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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 18 June, 2019
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'He is finished riding but that's where the finishing ends' - Pat Smullen deserves to go out on his own terms

A pancreatic cancer diagnosis a little over a year ago must give the retiring jockey a new perspective after an incredible career, writes Johnny Ward.

Pat Smullen: a 'single-minded world-class jockey'.
Pat Smullen: a 'single-minded world-class jockey'.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ONE OF OFFALY’S most famous sons was not from Offaly and he entered the next world earlier this week.

There was nothing flashy about Eugene McGee. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” could have become a thing because of the native of Longford, who was no good at football until he became a manager.

Suffer Fools Gladly (IRE) has a ring to it if anyone is looking to name a two-year-old or store who might win a race or two. Pat Smullen is not one to suffer fools gladly and another of Offaly’s famed sons called time on his riding career this week the guts of 14 months after doctors told him he had pancreatic cancer.

Cancer of the pancreas is not as common as some other forms, such as lung, breast, bowel or prostate cancer. Around 450 people are diagnosed with it each year in Ireland. Most who get it are over 70.

Smullen had greeted his 40s when he got the news last March, which must have felt like waking from a nightmare only to be back in the nightmare forever. He was supposed to be riding at Dundalk and there was talk of some minor ailment. The next thing Irish racing was in collective mourning, understanding as we do what pancreatic cancer is supposed to mean.

Dessie Hughes was one of my favourite people in racing. He uttered little but his smile would make your day. Dessie, one of the few men to both ride and train a Champion Hurdle winner, father of brilliant rider Richard, grandfather of the hugely promising David Egan, died in 2014 aged 71 from pancreatic cancer.

Every year in the Republic of Ireland, around 34,000 people get cancer, so the knock on the door at some stage or other is a short-priced favourite for us all. If one of the 34,000 dealt with it as well as Pat Smullen did I would like to greet that person to share a conversation about life.

I have shared the odd WhatsApp message with him over the past year, usually going something like this.

“How are you keeping Pat?”

“Good Johnny, thanks for asking.”

“Would you be willing to come on Off The Ball soon?”

“Definitely Johnny, but just coming through a bit of treatment at the moment.”

Ruby Walsh went out when he felt it was right, essentially a banger of a car after a quarter of a century or so on the road of punishment to the body from riding horses but feeling the sort of pain that would nearly make you smile because it would remind you of doing the thing that gave you the greatest thrill of all.

Pat Smullen went out 14 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His wife Frances, a brilliant trainer who probably called it a day because she could no longer do it to her full ability whilst bringing up a young family, is testament to the reality that one person suffering from cancer is a lie.

She is a formidable person from a formidable family. I keep going back to what she said to Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent when he spoke to the family last year.

“You can see where marriages break down especially,” she explained.

“I suppose girls would go out with jockeys because they think it’s kind of glamorous. Then you get married and I can see where a lot of marriages break down because of the reality of living with the wasting and the losing and all the stress.

“That they can just, sometimes, not be nice people. And a lot of jockeys… you can see they’re unhappy a lot of the time.

“I mean, I think Pat could have been described as borderline depressed for a good part of the last 20 years while he was riding.

“Actually, I think you’d find that to be the case with a lot of sports people if you were to delve into it.”

If one good thing came out of the horror of his diagnosis, Smullen talks of how it made him appreciate what he had: a beautiful family who adore him, which the single-minded world-class jockey could not allocate enough minutes for while thinking only of the next winner.

He is finished riding but that’s where the finishing ends. Citing letters from people who have come through pancreatic cancer, he greets every day thankful of the opportunity. And we now have the opportunity to reflect on what he achieved and the people he made happier and wealthier as he lifted horses over the line.

Pat Smullen onboard Eziyra comes home to win Pat Smullen onboard Eziyra comes home to win at Leopardstown. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He rode for Dermot Weld, a genuine genius, and he finished champion jockey nine times, winning the Derby on Harzand. And I never remember him telling anyone how good he was – and he was very good, world-class. Strong, polished, an exceptional judge of pace, greeting the prospect of defeat like a mother of a baby in peril.

Little it is worth but my favourite Smullen ride was in a forgettable sprint handicap at the Curragh in September, 2015. Tylery Wonder was a tearaway and knew no other way but he was drawn one in a big field and Smullen wanted the rail.

In an extraordinary piece of riding, he passed every other horse to get the rail, make most of the running and suck every bit of energy out of a one-trick pony who was sent off 16/1 in a €50,000 race.

Life goes on, racing goes on, horsemen pass by. As a journalist, having to compete with additions like Ruby and Smullen in a crowded space is rather upsetting. It was Sheila Lavery who said that at least with Smullen not riding anymore, it made it a bit easier when coming to jockey arrangements.

Lavery’s Lady Kaya is a gem of a horse and has done her part to put the stallion, Dandy Man, on the map. A son of Dandy Man, Teddy Boy, has decidedly more modest aspirations than the Commonwealth Cup but he is fast in his own little way and may strike for Edward Lynam in tomorrow’s Caragh Nursier’s Handicap (2.10).

I get the feeling, too, that La Sorelita has more in her and in the beautiful surroundings of Killarney on Sunday she may strike for Willie Mullins in the Kelly Brothers Handicap Hurdle (3.15).

Mullins and Smullen enjoyed their share of success. Mullins will retire one day too, time making allowances for no man – even the best of men, even PJ Smullen.

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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