Pat Smullen had a riding career to match – and surpass – many of the modern-day riding greats.
He also battled with such heart and dignity after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2018. Advice from doctors regarding a return to race-fitness ultimately led to him hanging up his riding boots – and it is was no surprise at the time when the tributes to his talents poured in.
For Smullen, who lost his brave fight at the age of 43, was not just champion jockey in Ireland nine times and winner of nearly every big race worthy of the name, he was a man universally regarded as a gentleman. The complete professional.
Frankie Dettori summed up the feelings of many in the racing world when he said on his retirement: “He is 100 per cent professional and was a great rider. He won almost everything there is to win, including the Epsom Derby.”
That Epsom triumph came in 2016 through the Dermot Weld-trained Harzand. The pair went on to secure the Irish Derby and cement the legacy of a rider who enjoyed his first victory at Dundalk on June 11, 1993.
Born in County Offaly, on May 22, 1977, Smullen, the son of a farmer and who became involved with horses at the age of 11, formed a formidable alliance with master trainer Weld, taking over in 1999 from another riding great in Mick Kinane.
Apprenticed to local trainer Tommy Lacy, his earlier years saw him ride for Erwan Charpy in Dubai and he also spent two years with Tommy Stack, who gave him his first Group One winner with Tarascon in the 1997 Moyglare Stud Stakes.
That would be an appropriate one, as many big-race victories came his way in the Moyglare colours so closely associated with Weld, among them Refuse To Bend in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in 2003.
His first Classic was provided by the brilliant stayer Vinnie Roe in the Irish St Leger of 2001. Remarkably, they would win that race three more times in succession.
Married to Aidan O’Brien’s sister-in-law, former trainer Frances Crowley, with whom he had three children – Hannah, Paddy and Sarah – Smullen was dominated the Irish championship at the peak of his powers, first winning the title in 2000 and following up a year later. He claimed what would be his last championship in 2016.
Ascot Gold Cup glory was gained with Rite Of Passage in 2010, Grey Swallow added the 2005 Tattersalls Gold Cup to his victory in the Irish Derby of 12 months earlier, and there were two Irish 1,000 Guineas wins, with Nightime (2006) and Bethrah (2010).
Casual Conquest (2009) was another Tattersalls Gold Cup winner, while lightly-raced but brilliant Free Eagle came good in the 2015 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at the Royal meeting.
Many other big-race triumphs adorned his CV – and he earned the unrelenting respect of the racing world and beyond with his fund-raising efforts for charity, with the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland at the Curragh in September last year a huge success.
Perhaps Weld summed it up best as he discussed jockey plans when news of Smullen’s illness was made public: “I’ve been spoiled for 34 years that I’ve had Mick Kinane and Pat Smullen and it is hard to believe they covered that length of time (as stable jockeys).
“They are two brilliant men.”
A brilliant man, indeed.