Champions unite for great cause

In the shadows of many of the true giants of the sport of kings, it would be easy for a lifelong racing fan to get lost in the moment of excitement.

Champions unite for great cause

In the shadows of many of the true giants of the sport of kings, it would be easy for a lifelong racing fan to get lost in the moment of excitement.

But there was a gravity which transcends racing which brought former champion jockeys Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy, Paul Carberry,Charlie Swan and Joseph O’Brien together at the Owning Hill yard of the last-named on a cool autumn morning in September.

Inevitably, banter filled the morning’s highlight as the quintet rode work up the famous incline, each taunting the other at how their fitness levels may have dipped and body shape altered in the time since their respective retirements from the saddle.

Naturally, when the winners of thousands of races come together for one race — the Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland at the Curragh on Sunday, September 15 — some friendly rivalry will ensue and, while the bigger picture will remain in focus, there will be bragging rights and a little fun along the way.

If you’re not old enough to remember Charlie Swan in his pomp you really have missed out, because he was one for the generations. His association with three-time Champion Hurdler and four-time Cheltenham Festival winner Istabraq perhaps the most memorable.

Those famous green and gold silks of owner J P McManus were donned with even greater regularity by AP McCoy and his competitive nature remains unquenched.

Being back on the hill evoked some great memories.

“The first winner I rode for Aidan (O’Brien) was Shaunies Lady, in the four-year-old Champion Hurdle at Punchestown, in 1996, and she was trained here,” remembered McCoy.

“And Toast The Spreece, which I won the Galway Hurdle on, was trained here also.

“It’s changed a little bit — there’s a few more horses, and I’m slightly bigger than I was then, in terms of my weight.

I’ve lost a little bit of weight recently but that’s probably going to be the toughest challenge. I think I’m pretty fit, but my excuse is that I’m getting more muscle, and muscle is heavier than fat.

"But I suppose that if I am the heaviest, I’ll get on the best horse, won’t I?

“I said four years ago, after I rode in the race in Doncaster, that it would be the last time I would ever ride a horse in public. I genuinely meant it because even for a little while afterwards I struggled mentally. I enjoyed myself a little bit too much.

“Obviously, I’m a bit too old now, a bit past the stage of being a jockey, but it’s exceptional circumstances, it’s tough circumstances, andobviously circumstances that we wish we’d never find ourselves in.

“We have to try and make it the best race and the best weekend ever for Pat, and he’ll hopefully get a little satisfaction out of the awareness and the funds he will have raised.

“He can be proud he’s done what he’s done.

“When Pat told me who was riding in it, it was a dream to be able to ride against the lads. We have all ridden against Pat in the past and it’s a shame he’s not going to be able to take part.

“But it is a brilliant line-up. It’s pretty much the best of the best, and it will be hard to win.

“They wouldn’t have ridden as many winners as they have if they didn’t all want to win, but it will be brilliant for the weekend, it will be brilliant for Irish racing, but first and foremost it’s about raising awareness and raising as many funds as we can for Pat and the awareness of Cancer Trials Ireland.

“And then, most importantly for me, it’s about me winning it,” he added, laughing. Some things will never change. Thankfully.

Paul Carberry, a consummate horseman who was as stylish as he was spectacular, is not ruling out a performance to evoke past successes.

“When I saw that Pat was organising the race, I was hoping I’d get the call up, and it was great to get it,” said Carberry. “It’s very disappointing Pat cannot ride in the race — we’re all heartbroken for him — but hopefully we can get a lot of funds together for him.

There will be a lot more people aware of pancreatic cancer with the running of this race, and it’s a fabulous team of riders for the race. It’s going to be a great race, and I can’t wait for it.

Asked if he had ever ridden in a race with such depth of quality of riders, he responded: “I don’t think anyone has. It was great to ride out with the boys this morning. It’s my first time here, and it’s an amazing place.”

As well as Walsh, McCoy, Carberry, O’Brien and Swan, Johnny Murtagh, Kieran Fallon, Richard Hughes and Ted Durcan will be in action on Sunday week at the Curragh.

If all the Group 1 races over the two days do not whet the appetite for Longines Irish Champions Weekend, the return of many of the all-time greats for such a worthy cause will surely do so. It’s an occasion not to be missed, and a cause worth getting behind.

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