I only met Pat Smullen once, as against bumped-into as we do or rather did on the ever-moving canvas that is or was until March 2020, the world of horse racing, writes Tony Stafford. I’m sure I smiled across at him on one or more of my increasingly-rare trips to Ireland, or his sporadic jaunts to the UK while he was busy winning his nine domestic titles and an immense warmth within the Irish racing community and his own family which is right at the centre of that intense world.
It was with a mixture of delight and trepidation that I learned on July 7th 2016 from Hughie Morrison’s ultra-efficient secretary Jane Bexx –maybe the real Posh and Becks! – that Pat Smullen would partner Raymond Tooth’s home-bred Dutch Law in the 6.05 race on the following Saturday.
It seemed he’d not been required for Tipperary that day and had been booked for six rides at Ascot’s Summer Mile meeting, presumably working around his primary objective, riding Sir Michael Stoute’s Convey in the feature race. Convey was a disappointing seventh that day but Pat’s trip over did provide its dividend when he brought home Ed Dunlop’s 6-1 shot Manjaam to a comfortable success in the 5.35 race, a mile and a half handicap.
So Smullen’s final act of a long day, before he headed off to nearby Heathrow for his flight home, was his mount on Dutch Law. At that point in his life the gelding was a 13-times-raced winner of one handicap under Martin Harley on the July Course just over a year previously, and less-than-honourable possessor of five second places. Hence the trepidation: the delight was the prospect of what Pat might encourage him to do!
Well he, with the jockey’s help, made it six runner-up slots, with a decent effort which the race close up in the Racing Post reminds me that he squeezed through after being short of room to run the George Baker-ridden Experto Crede, a three-year-old trained by Ed Walker, to just over a length, conceding that younger horse 12lb.
I tried to rekindle the visual imprint I have of that race by pressing the race video feature on the Racing Post site this morning, but was instead shown the first race of Salisbury’s evening fixture, scheduled off five minutes earlier at 6.00 p.m. Inevitable, maybe, with all that racing going on, as was the case last Saturday when three races with their mini-screens, were showing at the same time on Racing TV.
What I do remember clearly though without any need of a memory jog is Pat spending quite a lot of time being very gracious about a horse that in the scheme of things could easily not have meant anything much to him. I left the track that night reflecting on what a nice man as well as a brilliant jockey he was.
His riding also had an emollient effect on Dutch Law. Next time out, just a week later, back on Newmarket’s July Course, this time teaming up with Oisin Murphy for the only time, he won with a last-stride lurch on the line. Then the partnership did something I’d never previously witnessed on an English racecourse. Oisin was aware that the gap between this 4.55 race, off almost five minutes late, and his intended ride on a Ralph Beckett good thing in Lingfield’s 6.10 race did not leave much spare time for the 95-mile (presumably less as the plane flies) trip.
So there they were actually cantering across the July Course paddock and into the winner’s enclosure with barely room for the announcement of his narrow win with future champion Oisin looking back apologetically saying: “Can’t stop, see you!” He did make it to Lingfield, incidentally, winning easily and as he has often conceded since, it’s the fastest he’s ever gone on a racecourse after pulling up!
Then came the Charlie Bennett show. That 5lb apprentice also showed a good degree of communication when after another successful run on the same Newmarket track three weeks later, Charlie stayed and chatted for at least half an hour following a more comfortable seven-furlong victory with me and Peter Ashmore.
Tried at a mile there six days later he was third, not really getting home, but then came his greatest triumph when together Dutch Law and Bennett came from last to first to collect a £50k to the winner prize in the Albert Bartlett handicap early in September. We had a couple of frustrating eliminations from races we thought he could win from the bottom of the handicap, but did get a final run on that track when for a time looking like winning the £112k first prize in a Heritage handicap before fading into a close 11th of 18 behind Librisa Breeze.
The last rites on Dutch Law’s career were left to Jim Crowley, who in three previous tries on him had never been over-complimentary, in a conditions mile race at Doncaster when he was slowly away and never in contention finishing last of eight.
Jim, never one to mince his words and never mind that Dutch Law had won three nice handicaps in his previous five races, said: “Basically he’s a shit!” That was telling Raymond and me too, but fortunately Raymond was safely at home and never got to hear Jim’s measured condemnation. For some reason Raymond has chosen not to use Charlie, so I’m delighted that the jockey has been getting plenty of rides and winners lately. His performance on easy winner Bad Company at Windsor recently was an excellent example of his developing talents.
Here it’s worth acknowledging Hughie Morrison’s skill with members of Dutch Law’s family, progeny of Ray’s dual-winning mare Lawyer’s Choice, who now is the dam of five winners. They all need careful management as their knees are often not the best.
There is a post-script to the Doncaster run. Only days afterwards, Dutch Law went to the Tattersalls Newmarket Horses In Training sales and was sold for 150,000gns. Constant vigilance has shown only one subsequent public mention of him, an entry in one race in Dubai that wasn’t taken up and he didn’t appear again.
The aforementioned Experto Crede never raced again in the UK after that Ascot defeat of Dutch Law, turning up in Hong Kong, presumably after a whopping private sale. While ultra-busy for the next two years there, Experto Crede never achieved a high level. He did manage to win three of his 31 races, one each with the Hong Kong greats, Zac Purton and Joao Moreira, as well as Silvestre De Sousa also winning on him.
Another major player that day also had only a limited time before his career and almost his life was ended. It’s easy to erase the memory of even recent events and I admit I’d forgotten just how successful George Baker had been. He is now one of the regular expert guests on Racing TV, mostly for the all-weather fixtures and often with the immensely-talented American, Rachel Candelora. George has overcome the dreadful injuries sustained in a horror fall on the ice track in San Moritz, Switzerland, on a John Best-trained horse in March 2017.
When George won the race at Ascot on Experto Crede, it was one of 1364 winners in an 18-year riding career during which he recorded six centuries, four in a row to 2016. The most unlikely statistic was his tally of 163 in 2014, astonishing in view of the fact that ever since his first rides in 1999 he always had to cram his six-foot frame into riding at 9st, something that even the two brilliant O’Brien boys could handle for only a few seasons once they reached maturity.
There’s something of the Pat Smullen about George Baker, polite and friendly to all, despite his travails. It’s marvellous that he could rebuild such an unpromising life prospect into a successful second career as well as his valued role behind the scenes helping Ed Walker.
There was to be no positive long-term happy solution to Smullen’s cancer, though, after it was first diagnosed in 2018. From that point, Pat, married with three children to Frances Crowley, sister of Anne-Marie O’Brien and therefore uncle to Joseph, Sara, Anastasia (Anna) and Donnacha, worked tirelessly (and no doubt often more than tiredly) in charitable causes and above all organising that memorable race when A P McCoy and many other greats of racing joined together to make such a financial emotional success.
It isn’t unusual for people to be spoken of in a kindly way when they die. What is remarkable is for an entire country to show such shock, dismay and above all love and deep affection for someone. Pat Smullen, only 43, should have had many more years to live and enjoy with his family and legion of friends not only in his native land. As I said, I met him properly only once, but I never forgot the experience. Neither did Dutch Law!