Legends answer call for Pat Smullen

Legends answer call for Pat Smullen
Actress Victoria Smurfit along with renowned former jockey turned race horse trainer, Johnny Murtagh, pictured today launching Longines Irish Champions Weekend 2019 at the five-star Merrion Hotel. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

The conversation takes place prior to the dreadful news his friend and long-time weigh-room colleague Pat Smullen would need to undergo a further course of chemotherapy following a setback in his recovery from pancreatic cancer.

But even when we thought the recovery was without a hitch, and Smullen would be returning to the saddle alongside a slew of the all-time greats, there was no doubting the esteem in which Johnny Murtagh holds the Offaly native.

Murtagh is one of nine legendary jockeys with 66 champion titles between them slated to participate in the Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer at the Curragh, on day two of Longines Irish Champions Weekend on September 15.

It was meant to be 10 and 75 but Smullen has had to forego the opportunity to take on Murtagh, AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Kieren Fallon, Joseph O’Brien, Charlie Swan, Paul Carberry, Richard Hughes, and Ted Durcan.

Smullen’s plight emphasises the importance of his fundraising goal, as well as his aim to increase awareness surrounding pancreatic cancer in particular. That this is the greatest so-called Legends’ Race the world has ever seen is a testament to Smullen as a jockey, and a man.

“I don’t think some of them lads would come back and ride only Pat asked them,” Murtagh says. “I am still riding out every day so I am fit. When Pat said it to me there was no problem. Some of the lads, there is no way they would have done it only for Pat. It just shows the high esteem is held by everybody.

"I think it will add to the weekend. It will be a big draw. It will be a proper race. You just get the feeling, talking to a few to a few of the lads, they are all back in the gym getting fit. It is a wonderful cause. Everybody has been touched by cancer in some form through their families or friends.”

This is the sixth Longines Irish Champions Weekend, which means Murtagh never participated in the festival, which boasts in excess of €5m in prize money. However, he has tasted success in most of the races over the two-day affair at Leopardstown and the Curragh and has fond memories of the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes and Comer Group International Irish St Leger in particular.

It was a relief to finally get off the mark in the Leger in 2011, when dead-heating on Jukebox Jury. Getting off the mark in the final Irish Classic towards the end of his career was a relief, while his best memory around the Irish Champion Stakes doesn’t even revolve around Timarida’s triumph in 1996.

I had been second a couple of times in the Irish Leger. I had a few mishaps and a few times I wasn’t even there. It was just great to finally get it.

“I will never forget I rode in the Irish Champion Stakes the year that Fantastic Light beat Gallileo. I went to the All-Ireland final the next day. It was one of them weekends where there was some atmosphere. Even in the race, I was back a bit so I was pushing out, but you could just feel it. There is nothing better than that. To have a full house, good atmosphere. You can sense it.”

That is the attraction of bringing the elite together, and with some very rich handicaps too, there is something for everyone.

“You were coming home from the Japan Cup or Hong Kong and telling lads: ‘We should have one of these. Could we do this in Ireland?’

“When they said they were going to try it I said it was ano-brainer. Two of the best tracks in Ireland, all of the good races. In their selves they were great races but putting the whole lot together and having it on a weekend is wonderful.

“When it started out first, you were hoping Aidan (O’Brien) wouldn’t win them all. He didn’t. That is what it is all about. Everybody has a chance of winning a big pot. There has been a great spread of winners which has helped it grow and get better.”

The visitors from Britain and France have gone away with a share of the spoils too, which is important in adding to the international flavour.

The possibility that Japanese-trained Deirdre, a brilliant winner of the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, could also make an appearance in the Champion Stakes is a very welcome development in this regard. Another attraction is the brand-new Curragh facility, albeit it has had a very bumpy introduction to the public.

“I know they had a few dodgy days to start off with but this is a big test for it now. I am really looking forward to it. There is a good feel about it as a trainer.

The weigh rooms, getting from the weigh rooms down to the saddling boxes, watching the races as a trainer. From the pre-parade ring to the parade ring, very horse-friendly, rubber matting everywhere, very safe for the horses.

“Reports aren’t good on how it was for the public and they shouldn’t be like that. I am sure better days are ahead. I remember Royal Ascot when it started as well. There were lots of issues. The first six steps you couldn’t see the track, the track was up above them! There are always little teething problems.

“But it is a big day for the Curragh, Champions Weekend. We have craved the facilities for so long. Now that we have it, it has to work for the punters. We need the punters in.”

Since ending his career as a jockey, Murtagh has been training and hopes to be represented over the weekend.

“I have two still left in the sales race. I have a couple of fillies for the Listed race in Leopardstown. Urban Beat is there, probably running in the six-furlong handicap.

“He was favourite last year in the sprint and he didn’t run well. We freshened him up this year. The ground is a little bit quick for him. We are waiting and hopefully the bit of soft ground will come. Soft ground and fresh horse, he definitely has the ability for a big race like that.”

For many though, the highlight will be seeing Murtagh and co flat out, one last time, for the greatest of causes, and the greatest of people.

“It will be all friendly beforehand,” he says before smiling at what will happen when the goggles come down. All bets are off then.”

Donations in support of the Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer can be made tocancertrials.ie.

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