The Daragh Ó Conchúir Interview: Pat Smullen finally OK with being a non-runner

The Daragh Ó Conchúir Interview: Pat Smullen finally OK with being a non-runner
Pat Smullen after Hazapour and Oisin Orr win for trainer Dermot Weld. Photo Healy Racing.

He will watch them go to stalls for today’s DDF Irish Derby at the Curragh and, for a moment, wonder. That’s when Pat Smullen will snap out of it and smile, savouring the sights and sounds of family, friends, and relatively good health. As a champion jockey, he recognises when the odds are long, but he’s never been one to lie down and give up.

Family and the outdoors always meant the world, but the laser focus Pat Smullen had on being one of the best flat jockeys on the planet meant he sometimes took them for granted.

Now, he laughs as his wife Frances — herself a champion amateur jockey and the first licenced female trainer to win a classic in Ireland — insists that his compulsive tendencies have not disappeared completely, even if he tries not to sweat the small things so much anymore.

The youngest of their three children, Sally, is in and attempts to schedule a ninth birthday party with a lengthier guest list than an Oscar winner’s post-awards celebration are underway. Jump Zone is the plan.

“Sure, let them all go,” says a smiling Smullen.

“You’re doing the driving,” Frances reminds him.

“We’ll get a bus, so!”

Being around, not just for the birthdays and other major events in the children’s lives, but for these little interchanges, is priceless. So too is stepping outside in the morning, birds singing, yearlings cavorting, cattle munching, dogs patrolling, the pungent odour of slurry, the tractor chugging into gear. It’s all a gift.

For so long, his life was defined by what he did in the saddle. That life is over now, but when you still have a life and there was a danger you wouldn’t, unless you’re a fool you smell the coffee. And Pat Smullen is no fool.

*****

“I’ll tell you the brain Pat Smullen has. He rode Grey Danube work as a three-year-old. Two years ago, he rode him work again. That was four years in between.

“He pulled up at the top of the gallop and says: ‘There’s not a whole lot wrong with him, but if the vet’s in, I’d get him scoped, as there’s something not 100%.’ And there he was, one out of five on the scope.

“For a lad that hasn’t ridden a horse in three years, to know that the horse wasn’t working 100%… and you think the amount of horses he rode in the meantime? He’s a brilliant horseman and he walks out of the racecourse after a Group 1 the same as he does after a maiden or a handicap.”

—Trainer Darren Bunyan, March 2018

In Rhode, football is the thing and, while he had interest, he hadn’t the talent. He loved riding horses and learned the ropes with Joanna Morgan and then his neighbour, Tom Lacy. He can recall everything about the first of more than 1,900 winners, on Vicosa in Dundalk on June 11, 1993. He was 16.

“Tom Lacy trains three miles from here,” Smullen explains. “I will never forget going up on the jeep and trailer with Vicosa, a grey horse that he owned and bred himself. It spilled rain up there that day.

“Tom was very easy to ride for. He had a plan. Sat just behind the pace, and took it up at the furlong pole, he won by about two lengths. I do remember I was holding it together well until the last 100 yards. Everything went out the window, the style was gone, just about getting him over the line.”

In time, he progressed to the Curragh and, when Mick Kinane became Ballydoyle’s first jockey, Dermot Weld turned to him to fill the vacancy at Rosewell House. He was only 21, replacing a legend who had spent 15 years farming a slew of prized pots around the world for a genius of a trainer. Weld is as keen a judge of people as he is of horses, however, and so began a stellar partnership that endured until Smullen’s retirement last month.

He had been champion apprentice twice and he would go on to be champion outright on nine occasions, garner 12 European classics, eight Royal Ascot winners and a Breeders’ Cup triumph. He was driven.

“My father [Paddy] was a farm labourer. We were very much working class. I left school when I was 15. There was a lot riding on me succeeding as being a jockey, so it had to work. I drove myself to the limit to succeed. That was the mindset that I had taken on for the last 25 years, full-on 100% committed.”

What sustained that drive, through all the success?

“Fear of failure. Nothing else other than that. Nothing else to be totally honest. I think it goes back to the beginning. When you leave school at such a young age... I wanted to make sure I made a go of it. That never left me. There was always that hint of insecurity in me.”

It stopped him from soaking up the great times; there was always the next target.

“I, thankfully, have very few regrets in life, but there is one and it is that I didn’t enjoy it more when it was happening. I won the Matriarch in California (Dress To Thrill 2002). I will never forget. You were panicking getting back to make a flight to ride in Ireland the next day.

