PAT Smullen died peacefully on Tuesday evening in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. The retired champion jockey had battled with pancreatic cancer for two and a half years.
His story was inspirational to many, as he overcame the odds all his life though a combination of hard work, determination, courage, discipline, talent and the support of good people around him.
From a non-racing background, he became champion jockey nine times and won big races all over the world. Then, when struck down by illness, he survived agressive treatment and major surgery to lead a hugely successfully fundraising drive for cancer research.
In recent months his health deteriorated and on Tuesday his suffering ended. He was 43 and leaves behind wife Frances, and their children, Hannah, Paddy and Sarah.
From Rhode in Co Offaly, Pat first made a name for himself in pony racing before going to ride out for trainer Joanna Morgan. After taking out his licence at 16, he was apprenticed to Co Offaly trainer Tom Lacy, for whom he rode his first winner in 1993.
Pat became champion apprentice in ’95 and ’96 and spent two seasons with trainer John Oxx, during which time he rode his first Group 1 winner on Tarascon in the 1997 Moyglare Stud Stakes for trainer Tommy Stack.
It was 1999 when Pat got his big break. Michael Kinane left his job as Dermot Weld’s stable jockey to go and ride for Aidan O’Brien. Weld has always had an eye for emerging talent and he took what looked a brave step in giving the job to P.J. Smullen.
Weld can take credit for moulding Pat into the champion he became, the first of nine titles in a 20-year spell coming in 2000. Big race wins flowed consistently – four Irish St Legers on Vinnie Roe, an Irish Derby on Grey Swallow, and a 2000 Guineas on Refuse To Bend were among the first wave of classic victories.
There were memorable Royal Ascot moments with Group 1 winners Rite Of Passage and Free Eagle, but undoubtedly the crowning glory came in 2016 when Harzand completed the Epsom-Curragh Derby double for the Weld-Smullen partnership.
Pat remained focused on either retaining or reclaiming the jockeys’ title until the very the end of his career. He battled with Colin Keane for the championship right to the last day of the 2017 season. Later he would reveal that he had been in some physical discomfort for much of that year but couldn’t identify the problem and so continued working hard while looking forward to the winter break.
Then, just days before the start of the 2018 flat season, Pat took ill with stomach pain. It was thought to be kidney stones but a few days later news trickled through that it was more serious and that he would not be riding for the foreseeable future.
He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a condition which has a low recovery rate. However Smullen adopted a positive mindset and miraculously came through aggressive chemotherapy and major surgery. He began to go racing and rode out on the Curragh, and the possibility of him renewing his licence seemed very real.
But in May 2019 he announced his retirement on doctor's advice and instead he threw his energies into raising funds for cancer research. Together with Horse Racing Ireland, he fronted a campaign which ultimately raised €2.5 million for Cancer Trials Ireland exactly one year ago. The highlight was a Champions Race at the Curragh on Irish Champions Weekend, which featured nine retired champion jockeys and was won by A.P. McCoy. It was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest events in Irish racing for many years.
This year Pat has kept a lower profile at home with his family in Brickfield Stud, Edenderry, Co Offaly. He kept in close contact with many of his friends in racing, including Moyglare Stud owner Eva Maria Bucher Haefner, who he says was a very influential person in his career and during his illness.
Our sincere sympathies are with his family and many friends at this time.