Smullen faithful to the green, green grass of home
Published 04/09/2010 | 05:00
There was a certain inevitability to this week's confirmation that Emmet McNamara has opted to relocate to England. Not because the youngster's career here had gone into terminal decline or anything, but because the past was always likely to be a pointer to his future.
McNamara was champion apprentice in 2008 and the lot of that title-holder has a familiar look to it. Of the last 10, McNamara is the eighth to have felt compelled to seek out pastures new shortly after topping the table. Since Pat Smullen, who is the main focus of this article, landed his second successive title in 1996, the three-time champion Chris Hayes is the only rider to graduate to the senior ranks and stay put.
Last year's champion Gary Carroll is immersed in what might yet prove a battle royal with Ben Curtis for this year's crown. Mick Halford's protege seems well capable of breaking into the top rank, but then so did most of those that have gone before him.
Ultimately, it is a measure of a jockey's ambition to have the drive to win an apprentices' championship. The problem is, in a small pond, there is room for only so many big fish.
There is little turnover year-on-year in the upper echelons of the riders' table here, so nets need to be cast further afield if that ambition is to continue to be sated. Which is why, when Smullen talks now of feeling blessed to have the pick of Dermot Weld's horses, you can be sure the Offaly man does so with some sincerity.
"I've always felt blessed," says the five-time champion Flat rider of the sequence of events that led to his appointment 11 years ago. "I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I was coming out of my time as an apprentice, there was a fair shuffle around of jockeys, so there was going to be an opening somewhere.
"I was the up-and-coming fellow. I had been riding a good bit for the boss (Weld) when Mick (Kinane) was tied up abroad, so it was a real case of being in the right place at the right time. I'd like to think that I have the ability to ride them -- I'd hope that played its part too -- but I was very fortunate. It's a very small racing community here but it's fiercely competitive, and I never wanted to have to go to England."
That point about ability, of course, is significant. Circumstance bestowed on Smullen an opportunity, no more than that. In the most competitive racing environment in the world, he was granted a stay of execution. It was up to him to prove his worth.
But prove it he did. Defying a common view at the time that, at just 21 years old, he would lack the cool hand of his predecessor on the big days, Smullen excelled. He managed to win his first championship in his second year in the job. By the time Weld -- having for a couple of years lacked the muscle to compete with the emerging power at Ballydoyle -- turned Vinnie Roe into a Group One contender in the autumn of 2001, the jockey was primed for the challenge.
Four years after riding his only previous winner at the highest level -- Tarascon in the Moyglare for Tommy Stack -- Smullen steered Vinnie Roe to the first of four Irish St Leger triumphs. He has continued throughout to vindicate Weld's judgment, showing himself to be every inch the worthy successor to Kinane.
Most of the boxes have been ticked at this stage: Riders' championships, Irish and English Classics, European Group Ones, a Breeders' Cup and, back in 2002, the obligatory international Group One for Weld on Dress To Thrill at Hollywood Park.
This year brought Rite Of Passage's lung-bursting triumph over Age Of Aquarius in the Ascot Gold Cup in June. Of all the good days, Smullen reckons that to be one of the best, not least because Rite Of Passage, which he had ridden to finish third in the Cheltenham bumper last year, "is such a courageous horse".
Next week, the Giant's Causeway gelding will line out alongside Weld's Profound Beauty as Smullen goes in search of a fifth Leger, but there's no escaping the bigger picture. A gap remains on the CV.
"The Melbourne Cup is the one race I'd love to win," Smullen admits. "The boss's association with the race and everything that it generates would make it a dream come true to win. I've come close (second on Vinnie Roe in 2004) before, and hopefully we'll give it a go again this year, be it on Rite Of Passage or Profound Beauty."
Smullen makes no bones about emphasising such goals. It is a candour that allows him to confirm that, rather than adopt the 'see how the season pans out' attitude, he endeavours to be champion jockey from the get-go every year. Having been foiled by Johnny Murtagh in his quest for a third successive championship last season, he is making a fair fist of wresting it back. He currently leads Murtagh and Fran Berry by four.
"I never run away from a challenge," Smullen says, "and the incentive is there to win the title back. I'm lucky to have a very good stable to ride for, so there's no point in me saying I don't set out every year to try and be champion jockey.
"It's been a good year for me up to now, but it's going to be a tough battle between the three of us for the championship. Johnny is probably going to be the biggest danger because of the ammunition he has at Ballydoyle, but I'll give it 100pc until the end of the year."
In a similarly determined vein, he reveals a desire to become the first Flat jockey to ride 100 winners in Ireland since Kinane in the early 90s. "I won't lie to you, that has crossed my mind. I rode 94 a few years ago and, with Dundalk now, it should be possible to do it. There are only seven meetings from October 31 to December 10, but I think it can be done and I would like to do it before I retire."
More immediately, Smullen, whose work ethic no doubt stems from his humble upbringing as a farm labourer's son in Rhode, Offaly, has business to attend to at Leopardstown today. Bethrah returns in the Matron Stakes for the first time since her Irish 1,000 Guineas win in May, while Famous Name faces down the big guns as he bids for an elusive success at the highest level in the Champion Stakes.
Asked about his hopes for a final third that promises much, Smullen concludes: "There is a lot to look forward to between now and the end of the year.
"Bethrah is going to improve for her run at Leopardstown but I'd still expect her to run a big race to kick off her autumn campaign, while Famous Name deserves an opportunity in a race like the Champion Stakes. Obviously, Profound Beauty and Rite Of Passage are in the mix for the St Leger and the Melbourne Cup too, so it's an exciting time.
"If you are fortunate to have good horses to ride, this is a great time of the year. There are some fantastic races all over the world, and I just hope that we'll be there taking part in some of them, and maybe win one of them. At the end of the day, the big races are what it's all about."