynam-trained Anthem Alexander.

“I have always loved Mustajeeb, and he did really well to win a hot Jersey. And Anthem Alexander has such pace. When I won at Tipperary on her two weeks before Ascot, I got off her and told Eddie that she would win the Queen Mary.”

Today’s Palmerstown House Estate Irish St Leger has always been a special race for Smullen. This is the race that was dominated at the start of this millennium by Smullen and Weld and Vinnie Roe, still the only horse to win the race four times.

“Vinnie Roe was a special horse for me. He probably did more for my career at a time when I needed a big horse than any other horse. And he was top class. He is the only three-year-old to win the Irish Leger in about 25 years, he won a Prix Royal-Oak, and he was unlucky not to win an Ascot Gold Cup and a Melbourne Cup.”

Vinnie Roe’s four Leger wins blend into one another a little for Smullen. Each one went the same way: travel well into the race nicely, travel easily down the hill into the home straight, win. In all four races, the rider knew that he had the race won before they turned for home, and that is unusual in a Group 1 race.

Today, Smullen rides Pale Mimosa in a bid to win his fifth Irish Leger.

“Leading Light is obviously going to be difficult to beat, but our filly is progressive. She is not easy to train, the boss has done a fantastic job with her, but she is lightly-raced as a result, and she still has lots of potential to progress. Her win in the Lonsdale Cup at York last time was probably the best run of her life, and she could improve a little on that. She’s in great form.”

He could be even closer to that century this evening.

© The Sunday Times, 14th September 2014