Pat Smullen eyes more Derby delight

There isn’t much else for a young fella to do around Rhode other than play football.
Pat Smullen eyes more Derby delight

Not that he would want to.

Racing certainly did not leave much of an impression on the village, although they are tapped into Epsom, Longchamp, Royal Ascot and the Curragh now alright.

Like everyone else, Pat Smullen went to train up on the pitch, where Stephen Darby was an ever-present, just as he is now.

An All-Ireland winner with Offaly, Darby was introduced to the fray in the 1982 final before his famous brother Séamus, who broke Kerry hearts with the best known score in the history of Gaelic games.

He always remained rooted in Rhode and is principal of Ballybryan National School just outside the village, where Smullen’s children Paddy and Sarah currently go. The eldest, Hannah is a past pupil.

Pat and his siblings went to Rhode National School but Darby knew the boys from football.

The story goes that after it became evident the diminutive Smullen wasn’t blessed with any degree of natural talent, and didn’t seem to be picking up too many of the skills, the coach gently suggested that maybe he should try another sport.

It could go down as one of the most significant interventions in the history of racing.

Last Monday, Smullen paid a visit to both schools, as they honoured the local hero who has long been a giant of the domestic Flat racing scene but in recent years, had his vast talents recognised belatedly on the international stage.

When introducing the jockey to the students, Darby referred back to June 4 and how he felt so sad waking up that morning to the news of Muhammad Ali’s death the previous night.

Within hours, he was rejoicing as their own icon produced another brilliantly-judged, uncomplicated ride to win the Epsom Derby on Harzand, trained by his boss, Dermot Weld.

He might not kick ball, but he was on the same pedestal now as the Darby brothers, Paddy McCormack and Eugene Mulligan.

It was something he had dreamed of, ever since discovering horses when tipping along with his brother to Joanna Morgan’s yard, where Seán was helping prepare horses for the breeze-up sales.

Morgan, the pioneering Welsh native who made Ireland a home and broke down so many gender barriers as a professional jockey, did her sport another service by making use of the youngster’s stature and throwing him on the back of some of her charges.

Now 39, Smullen is well on the way to his ninth champion jockey title, his tally of 53 winners for the current term before racing last night more than double that of his nearest challenger. It also means he is on course to record in excess of 100 winners for a third consecutive campaign, a feat put into context by the fact it had only been achieved twice this century — by his Rosewell House predecessor Michael Kinane in 2003 and his nephew, Joseph O’Brien 10 years later — prior to Smullen beginning his little run in 2014.

There was a time when people thought he would end up in Ballydoyle. His wife Frances — the first woman to be champion amateur jockey and the first female licensed trainer to train a classic winner — is a sister of Aidan O’Brien’s wife Annemarie, herself another boundary-breaker when she become the first woman to be champion trainer before handing the licence over to her husband.

But Smullen is loyal and appreciated the opportunities Weld gave him domestically. That has been rewarded by more freedom to ride for others internationally when the opportunity allows. It meant everything for the jockey to win at Epsom and fill in a rare blank on his trailblazing boss’s CV.

“This is the blue riband” said Smullen on Monday, having stood in for photos with every child and adult at Ballybryan, before one final shot with the teachers and then scooting up to Rhode.

“What he has achieved all over the world over such a long and illustrious career — not that he’s in any way near finished — but it would have been terrible for him not to win an Epsom Derby. I’m actually personally delighted that I’m the one to have ridden an Epsom Derby winner for him. I’m as equally delighted for him as I am for myself.”

It is unusual to see Smullen reacting with as much emotion as he did crossing the line and in the immediate post-race interview but it meant that much. Part of it too can be attributed to the drama that almost forced Harzand out of the race.

“He was 50-50 all morning. It was just one of those unfortunate things that can happen. He spread a plate and stood on a nail. I think that was where my reaction after the race was a little bit exaggerated because I think it was relief as much as everything else. Thankfully all the team worked extremely well to get him there and take part. It was a great result for everybody, not just me.”

There was outside assistance too. Although the locals apparently were disinclined to lend a hand — he is too polite to say that but it was the came back from well-placed industry sources — there was significant help from Pat Keating, Aidan O’Brien’s right-hand man, and Jim Reilly, Jim Bolger’s farrier. It would be like the Mercedes mechanics sprinting down the pit lane to change the tyres for Ferrari in F1 racing.

Ironically, O’Brien saddled the runner-up US Army Ranger and third-placed Idaho, but there would have been no regret about helping out a colleague in need.

“It’s a great industry and great game that we work in,”Smullen said. “While we’re all in competition every day, when your back is against the wall they all come good. It just showed again there, on that day, when we needed a bit of help it was there and in abundance.”

His phone nearly exploded when he switched it on, such were the number of messages of congratulations coming his way. It says a lot for the popularity of the man that this was the case but it also opened his eyes to the status of the race on a global level. It’s not every day #PatSmullen is trending on Twitter.

“I couldn’t believe the enormity of the whole thing. I got well wishes from all around the world, from people I haven’t heard of for years and years, and unexpected wishes from people I never thought would ever even pay any interest in it.

“It’s a huge race all around the world. When you’re lucky enough to have been able to achieve it, you then realise how huge the whole thing is.”

Many of the tweets from racing people that know Smullen and what is dear to his heart, slagged him about being able to afford a new tractor now. Having lived on the Curragh for many years, the family decided to relocate to Offaly. Frances gave up training and they bought a farm close to Rhode. For Smullen, it is bliss, the perfect way to unwind from the pressures of the game.

When we speak, it is just a matter of hours after Shane Lowry’s valiant bid to claim the US Open had ended. As everyone knows now, Lowry’s father Brendan was on that aforementioned Offaly ’82 team, along with uncles Seán and Mick. Indeed, Stephen Darby came on for Mick.

So they are all fiercely proud of the golfer’s rise to a position amongst the world’s elite. Smullen could identify with the heat that was on the bearded Clara man, although as a 39-year-old who became champion for the first time in 2000, he himself is infinitely more accustomed to the rarefied atmosphere.

“You feel the enormity of the race, the pressure of the owners, trainer… everybody has great expectations and it’s in your hands then. I suppose there’s more pressure going forward now for the Irish Derby because Harzand is a proven Derby horse now.

“It’s like anything and I’m sure it’s the same for Shane Lowry. When you get into competition you put that pressure behind you and just go out and do your job. It’s in the build-up, the preparation where the pressure is.”

The midweek rain has certainly improved Harzand’s chances of adding the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby to the Epsom centrepiece, an accomplishment that would place the son of Sea The Stars in stellar company.

Even when US Army Ranger was scheduled to take part, Smullen saw no reason why the Epsom form should be turned around pointing out that “our horse pulled out again 100 yards from the line.

“He’s the one they have to beat” he added.

With Smullen on board, he will have world class assistance.

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