Donn's Articles » Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen

The tributes poured forward all week.  Heartfelt tributes.  From President Higgins and Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Sir Anthony McCoy and Frankie Dettori.  From people who are involved in racing and people who aren’t.  From Rhode GAA Club and Edenderry Town FC.  From people who knew him well and people who met him once.  That was the thing about Pat Smullen: he had time for everybody.

When he was legged up on a horse in the parade ring before a race, he always made a point of conversing with the groom who was leading the horse up.  He said that it was because you could always learn something about the horse from the groom that could help you in a race.  But mainly, it was borne out of courtesy, respect for others. 

And that respect was mutual, as evidenced by the fact that, on the second day of Irish Champions’ Weekend last year, Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland day, the stable staff donated their best-turned-out prizes and their expenses to the Cancer Trials Ireland fund.

You would never have thought that a young lad from Rhode in County Offaly, all-in on Gaelic football, could achieve all that he achieved in the sport of horse racing.  When young Pat stood up in class one day in Scoil Mhuire Naofa and, in response to the age-old question, said that he wanted to be a jockey when he grew up, his classmates thought that he was joking.

But Pat Smullen wasn’t joking.  He was steely-determined.  The spark was ignited at Joanna Morgan’s and fanned at Tom Lacy’s.  He watched racing videos, he evaluated riding tactics, he watched riding styles and he honed his own.  He was champion apprentice, he was champion apprentice again, then he won the CL Weld Park Stakes on Token Gesture for Dermot Weld, and so began one of the most enduring relationships in Irish racing.

It was a career that was laden with success and laced with self-uncertainty.  Pat Smullen’s position as one of the best Irish flat jockeys ever has been long-since established.  And yet, he never rested easily.  He always strived to do better.  He never felt that he had arrived, and that spurred him on to even greater heights.  He was crowned champion jockey nine times, and yet, there was a humility about him that defined him.

He rode like he was: straight and true.  He rode for efficiency.  No dramatics.  Spread the horse’s energy out evenly over the course of the race, be in the right place, maximise your chance of winning.  You rarely saw him in the wrong place in a race. 

He teamed up with Vinnie Roe to win the Irish St Leger four times, he drove Rite Of Passage home in the 2010 Ascot Gold Cup, and he was brilliant on Harzand in the 2016 Epsom Derby.  His best ever ride, though, was probably on Free Eagle in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2015 when, in one of the feature races on the British racing calendar, he adopted tactics to suit the race as it developed, and gave his horse a ride that probably made the difference between victory and defeat.

He struggled with his weight, but very few knew.  He just got on with it.  That was his determination.  Like in March 2018, when the Beacon Clinic wanted to keep him in overnight, he wanted to go home because he had told Michael Halford that he would ride work for him the following morning.

And all through his awful illness, there was never any self-pity.  Not even a hint. He just got on with dealing with it.  Sure, life is full of setbacks, he said.

He said that it made him realise that there was more to life than riding horses.  He cherished spending time with his wife Frances, with his kids, Hannah, Paddy and Sarah.  He said that it put things into perspective, helped him appreciate the important things in life. 

And more than just dealing with his illness, he brought it centre stage.  Raised awareness, raised funds for research into pancreatic cancer.  He channelled his energies into helping others, and that was Pat Smullen all over.

When the idea of a charity race on Irish Champions Weekend last year was first mooted, he set out to raise €1 million.  It was a hugely ambitious target, and he smashed through it.  €2.6 million was raised for Cancer Trials Ireland.  It was a measure of the man, and the esteem in which he is held by others. 

That was a special day, one of the most memorable days in the modern history of Irish racing.  They called it Irish St Leger day but, really, it was Pat Smullen day.  The people came for Pat Smullen, the riders rode for him.  The champions came out of retirement.  AP McCoy had said that he would never ride in a race again, and yet, he did, one last time.  For Pat Smullen.

There are some people in life who, Ruby Walsh said at the time, when they ask you to do something, you just do it.  Because Pat Smullen asked so rarely.  He was one of life’s givers, and he majored in giving that most precious of commodities: time.  So sad that his own was ultimately so cruelly limited.

It was with extraordinary strength and eloquence that Frances delivered the eulogy at Pat’s funeral on Friday.

“My heart is broken,” she said.  “Broken for myself.  I’ve lost my best friend, my soul mate.  For Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, they have not just lost their lovely dad, but their mentor, their friend, their ally, their rock.  You should know that Dad was so proud of you, and the people that you have become.  He has carried you, and I know that you will continue to carry him with you every day.”

© The Sunday Times, 20th September 2020