Cornelius Lysaght pays tribute to Pat Smullen following the death of the remarkable jockey on Tuesday evening.
Pat Smullen had a well-earned reputation as a great jockey but even more perhaps as a fine man.
When the news emerged in 2018 that the then 40-year-old had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the shock that this could possibly be happening less than two years after the heady June day on which he had won the Derby at Epsom on Harzand, trained by his long-time boss Dermot Weld, was felt keenly across the racing spectrum.
And the sport rallied around spectacularly when Smullen, who gave up hope of returning to the saddle after treatment when officially retiring in 2019, became the face of a vast charity initiative to raise funds for research into the disease.
Millions of Euro was raised not least on an emotional race-day at the Curragh when AP McCoy returned to the saddle for a one-off mount in the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials, Ireland in which he beat Ruby Walsh, Johnny Murtagh and a string of other legendary jockeys, though Smullen himself wasn’t able to take part because of his treatment.
It was testament to the popularity of the nine-time champion of Irish flat racing that McCoy, who’d previously insisted that he’d never ever race-ride again, was prepared to make the line-up.
All that said, Smullen who was married to Frances Crowley, sister of Aidan O’Brien’s wife Anne Marie and herself once a successful trainer, spoke candidly of his own single-minded attitude during a highly successful career that began in 1992, and it was not all complimentary.
He told the Irishman Abroad podcast: “My whole life was consumed by riding and winning, to the point where I’m a bit embarrassed looking back on how I behaved as a father [of three] and as a husband.
“It probably took something like this [the cancer diagnosis] for me to have a reality check about being a good person.”
The association between Smullen and Weld – based at stables immediately adjacent to the Curragh – was one of the most successful in European racing. As well as the Derby on Harzand – the horse having to overcome the effects of a sore foot sustained during the journey from Ireland to Epsom – they were victorious in the Irish Derby with the same colt few weeks later.
Grey Swallow (2004) also won the pair the Irish Derby, while they enjoyed 2000 Guineas success at Newmarket with Refuse To Bend in 2003. Vinnie Roe was hero of the Irish St Leger four years running from 2001 and Rite Of Passage the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 2010. Dress To Thrill took top honours in Ireland, Britain and the US.
Smullen was a ‘Mr Reliable’, much more often than not in the right place at the right time and strong in a finish.
And whatever he said about himself a changing- room colleague told me: “He never had a bad word about anybody and though he talked about his illness, he never complained about it – not once. A great man.”