TRIBUTE: 'I interviewed Pat Smullen once' - He was a fierce competitor right to the end

Justin Kelly

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Justin Kelly

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justin.kelly@iconicnews.ie

'I interviewed Pat Smullen once' - He was a fierce competitor right to the end

The late Pat Smullen

Pat Smullen so often lit up the winner's enclosure at the Curragh. His strength, dedication and sheer drive in the saddle earned him nine Irish Champion Jockey titles, an Epsom Derby and two Irish Derby crowns at the hallowed Kildare track. The sight of his coffin at the gates of the course on Wednesday evening last was truly heartbreaking.

To think back to just four years ago at that very track, on the straight past which Pat's body was brought on the road to Offaly on Wednesday. The noise of the packed grandstand was just reaching his ears as he went to the front early on Epsom hero Harzand in the Irish Derby. A hallmark of Pat's career and life was that never-say-die attitude and it got him to the line that day, as it did throughout his career.

When Idaho ranged up alongside for a battle to the finish, it looked like Pat's mount was fading. For all the world it appeared Ryan Moore would continue past him, but Pat got to work, relishing the war of attrition for the final furlong. He pushed to the limit, held on and won. That last sentence could, in fact, sum up his career on the track. It could sum up the final two years of his life too in ways.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Pat Smullen back on May 15, 2015, a Friday evening as he prepared for racing at Dundalk. I was a young journalist but Pat gave me the time of day. I arranged the interview with him a week earlier and when he couldn't talk to me then, he rang to apologise and rearranged immediately. I wasn't ringing from the Racing Post or the Irish Times. I was a nobody but Pat gave me respect and spoke to me for almost an hour. 

He was a hero in my eyes as a racing fan and talking to him was fascinating. He was unassuming in his class and yet forthright as he reflected on his career. He was having none of my questions about retirement either, that's for sure. He went up to Dundalk and had a winner too with Whitehaven Bay. He was as much at home on a regular Friday night in Dundalk as he was during the pomp and ceremony of Royal Ascot where he had eight winners in his career.  

He never once took a result for granted. When he endured a four-year gap between Irish champion jockey titles from 2010 to 2014, and young gun Joseph O'Brien relegated him to second, he went to the well again. He raced at Navan, Dundalk, Naas and elsewhere to get the title back in 2014. He'd have gone to the moon on a miserable Friday evening if there was racing. Wherever there was a winner to be had, Pat went, because that's what he was – a winner.

Pat's pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2018 led to tributes from the racing world but Pat wasn't done and even planned a return to the saddle. He would not have once wallowed in that wave of sentimentality, although he would have appreciated it. He brought that teak-tough disposition, honed on the track, into his own personal battle with ill health.

He spoke to Brian Gleeson of RTE during the Irish 1,000 Guineas meeting at the Curragh in May of 2018, a visit that delighted his friends and colleagues, but it was also a show of defiance from a perennial winner. Speaking about his cancer battle, he said, “we intend to win this one as well.” That was the measure of the man.

It was the intent in those words that made Pat Smullen the best for so long. Remember, he was still the best around when he was forced into retirement at 41. His longevity in the sport was down to discipline, hunger and a work ethic that was instilled in him from a young age, an intangible combination, and a trait of true champions. 

During my chat with him in 2015, he spoke about his early days in Rhode where his father was a farm labourer, his family were “very much working class,” and racing was but a distant proposition. It was, in fact, Pat's brother Sean that unexpectedly brought horse racing home, declaring one day that he wanted to work with horses. Pat described this as “fairly out of the blue” but it was through his brother's ambition Pat got his first glimpse of a racehorse.

“My father was dropping Sean off on a Sunday evening at Joanna Morgan's yard. Joanna saw me, this small little lad in the back of the car, and wondered if I would be interested in coming down at the weekend and giving it [horse riding] a go, and that was it then," Pat told me.

"I had to be started off on ponies in the beginning because obviously I’d never ridden anything, but I progressed to the racehorses very quickly and that was when I was only about twelve or thirteen. It all took off very quickly after that,” he added.

He was still just a boy at 18 when Tommy Stack gave him a ride in the 2,000 Guineas, although his memories of that outing weren't great. “I had ridden in a couple of Group races before that, but this would have been the first big international stakes race. It didn’t go great as it turned out because the horse got very upset in the stalls, but that was that." That was Pat to a tee. Matter of fact; brushing off the knocks. 

Despite this, his career was burgeoning and in the late 1990s he came onto Dermot Weld's radar and that relationship would prove to be a turning point. Smullen remained Weld's retained jockey until his enforced absence. The pair worked at Dermot's base at Rosewell House on the Curragh.

“I was working hard at that time. I suppose you have to work hard at anything, but I gave my life to it to be totally honest
with you.

“When the children came along the priorities changed a little bit, but certainly in my younger days, racing came first and I gave up a lot of my life for it.”

Smullen perfected his diet and fitness regime, and claimed his first Irish champion jockeys title in 2000, in the era of greats Mick Kinane and Johnny Murtagh. He repeated the trick in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016. During all that time, Pat counts his 2010 win on Rite of Passage in the Ascot Gold Cup as one of his finest, along with his Irish Derby successes, the most recent of which came on Harzand in 2016. Winning the Epsom equivalent was but a dream until it became a reality - his greatest day in the saddle.

ABOVE: Pat winning the 2016 Epsom Derby with Harzand

He came up during a golden era of jockeys and went toe-to-toe with the likes of Johnny Murtagh. He ranked his win against Murtagh aboard Rite of Passage in the 2010 Ascot Gold Cup as one of his finest. “Johnny Murtagh was a fierce competitor
of mine throughout my career until he retired, and he is a vicious man in a finish. So to go ding dong over two miles with him, going at it for the final three furlongs, and to beat him by a head was pretty special,” Pat lamented.

Speaking in 2015, Pat envisaged having "eight or maybe ten good years left as a jockey," not knowing the fate that lay before him in 2018. He said: "I suppose after that Frances and I will look to develop the farm into a small stud farm, maybe producing a few high-quality horses too. I think the buzz you get from riding a proper Group 1 horse is something that jockeys who have already moved on will say is the part of the sport they miss most, and I don’t think you’d ever replace it to be perfectly honest," he told me at the time. 

Having this taken from him at 43 is cruel and gut-wrenching to read back on. He never wanted to go into training and the limelight that brings. He wanted to work hard quietly on his land near Rhode. 

My abiding memory of my only interview with him was his drive. The setbacks in his career he trundled through. He brushed them off, changed the silks and went again. I watched him win the Epsom Derby the year after this interview and felt proud. Proud that he was from my home county and proud of the fact that he had achieved his dream. When he was riding ponies for Joanna Morgan, he was rounding Tattenham Corner in his mind, and he got there, and he's there still. 

As he said himself during his illness: "Sure life is full of setbacks, you just have to deal with it. You have to face it, what else do you do? Lie down and give up? You can't do that."

Rest in peace, Pat Smullen.