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Champions race

Line them up and count their titles.  Left to right.

Ruby Walsh was champion jockey 12 times, Joseph O’Brien was champion jockey twice.  AP McCoy was champion jockey 20 times.  Twenty times in a row and every year that he was a fully-fledged professional.  

Charlie Swan was champion jockey nine times.  Paul Carberry was champion jockey twice.  Put them all together: 45 championships lined up on horseback in front of you and heading towards the gallop.

They tell you that they’re not ready.  Every one of them.  Joseph says that his preparations haven’t gone very well at all.  Paul Carberry says that he has been riding out all right, but that race-riding is different to riding out, before concluding that, ach, he thinks he’ll be okay.  Charlie says that he has been riding out and doing a bit of running, but that he thinks he’s getting heavier, not lighter. 

But watch them ride up the gallop, one by one, each horse moving easily beneath each rider, each rider at ease on board, smooth as a lake, at one with his horse.  It’s as if they have never been away.

“I didn’t think, when I retired a couple of months ago,” says Ruby, “that I would be back riding in a race now.  And I didn’t think that I would ever ride in a charity race to be honest.  But when Pat asked me, there was only going to be one answer.”

It’s a common theme.

“I said four years ago,” says AP, “after I rode in the race at Doncaster, that it would be the last time that I would ever ride in a race, and I meant it.  But these are exceptional circumstances.  I’m delighted to do it for Pat.”

The Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland is the brainchild of Pat Smullen.  Set for next Sunday, the second day of Irish Champions Weekend, one of the first objectives was to assemble a group of champion jockeys and arrange for them to line up against each other on horses of similar ability in a one-mile race at The Curragh.  That objective has been met.

To this quintet, add Kieren Fallon (six-time champion jockey), Johnny Murtagh (five), Ted Durcan (seven) and Richard Hughes (three).  That’s 66 championships between the nine of them.  It is probable that this is the most talented and decorated group of jockeys that has ever been assembled for one race.

“It’s going to be very exciting anyway,” says Paul Carberry.  “Where would you see it in the world?  These riders.  And it’s for a great cause.  Every race on Irish Champions Weekend is a major race, it’s going to be great to see all those good horses come out and compete, but I’d say that this race could be the highlight of the weekend.”

“It’s going to be competitive,” says Joseph O’Brien.  “All the guys are pretty fit and they’ve been riding out plenty.  It’ll be as competitive as any race any of us have ever ridden in I’d say.  It’ll ride tight, but it’s going to be good fun as well, and, in the end, it’s all about the charity.  Raising money and everyone getting behind the race.”

The intention was for Pat Smullen (nine-time champion jockey) to ride in the race himself, but a setback to his health last month ruled him out. 

“On advice from my medical team,” he said then, “I am unable to ride in the race.  I am bitterly disappointed not to be able to take part in this very special race.  I was really looking forward to riding against such a brilliant group of champions.” 

The next objective is to raise funds for Cancer Trials Ireland, for research into, and for the furthering of, awareness of pancreatic cancer.

“It’s for a great cause,” says Charlie Swan.  “Pat Smullen is a great guy, and he was a great rider, so it’s great to be able to do this.  But, you know, everybody is saying that they don’t mind if they don’t win, but we’re all fairly competitive.  I’m sure they all want to win!” 

“Pat should be very proud of the array of champions that he has assembled,” says AP McCoy.  “That’s what I really look forward to taking part in.  But it’s not really about just taking part, is it?  It’s about trying to beat the rest of them.” 

For nine riders, you need nine horses, and Horse Racing Ireland are helping in assembling a group of horses whose respective abilities do not vary too greatly, and whose owners and trainers are happy to run.

“It’ll be an act of good faith from owners and trainers,” says Ruby Walsh, “that they will enter a horse and allow it to run.  You need people to almost donate their horse to run in the race for us to ride them.”

And there is the possibility that some horses’ abilities may be more equal than others’.  Eyes on the competition. 

“Johnny has a few horses to train there,” says AP McCoy, “so I’m sure that he will be able to organise one for himself.  And Joseph has a fair collection to pick from, so I’d imagine that he’d have one set aside for himself, that might have a better chance of winning than most.” 

You know that the competition will be intense.  You can’t pit nine multiple champion jockeys against each other and expect it not to be competitive.  All nine are winners.  All nine have a voracious desire to win.  It’s in their nature.  But that’s for when the stalls open.  Nine individuals against each other from starting line to winning post.  For now, all nine are united in a common goal. 

“I was excited at the thoughts of riding with Pat, with what he’s going through” says Ruby Walsh.  “I guess it’s even more important now, he’s back on treatment again.  It’s not really for me to try to beat AP or Paul or Charlie, or to have another ride.  It’s for pancreatic cancer, for the awareness, for the research.  And it’s for Pat Smullen.”

© The Sunday Times, 8th September 2019