Joanna Morgan looked into the back of the car and liked what she saw. It was a small boy not more than eleven years old. No matter that the little mite had never ridden she could soon change that and make him useful around the yard. The boy was called Pat Smullen.
Back then Joanna was already three years into combining training with her ground breaking role as a jockey which ran from 1974 until 1997 and saw her amongst many other things become the first woman to ride at Royal Ascot. She has never been one for mollycoddling and since Pat’s older brother Shaun was already working for her, his junior sibling coming along in the holidays meant she could get another pair of hands to the pump. Within a week she had Pat out hunting on a fiery little Welsh pony and within a month he was jumping a pole so high that they had to block the take off to prevent the pony running underneath.
“Ah yes, that pony, he was a wild one, it took a while to get the better of him,” remembered Pat Smullen on a rare day off last week. “There was no softly, softly at Joanna’s. Before her I might have sat on a donkey or a pony in a field but I didn’t know anything. But she must have seen something in me and in a very short space of time I was riding thoroughbreds and by the time I was 12 I was breezing the two year olds.”
As ever with Smullen, there is plenty of understatement in these mad memories of the early days, but there is also no backing off as he explains the varied support that got him started. Twenty six years on from that little bundle in the back of the car, he is the absolute model of what you would hope a jockey to be; calm, capable, intelligent, courteous but implacably professional about what happens on the track. At 37 he is set for a seventh Irish Jockey’s Championship and if Free Eagle wins the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot on Saturday it will crown a remarkable 16 year partnership with trainer Dermot Weld which has taken major races across Europe and America and seen Vinnie Roe run a great second in the Melbourne Cup.
But that is all a long way from the challenges of the wild Welsh pony in the Morgan yard in Ballivor, County Meath and at the start the road ahead looked an unlikely one. Indeed within a couple of years Shaun had taken a good job in Canada and young Pat was without his lift to the stables only for his father to find help nearer home from Tom and Peg Lacy in the local village of Rhode in Co Offally. As a rider Tom Lacy is immortalised as the man who won over a dozen races on the wonderful little mare Height Of Fashion on whom he ran close second to the mighty Arkle in the 1964 Irish Grand National – admittedly in receipt of two and a half stone. As a trainer Tom had a small yard and time to care for his neighbour’s boy.
“I remember young Patrick coming over,” says Tom’s son Barry using the full Christian name just as A.P. McCoy’s family always call their hero “Anthony”. “His father came to my Dad saying he couldn’t get him to school, he just loves his horses. So my Dad said ‘just drop him off here and we will look after him’. I had been through the riding mill myself and ridden 25 winners before I got too heavy. So I could steer Patrick a bit although when he came here he was still just another kid. I have seen more talented riders but he worked at it, and I mean really worked at it. His father “Paddy” worked on the farm but would never stop. He would walk through a stonewall if he had to. Patrick has inherited plenty of that.”
The Lacy family were small time as trainers, with only a handful of winners each season, but big time as far as mentoring, something never lost on Pat Smullen. “To have a good structure around you is so important,” he says, “and I had it without knowing it. I had two families, Tom and Peg taking care of me when I was working and Mum and Dad when I was home. Looking back I really appreciate how privileged I was. I am sure it was a rarity.
Paddy Smullen wore the teetotaller badge of a “Pioneer”, so it was definitely a non-drinking house. But if Smullen senior didn’t help himself to alcohol, he had energy to spare for others and having coached the under age Gaelic football team was never happier than when ferrying the 14 year old Patrick to the haphazardly flagged ovals of the local pony racing tracks. “The Fahy family were friends of the Lacys and had racing ponies,” recalls Pat. “Tommy was a blacksmith and still shoes for Willie Mullins and Dad would pack us in the car every Sunday and that year I was champion of the local circuit. It’s a great grounding because when you are put into a real race for the first time you are not alien to it.”
The public debut for the 15 year old apprentice finally occurred with an unnoticed ninth of eleven at Listowel on a horse of the Lacys called Power Source followed a month later by an equally unheralded 5th of 9 at Naas on a stable mate called Fairydel. That low key start was followed by five winners for the 16 year old Pat in 1993, 11 and the prize for the most improved rider in 1994, and then 26 and 29 for the next two years to take the apprentice title for both of those seasons and see Barry Lacy accompany his protégée to Tokyo for the World Apprentice Series in Japan.
“Winning those two championships from that small stable is something I am very proud of to this day,” says Pat, “and it only happened because Tom and his family were prepared to support me and he always put me up on his horses. But I had to work at it, when I decided at 12 years of age that I wanted to be a jockey I gave my life and soul to it and not having big stable connections meant I had to work that little bit harder.”
As he spoke Pat had an appetizing salad in front of him and the attentive dining room surroundings of one of those elegant converted castle hotels that abound outside Dublin. As usual he had spent the morning on the Curragh at Dermot Weld’s Rosewall House Stables for whom he has ridden no less than 14 Group winners this season including the Jersey Stakes with Mustajeeb on the second day of Royal Ascot which Smullen quickly trumped by winning the Queen Mary Stakes on Anthem Alexander for Eddie Lynam. Over at Goffs Sales ring his wife Frances had just bought a yearling filly to be prepped on the stud and stables the couple are building on land once worked by Smullen senior near the Lacys in County Offally.