“But that is the job. You never got the opportunity to actually sit back and say ‘that was a great day’ or enjoy it. If you are too casual, you don’t get to the heights you want to get to. It’s a double-edged sword.

“It is vitally important to have that as a jockey. If you accept defeat too easily, I don’t think you are going to get to the maximum of your ability. That is vitally important. That is the reason why jockeys are bordering on a little bit mad. It is in every sport. You have to be obsessed with it almost.

“With that comes the mental torture of it, the insecurities and stuff like that, but that is what drives you to be successful.”

*****

“When cancer is mentioned, people talk about chances, percentages, but there’s no point. Everyone’s different. From day one, I didn’t want to know about leukaemia.”

— Former Wicklow footballer and cancer survivor John McGrath, March 2012.

The scar is like nothing most of you have ever seen. When he lifts up his top to expose the crevice that travels from one side of his stomach to another, it is a shock. But it did the job. He no longer has pancreatic cancer and the reworked plumbing is working as it should.

“It was 2017, halfway through, I was feeling a bit of pain in my back. It was a tough old long year. We were knocking away, day-in, day-out, no more than any other year. We were trying to win the championship. We were going here and there and everywhere to ride horses.

“Then, I was feeling a pain in my back. I was wondering was I after pulling a muscle, then I was thinking did I wrench it. Then at the end of the season I was exhausted, I thought I was burnt out. I was putting it down to a hard year.

“We went off on a holiday and came back and when I was on holiday I was still getting a lot of pain. I kept chipping away. Realistically, if the truth be known, I knew there was something not right and I kept soldiering on, which was stupid.

“I was here one day, back from riding work. It was around March. I went to the bathroom and my urine went a really bad colour to the point where I said: ‘That is not right.’”

Frances rang Adrian McGoldrick, who was senior medical officer of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board at the time. McGoldrick sent him immediately to the Beacon. Still, he thought only of the job and though they wanted to keep him in to do more tests, he signed himself out to ride work for Michael Halford.

There was no work Friday, though, and, with the turf season just about to commence, he had ridden his last race. Pancreatic cancer.

It was disbelief. Shock. Myself and Frances had our moment there for a while. Then, whatever clicked in my head then, I just said: ‘It is what it is and we have to get stuck in.’ I never forget that coming into my head.

He was moved to St Vincent’s the following day.

“Then I had the most important conversation of my life with a nurse, Dee, on Saturday night, when everyone was gone home. She said to me that: ‘This is a serious thing, but we are all on a path and there is no looking back. We will get through this.’

“She warned me not to google it. I didn’t. I was ready for [what lay ahead] and I knew it was either you lie down and give up, or fight, but I just needed someone like her to say this is what has to be done and this is the way to go about it. She just gave me such confidence. From that night on, I was really ready for it. I genuinely think there was a little bit of that in me, but she focused me completely. I will never be able to repay her for it.”

Chemotherapy started in April. He wanted to know why they wouldn’t just carve the tumour out of him straight away, but his surgeon, Justin Geoghegan — “you have heroes in your life and he is my hero” — explained that it was very close to a main artery, so they needed to reduce it first.

“From what I gather, I went on the strongest dose of chemotherapy and I had nine doses of that every two weeks. After I got it, I had one bad week and then one good, and back in again, but my physical fitness was a huge help. I was extremely healthy in every other way. Everything was good and strong. I was able to take it and thank God it reduced in size and left it in a position where they were able to go in and operate.”

The operation was a Whipple procedure. Smullen didn’t google that either. If he did, he would have learned that they would remove the tumour, the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gall bladder and the bile duct. What’s left is put back together. It was a seven-and-a-half hour surgery.

Pat Smullen celebrates winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby on Harzand at the Curragh Racecourse in the Curragh, Co. Kildare. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Pat Smullen celebrates winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby on Harzand at the Curragh Racecourse in the Curragh, Co. Kildare. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

The tumour was gone, but there were complications. This was the toughest time, mentally and physically.

“As things went on, stomach emptying wasn’t happening, so they did a scope then and realised then that there was a blockage. I had to have a thing put down through my nose to suck back up. I was on minimal amounts of fluid and the only thing I could eat was jelly, to see would it go through my system and into the bowel.

“The excitement and relief when I was told that everything went well, and they got it out. Everyone was just so excited, but then having to have that second

surgery knocked everything back, but we got through it with the help of great people up there. I never experienced fatigue or tiredness like it, lack of energy to the point where I couldn’t get out of the bed to go to the bathroom for a couple of weeks.

