Hello everyone, I have decided to pay tribute and look back at the career of one of Ireland’s greatest ever jockeys and nine-time champion Pat Smullen, who was sadly forced to hang up his boots back in 2018.
Patrick Smullen was born in a small village called Rhode in County Offlay on May 22nd 1977. His career in racing began to expand when his father got in contact with trainer Tom Lacy who was based just two miles away from Pat Smullen’s home and he was offered an opportunity to become an apprentice for the yard. He grasped the opportunity with both hands and went on to ride his first winner on a horse called Vicosa, trained by Tom Lacy himself at Dundalk in 1993. Pat served a four-year apprenticeship with the handler and having demonstrated a great set of skills throughout his time at the yard, the rising apprentice started to attract the attention of many notable trainers where he started to hit the ground running, riding winner after winner. This led to Pat Smullen becoming the champion apprentice in Ireland back-to-back in 1995 and 1996. Pat described this achievement as “a very special moment in his career.”
A New Challenge
Pat Smullen then found himself with another opportunity that came along to ride as second jockey for John Oxx with Johnny Murtagh the retained number one. His improvement in the saddle extended over the next couple of years where he rode his first Group 1 winner, achieving that success aboard Tarascon for trainer Tommy Stack in the Moyglare Stakes at the Curragh. His status as one of Ireland’s brightest prospects saw him land the role at one of Ireland’s biggest trainers Dermot Weld in 1999 for owners Moyglare Stud and the partnership continued to grow quickly between Pat and Dermot. Their success continued to broaden which contributed to Pat being crowned champion jockey for the first time in the year 2000 whilst also gaining his first winner in Britain on Takwin at Doncaster.
In 2001, Pat Smullen was fresh from claiming his first jockeys’ championship and enjoyed his first Irish Classic success aboard Vinnie Roe in the Irish St Leger. Vinnie Roe was a magnificent stayer who played a big part in Pat Smullen’s career who retained the jockeys’ championship for the second successive season. Impressively, Pat Smullen went on to partner Vinnie Roe in the next three runnings of the Irish St Leger in 2002, 2003 and 2004, coming out victorious on each occasion. Vinnie Roe was actually rated the best stayer on three separate occasions and in total, Smullen and Vinnie Roe won five times together at Group 1 level with the duo also finishing second in the 2004 Melbourne Cup under top-weight when only finding super mare Makybe Diva too strong. In his own words, Pat Smullen said “To win five Classics on one horse is just something quite special. He’s the one horse I have a real soft spot for and always will have.”
With his career continuing to go from strength to strength, Pat Smullen secured his first of eight Royal Ascot victories when riding Irresistible Jewel to win the Ribblesdale Stakes in 2002 before gaining another Group 1 success in the same year which came overseas in the US, steering Dermot Weld’s top-class filly Dress To Thrill to win the Matriarch Stakes. Pat was not to be denied more top-level success when guiding Refuse to Bend to win the National Stakes at the Curragh and in 2003, his first British Classic was on the horizon when Refuse To Bend took top honours in the 2000 Guineas. He also returned to the US to win the American Derby aboard Evolving Tactics.
Reclaiming Jockeys Championship
Being one of Ireland’s top jockeys, Pat Smullen enjoyed another stellar season in 2004, with the highlights of his season coming in the Irish St Leger for a fourth consecutive year on Vinnie Roe before one of Ireland’s star performers emerged named Grey Swallow who he partnered to win the Irish Derby and defeat Epsom Derby winner North Light and Kieren Fallon. Surprisingly, Pat Smullen had to wait four years before reclaiming his title in 2005, and over the next four years, Smullen registered another three Irish jockeys’ championships in 2007, 2008 and 2010 with notable highlights of his achievements include victories aboard Grey Swallow (2005 Tattersalls Gold Cup), Nightime (2006 Irish 1’000 Guineas), Benbaun (2007 Prix De l’Abbaye), Muhannak (2008 Breeders’ Cup Marathon) and Casual Conquest (2009 Tattersalls Gold Cup).
Champions Day Glory
In 2009, another high-class stayer burst on to the scene for Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen named Rite Of Passage. He was aimed at the Grade 1 Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival and Pat was called up to replace Robbie McNamara. The pair went on to finish a courageous third in the race behind impressive winner Dunguib. The following year, Pat Smullen and Dermot Weld enjoyed further success as Rite Of Passage achieved a surprise victory in the Ascot Gold Cup at odds of 20-1 which followed Bethrah’s Irish 1’000 Guineas success and Chinese White’s Pretty Polly Stakes win for the team. The next couple of years saw Pat Smullen fail to claim a seventh jockeys’ championship. Regardless of that outcome, the multiple champion jockey still enjoyed big-race successes, including a double at Ascot’s British Champions Day. He rode Sapphire to win the Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes before one of the greatest training performances occurred in the Champions Long Distance Cup. Rite Of Passage hadn’t been seen on a racecourse for 510 days prior to this assignment and Pat Smullen galvanised the great stayer to claim the prize for connections.