University graduate Frances, the daughter of famed trainer Joe Crowley and thus the sister of Aidan O’Brien’s wife Anne Marie, is a high achiever in her own right. In 1995 and 1996 she became the first woman to win the Irish Amateur Championship before turning to training with success as diverse as the 2001 Galway Plate winner over fences and the 2005 Irish 1,000 Guineas with Saoire on the flat, and that’s not to mention the ultimate family triumph of Cheyenne Star’s Ridgewood Pearl Stakes with P Smullen in the irons.
On the face of it the couple, with their son and two daughters growing up in peaceful Irish countryside, have the world at their feet but the lean face helping himself to the salad will not allow either himself or his listener to forget how he has got here, and how hard remains the discipline. “By 1994 I was already over 8 stone and had nearly a dozen rides over hurdles including two seconds at Down Royal and a fall at Navan. It gave me great admiration for jump jockeys but it was not for me. Then that winter I went down to spend time in Australia with a small trainer at Randwick and came back nine stone. I was really worried that the weight might beat me and there was no question that I was bordering on obsessed with the battle for quite a while. But after leaving school at 15, I could not let this fail.”
But fail he did not and as he galloped to his second apprentice title the offers began to come into Co. Offally with Tom Lacy’s vote coming down firmly on accepting the post of being second jockey at John Oxx’s to Johnny Murtagh. The staff at Currabeg still remember the serious faced youth with affection but in 1996 it had been victory in a three way photo with top jockeys Mick Kinane and Christy Roche that would prove the most crucial. For this first Group victory of the Smullen career was for Dermot Weld in the C.L.Weld Park Stakes commemorating Dermot’s father and Pat was on the second string beating Kinane on the stable number one. When Mick Kinane ended 15 years at Rosewall House by taking the Aidan O’Brien job at Ballydoyle, it was to 21 year old Smullen that Weld turned for his replacement.
“He was still young,” said Weld last week, “but his profile was much the same as Mick Kinane had when I took him on. Now Pat is the professionals’ professional. He has his horses well balanced, keeps in a good position and is very good tactically. I love the tactical battle and it is a wonderful working relationship.”
The trainer’s record year and the strongest ever roster of owners testify to the success, but the demands of the job made it anything but an easy beginning. “I have huge admiration and respect for the man,” says Smullen of his employer, “but he cut me no slack in those early days and it could be very difficult. Mick Kinane has spoken about dreading Monday mornings when Dermot would have you in and analyse everything on video. He had been a very good rider himself and tactics were a huge thing for him. More than often he was right but I was prepared to fight my corner. If I hadn’t done that and I had not had the support in those early days of Tom Cosgrave manager for Token Gesture’s owners Moyglare Stud, I think Dermot might have thought I was not hard enough for the job.”
Sixteen years on the highlights are legion and while the first season was adequate, the second included another three way photo victory one June evening at the Curragh which would become almost as significant as that involving Token Gesture. For it was the first race and of what would be 13 Smullen-Weld victories for the extraordinary Vinnie Roe. “He was a brat as a two year old,” recalls Pat with affection, “and although he was in no way un-genuine we had to put blinkers on him as a three year old because he always worked so lazily.”
“With him the only tricky part of the race was the starting stalls, otherwise he was a dream ride – four Irish St Legers, the Prix Royal Oak, second and fourth in the Melbourne Cup, fifth in the Arc and second in the Gold Cup to Royal Rebel. That Gold Cup was in 2002 and it still hurts. I thought I had given him a perfect ride on the inside and pulled out to come with one run but while he got by Frankie and the Godolphin horse on my inside I don’t think that with the blinkers he could see Royal Rebel beyond him. I had just won the Ribblesdale on Irresistible Jewel – it would have been the highlight of my career.”
There have been plenty of others and the beauty of Smullen’s present moment is that the best could be yet to come. Writing such things can be granting hostage to fortune but after next Saturday such thoughts might well take flight. After all that has gone before, after Refuse To Bend’s English 2,000 Guineas, after Grey Swallow’s Irish Derby, after Famous Name’s extraordinary 21 victory run, a brilliant win by Free Eagle in Ascot’s Qipco Champion Stakes and a commitment to tilt at next season’s major prizes could see rarely used superlatives coming out of the Smullen locker just as they did after the colt sauntered home so impressively on his Leopardstown debut last year.
“I got so excited after Free Eagle won his maiden”, says Pat, “that I said too much and then he went and got well beat by Australia and I looked a fool. Free Eagle is quite laid back at home but when he quicken he lowers himself into this great stride and has a wonderful turn of foot”, says Pat. “Of course Australia is an exceptionally good horse and I am not going to sit her and say I am bound to beat him. But I do think Free Eagle was not at his best when he and Australia met last year and after his easy win after a long lay off he goes to Ascot as a fresh horse which might not be the same for either Australia and The Grey Gatsby after their battle in the Irish Champion. For I rode in that race and it was a grueller, if they can bounce back after that they will be tough horses.”
Whatever happens to Free Eagle it sounds as if his jockey is banking on a few good years yet. “I love race riding. I love the morning work as well. I love everything about it,” he says with a smile and a last look at the salad, “and if I could wake up 8 stone every morning and eat three square meals a day, this would be the perfect job. But the weighing room is a special place, it keeps you sharp and it keeps you young. I am 37 but in there I feel 21.”
It pays to listen when quiet men state their case and aspirants for any post would do well to heed Pat Smullen’s closing credo. “I have been very fortunate to avoid injury and I hope it continues,” he says. “But in all my years with Dermot I have never been overweight, never missed a days work and never been late.”