Big race rides are nothing new to Pat Smullen, but going to Epsom with a live chance in a classic is not exactly something that comes around every day. DECLAN COLLEY spoke to him about his prospects.
LEVEL-HEADED, focussed and implacable as he is, Pat Smullen is buzzing. It’s not every year that Dermot Weld’s number one jockey goes to the fabled Surrey Downs with a fancied runner in one of the most important races on the flat calendar.
It may be that Chinese White was a big disappointment for the yard in yesterday’s Oaks, but today he gets the leg-up on Casual Conquest in the Derby and he makes no bones about how good that makes him feel.
“You work all year trying to find a horse like this,” he says. “That’s what this business is all about. I am now in the very fortunate position of having a horse good enough to go to the Derby.”
The betting market for the race was quite stable until early last week when Jim Bolger finally ended the ‘will-he, won’t he’ saga surrounding the participation of his colt New Approach. All that, however, has been of little concern to the 31-year-old three-time Irish Champion jockey, whose confidence in his horse’s ability is unequivocal.
That confidence, in part, is down to the showing of another Weld-trained colt, Famous Name, in last weekend’s Prix du Jockey Club (the French Derby) at Chantilly when he was just touched off on the line by Vision d’Etat, having had to overcome a terrible draw.
“We are very fortunate because all the horses are in good form and that was underlined by Famous Name’s performance in France,” he says. “He ran an excellent race and it was unfortunate that the bad draw probably conspired against him. It was a pity he didn’t win, but it does illustrate just how well the horses are right now. They are in form and that all helps going into a big meeting like Epsom.
“Obviously we were disappointed by Chinese White’s display yesterday, but that has not affected our confidence in Casual Conquest,” he says.
This, after all, is a time for cool heads and experienced hands.
“The bottom line here is that this is a very strong race and I would not underestimate any of the horses in it and there is no doubt that our colt will have to be at his best to win. Hopefully he can.”
Casual Conquest is a lightly-raced sort with only two career runs under his belt – both of which he won – but Smullen is just glad that Moyglare Stud owner Walter Haefner – on the recommendation of Dermot Weld – decided to bite the bullet and supplement the horse for £75,000, despite concerns about his inexperience.
“The fear is, and always has been that because he is such a big, tall, heavy-bodied horse he would not handle the track at Epsom. Of course we will not know whether he does or not until the race is run, but it certainly was great news that everyone agreed he should be supplemented. He is a very exciting and high class colt.”
Smullen admits he was as surprised as anyone by Jim Bolger’s volte-face about running New Approach in the race last Monday, just five days before the race, especially as the trainer had so vehemently ruled the horse out of the race for so long.
“He had not been factored into the Derby equation at all until this week, but I’m sure that Mr. Bolger and his team took the same view we did – that there is only one Epsom Derby every year and when you have a horse good enough to take part then you should go and take part.
“It is great that Mr. Bolger made the decision he did because we now know that whoever wins will be the best mile-and-a-half horse around because they are all there.”
New Approach, Casual Conquest and the former Jessica Harrington charge Curtain Call (now trained by Luca Cumani) head the market for the race and Smullen knows the latter very well, having racing against him in Ireland last season, but he doesn’t necessarily think that trio will have it all their own way.
“Curtain Call is not an awful big horse, but he is by Saddler’s Wells and will therefore handle the cut in the ground and will not have any difficulties coping with the track. He is a high-class colt and is obviously improving, but you would be misguided to think my fellow, New Approach and Curtain Call are the only horses in the race. All the Ballydoyle horses, after all, are very open to improvement.
“The bottom line though – and there is no doubt about it – is that this is one of the most open Derbies we have seen in recent times, but maybe that is because there are so many good colts around this year. It will be an exciting and tough race and undoubtedly the best horse will win. Unfortunately we won’t know which one will be the best of them until sometime after four-o-clock Saturday.
“That said, I wouldn’t swap my horse for anything. He’s done everything right and I can’t wait to ride him. Grey Swallow was the last horse of ours to run in a Derby (the Irish version, which he won, in 2004), so it underlines the point that these horses don’t come along every day of the week.”
The jockey is very dismissive of the views expressed by some observers disappointed by Casual Conquest’s performance in a piece of work he did at Leopardstown after racing last week, saying that too many of them wanted to see a repeat of what the horse produced in the Derrinstown.
“I was very pleased with the horse and felt he worked very well. A lot of people expected to see a repeat of his previous race but at the end of the day it was a piece of work – a gallop – and not a race. The horse is a very laid back type and I was very pleased with the way he worked. As far as I’m concerned that is all that matters.”
He also reckons that the horse’s relaxed demeanour will help him deal with the rigours of Derby Day and he says that while the occasion will undoubtedly “light him up” but he says he has no worries on that score.
“The thing is that nobody knows how this will pan out – how any of the horses will cope with the preliminaries, how they will travel in the race, how they will cope with the downhill run to Tattenham Corner. I can’t say if my fellow will handle it – nobody can until you’re there and going at racing pace; but that goes for every horse in the race, not just ours.”
While dreams of an Oaks-Derby double have had to be put on hold following yesterday’s disappointment, Smullen is still keenly eyeing a Derby success - something of which most top jockeys often dream but rarely envisage actually happening. For him this is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but the only thing anyone can ask for is that he gives his all in pursuit of victory.
Be assured; he will be giving it his best shot.
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