James Crombie/INPHO Pat Smullen (file pic).
# Recovery
'All the energy that I had devoted to racing, I now had to redirect into getting better'
Read an extract from ‘Champion’ by Pat Smullen.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Champion’ by Pat Smullen.

Dr Adrian McGoldrick was adamant that I needed to go to St Vincent’s Private Hospital. He maintained that they had the best people there to deal with what needed to be dealt with, so I was more than happy to go with Adrian’s advice.

It all happened very quickly. I was transferred from the Beacon to St Vincent’s on Sunday afternoon, and that was the start of all the great work that the doctors and nurses and staff at St Vincent’s did for me. I was under the care of Ray McDermott, who was renowned as one of the best oncologists in the world, and my surgeon was Justin Geoghegan, an amazing man.

Eva Haefner from Moyglare Stud was unbelievable; she told me that she would send me wherever I needed to go so that I could get the best care and attention that there was anywhere in the world.

In the end, after doing all our research, we concluded that the best care that we could get anywhere in the world was on our doorstep, in St Vincent’s.

There was a seriousness and an urgency to my situation. The seriousness was obvious – a tumour on your pancreas ticks that box.

But the tumour was pressing on my bile duct, and it was preventing the bile from getting into my stomach, so the bile was going back through my body, poisoning me. That was what caused my urine to go a strange colour; that was what was causing my face to have this jaundiced look about it.

And it caused me to feel sick. I felt desperately sick, desperately nauseous. The bile was making me sick. So the urgency was in trying to fix that, to put in a stent which would open up the bile duct and allow the bile to flow back into my stomach.

It was a complex procedure, and there were extensive preparations for that operation. It was Professor John Hegarty who performed it, and he was brilliant. I started to feel better immediately.

We were told that the tumour wasn’t operable, because it was too close to the main artery, and that was fairly devastating news. Plan B had to be enacted: go through a programme of chemotherapy with the objective of reducing the tumour in size so that it could be operated on and removed.

I was in St Vincent’s for five days. I had to go under general anaesthetic to get the stent in, and I recovered from that fairly quickly. Then I had to go under again to get the port for the chemotherapy put in, and I bounced out of that too. That was the upside of being a jockey, of being fit. They sent me home then. I had to wait two weeks, build up my strength again, before I could start the chemotherapy.

It was nice to get home, but it was also sad and frustrating and weird. My whole life turned upside down. I wasn’t able to do my job, for starters. I wasn’t able to go racing or to go riding out or to go down to Dermot’s or to work with the young horses. I wasn’t able to do what I had been doing my whole professional life. And then there was the longer-term stuff, like our family: how were we going to raise our family?

Frances was fantastic through all of that. She just kept reassuring me, telling me that everything was going to be all right, and that all the practical stuff was under control, insurance, security for the kids. Just shows you again the importance of having a great partner in your life.

The one thing that disappointed me on the insurance front was that I didn’t get any payment from the Jockeys’ Accident Fund. Not for me, really – I was lucky in that I had other insurance and I had a career that allowed me to cope financially with the juggernaut that had hit me. But because it wasn’t an injury that I had suffered, because it was an illness, I wasn’t entitled to anything from the Jockeys’ Accident Fund.

A fund that I had been paying into since its inception, a fund that I always thought would be there for me if I needed it. For other riders who weren’t as fortunate as I was, that could have been devastating financially.

I managed to get that changed, to have a fund set up that jockeys could pay into, that would cover them for illness as well as injury.

At the end of the day, if your career is ended because of some kind of debilitation, it doesn’t matter whether it is an injury or an illness. The net result is the same: your career is over. It was crazy that there was no illness cover. Now there is cover for illness as well as cover for injury, and that is as it should be.


I knew that I had to concentrate on getting better. I knew that that was all I had to do. Just to get better. I had to channel all my energies into that. It was a new way of life for me. All the energy that I had devoted to racing, I now had to redirect into getting better. I had a new focus.

I took the challenge on board. I had dark days, of course. I had down days, days when I got depressed in myself. Days when it all got on top of me. Days when I was watching racing, watching one of Dermot’s horses winning and knowing that, if things had been different, I would have been riding that horse.

But in general, I was positive. I tried to make myself be positive, surround myself with positive people, think positive thoughts, and that was a big part of my road to recovery. On better days I would watch one of Dermot’s horses winning and think that it was a horse that I would get to ride at some stage in the future.

I conditioned myself to a new way of life. Once I had accepted that my sole focus was on getting better, I had this weird sense of relief. I managed to get my head around that, that I could return to race riding in the future, but that my immediate and only focus was on getting myself healthy again. I decided that I had to give it everything I had; otherwise it would overtake me and consume me.

I was very lucky that I had great people around me, Frances and the kids for starters, Hannah and Sarah and Paddy, my mother, my brothers, my close friends. They were constantly ringing me, texting me, rallying around me the whole time.

I was lucky, too, that I was fit before I got sick. I was physically strong, and that allowed me to cope with the treatment better. Justin Geoghegan told me that, when he was doing the operation, he cut through skin straight into muscle. There was no body fat.

He said that I was the only person he knew who put on weight during a course of chemotherapy!

‘Champion’ by Pat Smullen with Donn McClean is published by Gill Books. More info here.

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