“Everything was positive, even though I felt fucking crap and I couldn’t do anything for myself for a couple of weeks. I would get down on myself lying in the bed. I was so weak and ill after that, one day went into the next, but then when I started getting my energy back a little bit and I was walking around the ward, and trying to get the muscles moving, then I was like: ‘Fuck. I have to get out of here.’ Every day I would say to the surgeon, ‘I feel alright, I can go home.’ He was just making sure everything was right. The last week I was in there went on for like a month. I was like: ‘I have to get home.’

“Getting into your own bed was so good. Sitting here watching racing all day, but then when I did get the energy to get up, shuffle around the paddocks and go out and look at the horses and cattle, there is healing in that alone.

“I used to start trying to walk from here to the yard. I would get down there and then think: ‘How I am going to get back?’

“I just have to say that the nurses when I was in hospital were unbelievable, though. I would lie in the bed for days and not move. They position you properly and get you comfortable. They minded me like a baby. And here, Frances did.”

Throughout, he had held onto the dream of making a glorious return to the saddle.

“That thought came in my mind, if I got back to just ride the weekends, but as (agent and brother-in-law) Kevin O’Ryan said to me, I am not that person. That would only last about three weeks, and you would be in Ballinrobe this evening. That is just who I was. I wanted to ride every day, in every race, and every winner.

“There was a point where I thought I could get back to doing this. I had it in my head.”

His medical team made it clear it wasn’t a runner.

“It was amazing. When you sit and explain to them the lifestyle of a jockey, what they have to do to maintain weight, they were shocked and just said it would be madness. That was pretty much it.

Towards the end, I knew. I was bordering on close to nine-and-a-half stone and had to take off that weight.

“I didn’t want to come back to be Mickey Mouse. I promised myself if I thought I wouldn’t get my body back to where I was, I wouldn’t do it at all. Then, the realisation that physically and medically it wasn’t the right thing to do, it dawned on me that I was never going to get my body back to the physical shape and strength and fitness that I needed to be to compete. Therein, the decision was made.”

He is happy with that and has moved on. He rides out the horses for Moyglare Stud, who owned many of his major winners, and offers advice on mapping out their careers. He does some TV work and has a column in TDN that he enjoys and is very well received.

He is focused, too, on raising funds for cancer research, and awareness of pancreatic cancer, specifically. As ambassador for Irish Champions Weekend, in September, he has the ideal platform to do that.

“We are running a charity race on the Sunday. I can’t reveal the riders in it just yet, but it is going to be on the theme of champions. We are really looking forward to getting that up and going. We are going to have an event at the Champions Weekend dinner in the Shelbourne on the Saturday night as well.

This is something myself and Frances are really passionate about doing. It is a one-off. I want to try and get in, raise as much money and awareness as I can. All the funds will be directed towards cancer research and Cancer Trials Ireland.

Hopefully, we can put it in there to make a bit of a difference in what is happening and give a bit back for all of the good work the medical people did for us.

“There is a lot of work and organisation in it. But I am going to be calling on everybody within the industry and general public to get behind it. Come and enjoy great racing over the two days and, equally, then to contribute to the charity.

“I want to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. Other cancers, and rightly so, are getting great funding. Thankfully, the medical people are on top of a lot of cancers now, which is amazing, but one that is not getting as much funding and awareness is pancreatic and it is a killer. To be honest, I never heard of it before I got it myself.

"That is just fact. From what I can gather, unfortunately, the percentages are not good. Thankfully, we beat that, touch wood. Hopefully, what has happened... there is something I don’t want to really subscribe to, and I never shouted from the rooftops: All clear. Because it is always on my mind, it may come back.

“So, we took the approach, one-day-at-a-time thing. We get through today and look forward to tomorrow, but hopefully, this will give people encouragement, hope, and a positive approach to it that they can get through it. I was blessed with the best medical team you could ask for. I was blessed with everything around me at home, and the luck of God was on our side, as well. I wouldn’t be a deeply religious person, but I do know that God helped us out. There is a lot to be thankful for.

“I was a bit OCD about the house and the farm, but now, I still like to keep everything good and tidy, but I’m not as obsessive as I was about that. Of course, it gives you clarity in life and what’s important. We have been very fortunate. I definitely look at things a bit different to what I did before.”

“He’s still OCD,” shouts Frances from the kitchen. He’s grinning broadly. Different, but still the same.

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