Pat Smullen, who has died from pancreatic cancer aged 43, was one of the outstanding Flat racing jockeys to emerge in the new millennium.
The winner of multiple classic races, Smullen scored most of his successes in his native Ireland, where he was champion jockey nine times between 2000 and 2016; but he was no stranger to the winner’s enclosure in Britain, taking the 2016 Epsom Derby on the Aga Khan’s Harzand and the 2,000 Guineas in 2003 on Refuse To Bend.
For most of his career Smullen was first jockey for the Irish trainer Dermot Weld, and it is a tribute to both men that they brought so many jockey’s titles to the Rosewell House stables in an era when Aidan O’Brien’s yard at Ballydoyle appeared to be sweeping all before it.
Noted for his professionalism, coolness under pressure, his tactical sense and strength in a finish, Smullen nevertheless confessed that he was constantly driven by a fear of failure, telling the Irish Examiner in 2019: “I think it goes back to the beginning. When you leave school at such a young age … I wanted to make sure I made a go of it. That never left me. There was always that hint of insecurity in me.”
Patrick Joseph Smullen was born on May 22 1977, the son of a farm labourer, at Rhode, Co Offaly, which sits in the Bog of Allen. Educated locally, he left school at 15 and got his first taste of horse racing through his brother Sean, who worked at Joanna Morgan’s yard preparing young horses for sales.
Morgan took on the young Pat, and from there he moved to Tom Lacy, whose stables were within a cycle ride of Pat’s family home. It was not long before he had won his first race, and in 1995 and 1996 he was Ireland’s champion apprentice.
There followed two years with John Oxx’s stable, and in 1997 he won his first Group 1 race, the Moyglare Stud Stakes at the Curragh, on Tarascon for trainer Tommy Stack.
Smullen’s big break came two years later when Mick Kinane, Dermot Weld’s first jockey, moved to join Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle. Smullen, who had been Kinane’s understudy, took his place, remaining in the role until illness forced him into retirement.
His first Classic victory was in the 2001 Irish St Leger aboard Vinnie Roe, and horse and rider went on to win the same race for the next three years running; they also won the 2001 Prix Royal-Oak, the French equivalent of the St Leger.
Smullen’s other Classic successes were two Irish Derbys, with Grey Swallow (2004) and Harzand (2016); two Irish 1,000 Guineas, with Nightime (2006) and Bethrah (2010); and the 2015 Irish Oaks with Covert Love.
In England, Smullen’s wins at Royal Ascot included Free Eagle in the 2015 Prince of Wales’s Stakes; Snow Sky in the Hardwicke Stakes (also 2015); and the 2010 Ascot Gold Cup on Rite Of Passage. He also took the 2015 Champion Stakes on Fascinating Rock.
In March 2018, only days after riding what would prove to be his last winner, Smullen was diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. Having undergone apparently successful treatment, he was advised by his doctors to announce his retirement a year later. He had ridden 1,845 winners in Ireland and 47 in Britain.
In the months that remained to him Smullen impressed all with his dignity and courage. To raise money for Cancer Trials Ireland, last year he organised the Pat Smullen Champions Race at the Curragh, raising £2.3 million. Two months later, at the 2019 Cartier Racing Awards, he was presented with the Daily Telegraph Award of Merit.
Pat Smullen married, in 2001, Frances Crowley, a sister of Aidan O’Brien’s wife Annemarie. A former trainer, Frances became the first licensed woman to send out an Irish Classic winner when Saoire won the Irish 1,000 Guineas in 2005. She survives her husband with their son and two daughters.
Pat Smullen, born May 22 1977, died September 15 2020