My first impression of Pat Smullen was derived from my nana. She is one of those nanas who will tell you the same story over and over.
The story goes that Smullen was sitting on Vinnie Roe about to head under the famous arched exit of the Flemington parade ring when she shouted: “Best of luck Pat!”
Smullen looked back, smiled and tipped his cap in thanks. A gentleman even in the most pressured of sporting situations. Riding in the Melbourne Cup those days was a lot more alienating than it is now.
Vinnie finished a valiant fourth to stablemate Media Puzzle in one of the most memorable Cups of all time. They even made a film about it. Since then I’ve had no other impression of Pat Smullen other than that first one. A true gentleman.
When you go about recounting a jockey’s career, you tend to pick out the big winners. However, it is often more appropriate to first find that one important winner, the stepping-stone winner.
Smullen was champion apprentice in 1995 and 1996, riding mainly for Tom Lacy, John Oxx and Tommy Stack. Towards the end of the 1996 season, Dermot Weld needed a rider for one of his two fillies in the Listed CL Weld Park Stakes, the race named after his father. Mick Kinane, Weld’s stable jockey, obviously got first choice but with Weld’s second jockey Pat Shanahan out with injury, the trainer looked to Smullen.
The 19-year-old was left with Token Gesture after Kinane chose to ride Absolute Glee. As they came into the final furlong there was a four-way tussle between Smullen, Kinane, Christy Roche on Aidan O’Brien’s Mellary and Kevin Manning on Jim Bolger’s Azra. Heads up, heads down, Smullen’s filly emerged best and a seed was sown. Less than three years later, Weld sat Smullen down in his living room and asked him to be his stable jockey following Mick Kinane’s move to Ballydoyle. And this is how one of the great trainer-jockey partnerships formed.
Think Pat Smullen and you think Dermot Weld. You think about the black, white and red Moyglare Stud silks. The dark green and red silks of the Aga Khan. The blue and white Hamdan Al Maktoum silks he wore to victory on Bethrah in the Irish 1000 Guineas. The purple and yellow silks of Dr Ronan Lambe he famously won the Ascot Gold Cup with. The checks and the green sleeves of Peter Rowsthorn, carried above Grey Swallow.
Think Pat Smullen and you have to think about Vinnie Roe. Jim Sheridan’s stayer ran 29 times and Smullen partnered him for 28 of those runs.
Thirteen wins, an unprecedented four of them in the Irish St Leger. He was also second in an Ascot Gold Cup and a brave and valiant second to Makybe Diva in a Melbourne Cup, after finishing fourth in the race two years before.
That second on Vinnie Roe in the 2002 Ascot Gold Cup hurt a lot. Vinnie was a serious stayer but maybe the two-and-a-half mile trip at Ascot just stretched him. Smullen would recount that he thought he had the race near won when they hit the front late on, only for Mark Johnston’s Royal Rebel staying on late in the day.
That bit of history was one ingredient that went into making the 2010 Gold Cup one of the most memorable. When Smullen sent Rite Of Passage after Age Of Aquarius and Johnny Murtagh at the start of the Ascot straight, it seemed to take them an age to get upsides. When they did, the Ballydoyle horse fought back, and from just inside the last furlong, this battle was locked, only for Rite Of Passage and Smullen to eek out just enough. It’s a race so good you’d pay for Pat and Johnny to sit down, watch it over and reflect back.
Think Pat Smullen and you think Galway. Winner after winner after winner. I recall the 2011 Galway races, when Smullen produced a typically simple and strong winning ride on a horse called Teach Nua, sent off 6/4 in a 15-runner 12-furlong handicap. It was Smullen’s third winner on the day, Weld’s fourth. A crowd of lads behind me started singing: “There’s only one Pat Smullen!” He and Weld had somehow turned Ballybrit into Old Trafford.
When you think about Pat Smullen, you think about the regard in which he is held in by everyone in racing, revealed clearly over the last year or so. Some of the tributes will say it better than I can but one not there is that of Joseph Murphy who told Kevin O’Ryan on Racing TV this week that Smullen was the ultimate professional, that it didn’t matter if it was the Derby or a handicap at Tramore, the races were approached in the same way. Surely this is the quintessential attribute in a jockey and Smullen is the perfect example.
There were other fabulous wins, like Free Eagle in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, a Derby win on Harzand, a first Grade 1 success in America on Dress To Thrill, but this piece isn’t big enough to do them each justice.
In the twilight of his career, Smullen stated that he’d like to leave the game on his own accord. He hasn’t been able to do that but I doubt very much that matters to him now. He spoke to Joe Molloy in an interview for Newstalk’s Off The Ball about a newfound perspective on life. Through his journey, as hard as it has been, there are positives to take and he and his family can reap the benefits now.
It was no surprise that when Smullen consulted the doctors and nurses about returning to race-riding and they thought it a bad idea, he accepted it straight away.
The respect he has for staff in Beacon Clinic and St Vincent’s is untelling. He has regularly name-checked Justin Geoghegan and a nurse by the name of Deirdre, who provided a significant pep talk early on in the journey.
A new chapter begins and whatever happens, he can look back at this one with only pride and happiness.