More Titles, More Success
2014, 2015 and 2016 saw Pat Smullen’s career in full-flight, claiming all three Irish jockeys’ championships each season. Having lifted the British Champions Long Distance Cup for a second time aboard Forgotten Rules, Pat Smullen recorded four major wins the following year which included the Irish Oaks and Prix de l’Opera on Covert Love before landing two of Ascot’s major races - the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes on Free Eagle and the Champion Stakes on Fascinating Rock. Pat Smullen was absolutely brilliant on the pair of them. Things were only getting better for Pat Smullen who established himself as a rider at the top of his game in 2016 where he rode the Aga Khan owned Harzand to win the Epsom Derby for boss Dermot Weld. The partnership of both horse and rider then teamed up again at the Curragh in the Irish Derby to complete a famous Derby double. Reflecting on his Epsom victory, Pat Smullen quoted “He was a great horse, and to end my career after winning an Epsom Derby, I think it’s a career fulfilled.”
In 2018, Pat Smullen was to ride his last ever winner which came aboard Togoville at Dundalk on March 16th before things had taken a drastic change just ten days later. Pat Smullen was reported to have been in excruciating pain and was stood down from his booked rides. This was originally thought to be a kidney stone and we had hoped he would make a swift recovery. However, this wasn’t the case as it proved to be far worse. His unforeseen difficulties led to Pat Smullen being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On medical terms, he announced his retirement from the saddle in May 2019 having hoped to return to racing after treatment. The nine-time champion jockey was at the top of his game when cancer struck which left Pat taking a long time to come to terms with retirement. This might have been an unfortunate career-ending moment for one of the best jockeys ever to grace a racecourse but he took the news on the chin and since quitting from the saddle, Pat Smullen received huge support from the racing association, which helped him raise over £2.5 million for Cancer Trials.
Champion's Weekend Charity Race
Due to exceeding all expectations in fundraising and Smullen’s popularity, the horse racing community set-up a charity race in September 2019 named the Champions Race For Cancer Trials on Irish Champions Weekend which saw nine former jockeys come out of retirement to take part in the race, including the likes of Sir Anthony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Paul Carberry and Richard Hughes. Pat Smullen was due to ride in the race himself but unfortunately had to miss the engagement having suffered a setback on his road to recovery. Even though this proved to be disappointing news, Pat was still able to be on course and witness a thrilling race as McCoy and Walsh fought out the finish with the 20-time champion jockey coming out on top. In November, Pat Smullen was honoured at the 29th Cartier Awards, receiving the Cartier/Daily Telegraph Award of Merit. It was clearly a memorable night for Pat Smullen after everything he had been through over the previous two years.
Pat is without a shadow of doubt a man of pure resilience. Not only was he highly respected for his skills but also his brilliance in the saddle, Pat Smullen has always been one of racing’s popular individuals across all countries. His heroic efforts to overcome cancer have been described as inspirational, mind-blowing and unimaginable. Despite all hopes of him returning to the saddle which was taken away from him, Pat Smullen has truly become a hero of our sport and his combination with Dermot Weld for nearly two decades was one of the best partnerships we have ever seen, claiming a string of major successes together, particularly in the Epsom Derby. Pat Smullen did an incredible interview with Attheraces at the Cartier Awards saying ”there is no question winning the Epsom Derby on Harzand was the highlight of my career, when setting out as a young boy you can only dream of winning the Epsom Derby and to make that a reality was a very special day.” We conclude this article by saying thank you to Pat Smullen for all he has done in the horseracing industry and we wish him all the best going forward.
Pat Smullen’s Roll of Honour
- Royal Ascot winners - 8
- Group 1 winners - 25
- Most winners in a year (Ireland) 129 - 2016
- Ireland/Britain total winners combined - 1892
- Champion jockey - 9 times - 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015 2016
- Best mounts (Highest-rated) - Grey Swallow 126, Vinnie Roe and Fascinating Rock 125, Benbaun, Free Eagle and Harzand 124, Refuse To Bend and Famous Name 123, Rite Of Passage 122
- Most successful trainer combination - Dermot Weld, 19 years
- Global Group 1 wins - US, France, UK and Ireland
I hope you have all enjoyed my tribute to Pat Smullen and feel free to leave a comment to show your support to one of the greatest jockeys of all time.