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Dublin: 1°C Sunday 7 March 2021

'I am overcome' - Racing comes together for Pat Smullen on special day at the Curragh

Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Joseph O’Brien, and Paul Carberry were part of an all-star cast in a charity race in aid of Pat Smullen.

Pat Smullen at the Curragh.
Pat Smullen at the Curragh.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

TEARS WERE SHED, old friends met and – above all – hope prevailed for the future on a genuinely special day at the Curragh.

If Irish Champions Weekend at this old place has consistently been Leopardstown’s bridesmaid, 2019 was the seachange. Foxrock on Saturday felt like a rehearsal, emotions very much in check. Today they formed as an outpouring, nobody caring that the weather refused to comply with the script.

This was a day when Group One races felt like an irrelevance no sooner than nine jockeys strode into the parade ring for the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland. Smullen wanted to ride in this perhaps more than he wanted to ride in any race throughout a truly remarkable career spanning about a quarter of a century and lit up by nine Irish championship titles.

He had put together a cast that needed seeing to affirm belief: Charlie Swan, Joseph O’Brien, Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Ted Durcan, Paul Carberry, Richard Hughes, John Murtagh and Kieren Fallon.

The tenth member was Smullen until he was hit with a second bout of pancreatic cancer recently that hit Irish racing like a cannonball in the stomach.

Instead of giving up, Smullen went into overdrive to promote the race. There would now be nine runners, not ten. He was no longer riding in the race and many wondered would he be well enough to show face among the many thousands at the place he knew as a second home for so long.

For the purpose of record, the Group One races today went to Fairyland, Love, Pinatubo and Search For A Song, the last-named trained by Dermot Weld, who was far more emotional than I have ever seen him when talking about the spiritual weight of a day like this.

Weld enjoyed a double, Chris Hayes telling everyone after a Leger ride that Smullen would have been proud of that his old buddy was hugely instrumental. “I spoke to Pat for a good while beforehand and he didn’t say much but what he said gave me great confidence,” Hayes said.

This was a day of Group races and a charity event that was top billing in every sense bar equine virtuosity. The clamour to see the great man – nay, the great men – was such that the only irritable aspect of the customer experience at the Curragh was that other racegoers prior to the main event got in your way because they dare not miss out.

As they cantered down to post, many of these greats riding at a racetrack for the final time, it was hard not to look at the sky and summon resonance. The rain had subsided but ashen clouds covered the ancient Curragh plains. They sat atop the old gallops that Smullen must have ridden many thousands of times.

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This place has seen horses race for millennia; horsemen come and go.

Smullen’s outlook was not lost on anyone but he was a loss to the race that had pretty much everything else. Dessie Scahill called the event in an exuberance befitting the honour of the role, Paul Carberry was last off the bridle, Tony McCoy won and Ruby Walsh chased him home in vain. For days like this.

tony-mccoy-celebrates-winning-with-quizical Tony McCoy celebrates. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Smullen must have had dark moments of late that could swallow you whole. The treatment and illness has taken its toll on him physically. McCoy famously proclaimed himself “a sissy” after crying on finally winning a Grand National; when he and Smullen were clearly welling up post-race, nobody was accusing them of being any less than the best of men.

“They left him alone in front,” laughed Smullen. “I am really pleased for Sheila and John Lavery, who owns the horse. No disrespect to the others but this is the result that everyone wanted.

“A huge amount of money has been raised and it gives everyone confidence going forward.”

There were still a couple of races to be run when a large portion of the crowd made their way out, many moved greatly by an experience like this that render words futile tools.

“I am overcome,” Pat Smullen said.

He was not and never will be alone.

About the author:

Johnny Ward

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