May 15, 1994 was the first time I met Pat Smullen. I know because he rode Classical Affair at the Curragh for my father, but September 12, 1995 is the first time I remember talking to him because he rode and won on Dunemer for my dad in Galway that day, the day I got my junior cert results.
I remember it because I led her up and Pat asked me all the all about the filly as we headed around the Ballybrit parade ring before they headed off to the start. He was already on his way to being crowned champion apprentice for the first time and I was a mere 7lb claiming amateur with two winners to my name.
How we became friends centres around Frances Crowley. Pat was going out with her at first and later became her husband, and I rode plenty of horses for her while she was both. They lived halfway between where there both worked: Pat on the Curragh, Frances in Owning, or what was Pat’s definition of halfway, Carlow Town. More his half than hers, and it was also where we lived in late 90s and early 00s, but we were young people too and Carlow Town never spoke of where we were or what time we left it.
On May 3, 2003 Pat Smullen won the 2000 Guineas on Refuse To Bend at Newmarket and 35 days later he returned to the UK as 11/4 favourite for the Epsom Derby. By then we had both been champion jockey twice, and we met regularly for dinner on a Sunday night, Pat and Frances, Gillian and I, but always on a Sunday or maybe a Monday.
We lived our whole lives and careers side by side, not as opponents but still as competitors, using each other as confidants and judging how well we were doing by what the other was achieving.
Gillian and I went to Epsom with Kevin O’Ryan, Pat’s future brother-in-law and agent, as friends of the guy riding the Derby favourite that day. We wanted to be there if he won but Refuse To Bend didn’t stay the Derby trip and finished 13th.
His jockey most certainly did, going on to win seven more jockeys’ titles, the Derby on Harzand, and two Irish versions to boot. Pat got every yard of the trip he was given, only that trip wasn’t long enough for him or the rest of us.
He wasn’t an open book, what you saw only ever showed a bit of who he was, that massive broad smile when he won and that hollow, white sunken face that he carried most of time portraying the pressure and hardship he was putting himself through.
He always said hello - actually his hello was that drawl Offaly ‘welllll’ - but his eyes always told you if he wanted to talk or to be left alone. His manners and appearance were always perfect, his answers in the press and to any “Joe“ he met were always courteous and honest, but behind it all lay a man consumed with the fear of failing, so as a jockey he pushed himself to the verge of breaking every day.
Pat didn’t take a chance that was simply gifted to him. His late father, Paddy, worked a farm in their native Rhode and when his eldest brother Sean brought an 11-year-old Pat to Joanna Morgan’s yard one morning with him, a love for riding horses was developed.
Pat worked his way into racing, learned his trade with the Lacys, and developed his skills through pure determination and hunger. This was not a life destined for him but one he made. He strived to be as successful as he could but all he really wanted was to provide for those closest to him.
He wanted to achieve enough to buy his own farm in Rhode and build a home. He actually worked so hard and achieved so much, he bought the farm his dad used to work.
He set about that in the very same way as he finished it, with a work ethic that would baffle the trade unions of Ireland, with a will to keep his weight under 9st that would have dieticians and medics admitting themselves for help, let alone him, and an obsession to succeed that makes the self-confessed obsessives look like part-timers.
It had a price too. The burden of pressure played on him and often you could sense he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. You knew he doubted himself and doubted the reality of the position he was in. You knew he was wondering “why am I being given this chance?“ and when it went pear-shaped, as all sport does from time to time, you knew he took it badly.
Pat didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, his emotions were very rarely portrayed in public. Winning, in his eyes, was what he was meant to be doing, from Ballinrobe to Santa Anita, Listowel to Epsom or Downpatrick to the Curragh, racing’s owners, trainers and punters got the very same man every day
He strove for the unattainable perfection in everything he did and how he went about dealing with his cancer diagnosis did not surprise me one bit. Of course he knew, as did Gillian, I and our all friends, that he had Frances’s unwavering loyalty and strength in his corner and he knew from the word go in March 2018 that this was all uphill and the chances of reaching the top were very top were slim. But a slim chance was better than no chance.
I sensed everything he did the last two and a half years was done in the gratitude of being alive but none of it was done in the ‘poor me’ kind of way.
His attention was no longer focussed on being a jockey, but something had to consume him and that became dealing with, learning about and raising the awareness of the illness he had - not about him, but the illness.
In his own words this was not a battle or a fight, it was a situation he was in that would probably have a poor outcome but one that had to be dealt with. He set goals for his treatment and targets for how much he could take, the competitor and stubbornness in him always wanting and taking more than the doctors predicted he could.
On the June 18, 2019 in the car park at Royal Ascot, Pat told us of his intentions to have a Champions’ Race on Champions Weekend at the Curragh that September to raise a substantial amount of money for the awareness and research into pancreatic cancer.
He believed that day that he was healthy and on his way to making a full recovery, and that he too would be taking part. They were words I never thought I would hear him say again, and sadly they never came true because by early August at Galway, the race was on, but Pat wasn’t part of it.
Part of me realised then that this was no longer a hill he was climbing but a mountain, and yet he went full steam into fulfilling the dream he had of making Champions Weekend a special one for racing. So, on the September 15, 2019, AP won the Champions’ Race and Pat’s plans and ideas of fundraising from every sector available raked in €2.6 million in 24 hours.
The biggest achievement of his life, after getting Frances to agree to marry him, without even sitting on a horse, he won simply by being Pat Smullen. Including everyone, treating everybody with equal respect, and conducting himself with good grace and manners.
It will always be my honour to have shared the 2019 HRI Special Recognition Award with him last Christmas even though we both knew only I wanted to be there.
He had been forced to retire but I had chosen to. Mine was a fairy tale, his was a nightmare.
The last day we spent with him was June 16, 2020. He walked into our garden with Frances in his customary neat and tidy fashion, and it delighted us that he had come to watch Royal Ascot and then stayed until well after dark.
I didn’t know I wouldn’t see him again. I had a feeling it was only going one way, but he never let you know that. He walked out of my garden the same way he walked out of most places all his life: asking Frances to “come on” and thanking everyone over and over.
His usual replies to Whatsapp or text messages started to dry up in early August, and the last one I sent on August 7 remains unanswered but is forever stored on my phone.
September 15, 2020 - the day you knew would come - came. He had refused to bend but that wasn’t enough. He didn’t want visitors the last while, just Frances, Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, his mum Mary, brothers Sean, Ger and Brian and his cousins Alan and Ken.
He wanted family, he had left most of us on a happy note and now was a private time. He is proud of who he is and was always proud of where he came from. Blood is thicker than water and Pat knew that more than most.
The replays of him controlling races, winning Group 1s, and even more so winning on horses that had no right to win, will forever be there for people to watch. The clips of him talking about his illness and why he single-handedly set about creating a legacy out of the saddle will mean the general public and not just the racing one will never forget him. They’re there too, to be watched and listened to.
However, the husband, father, son, brother, and friend is gone and if you have ever been lucky enough to have met or dealt with him, you know what I mean.
From Galway in ‘95 to Carlow in ’99, through the Curragh in the mid-00s all the way to Brickfield Stud in Rhode, Smul never changed.
Nights in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Ascot, or Cheltenham. The Carlovian, Fallon’s, or the Hanged Man’s; a Caesar salad or the fish; a green bottle or a glass of white. Always the same, always a gent, always a friend.
Good luck jock. We miss you already.