New book details the focus that drove Pat Smullen to become one of the great jockeys, how writing his memoirs proved cathartic, and the incredible experiences the family shared after he passed
‘It was really good for Pat. He got to relive his whole life. He would be exhausted after the conversations, but he’d be on a high.” Frances Crowley is talking about the book Champion, which her husband, the famous Irish jockey, Pat Smullen wrote, starting after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. That book is published now, just over a year after his death in September 2020 at the age of 43.
And what a life it was. Pat Smullen won the Irish Flat racing Champion Jockey title nine times; he rode nearly 2,000 winners, including Harzand in the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby. He rode for the Aga Khan, Eva Maria Bucher-Haefner, Tony O’Reilly, Sheikh Mohammed and Jim Sheridan. And all from a background that was far from racing.
Smullen was from what he describes as a “working-class family”, in Rhode, Co Offaly. His father was a farm labourer, and the family home had two bedrooms – Pat shared the second with his three brothers. Growing up in the 1980s, he learned the value of hard work.
“I never thought I was the most gifted rider,” he writes. “But I always thought that, if I worked hard, I had a chance.”
It was, he writes, “a great upbringing”. But that was thanks to his family. School was an unhappy experience for him: “It wasn’t a healthy environment, and it certainly wasn’t an environment in which I was encouraged to learn or develop.”
Because he was small and light, the local GAA club didn’t work out for him either. Through his older brother, he started riding in his teens, and “loved it from the start”. He left school when he was 15, without even sitting his Junior Cert, and brought all of his remarkable focus to riding and racing. By the time he was 22, he was first jockey to Dermot Weld, one of the country’s most successful trainers.
“He very much had to do it from pure hard work, and talent,” says Frances. She is from a horsey background herself – her father is the trainer Joe Crowley, and her brother-in-law is Aidan O’Brien. She has been champion amateur rider twice.
“His father was a great stockman, he worked on a farm. So even though Pat wasn’t from a horsey background, like many Irish people, he was from an animal-minded background. He loved all animals – dogs, lambs, he was always collecting animals along the way.
“But definitely he had to work that bit harder. Once he found something he was good at, he put everything into it, heart and soul. I’d say his confidence was knocked from an early age, both in school and maybe in football, and once he found something he felt he was good at, no matter what it was, he would have put everything into it.
“He wanted to be successful, he wanted to earn money. He said it himself, he wasn’t from a wealthy family. His dad and his mum, money wouldn’t have been that important to them, just happiness and working hard and family. But for Pat, he was very focused on providing for his family and very focused on having enough money. Not having it when he was younger was something that played on his mind.
“Feeling that he was in a profession that wasn’t particularly long-term, that wasn’t stable, he never felt really secure and that drove him to succeed. He always felt he was short of time. I don’t think he realised how short of time he was, but he always felt like his career could end at any moment, so he had to absolutely put everything into it.”
It was an astonishing career. Reading Champion is to dive into the dizziest glamour of the racing world in Ireland and the UK, peopled by legendary horses like Vinnie Roe and Grey Swallow; jockeys like Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy; and a host of celebrated owners. But it’s also very obvious just how hard a career it is.
Pat writes about the struggle with weight nearly every jockey has: “Your whole life is governed by what you can eat and when you can eat it. You are continually hungry and you are often cranky because of it. You have to be about a stone-and-a-half lighter than your natural body weight.”
“I think people don’t realise how mentally difficult it is,” Frances says. “I was watching I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here with my 11-year-old daughter (the couple have three children, Hannah, Paddy and Sarah) and you could see the erratic behaviour of those poor people. They were being starved, they were in intense situations. I said: ‘That reminds me a lot of how your dad was, constantly starved, constantly in very pressurised situations. That’s why he was sometimes quite difficult to live with.’ I was saying to her, he did so well to be normal every day under those situations.”
Pat writes about his pursuit of his racing ambitions as “selfish”. Is he being too hard on himself, I ask?
“Absolutely he was selfish,” Frances says. “But if you look at most sports people, the successful ones have to be completely selfish about their career and focus. It’s all or nothing. That’s just the way it is if you want to be successful, you have to be like that.”
“I understood that. To me, that was the way it should be. Looking back, maybe if I was a different person, maybe I could have tempered his… I often think to myself, maybe I should have been able to say, ‘this (family) is more important than always being so focused on the racing’. But I don’t think that would have worked.
“I actually thought it was completely normal to be like he was. Because I think I’m a bit like that myself. I would have grown up in a household where horses were everything. I thought it was absolutely the right way to live. There was no conflict there from me if we weren’t going to a wedding or if he was missing the kid’s communion.”
She talks about going into labour with Sarah, their youngest child: “I never for a minute thought he should come with me to the hospital. I wouldn’t have even asked him. I knew he had really big races. I was totally complicit in his choices as a father and as a husband. I think we wouldn’t have been able to stay together if I wasn’t like that.”
For the record, Pat won on Chinese White for Lady O’Reilly that day, and made it to Mount Carmel in time for Sarah’s birth.
Frances and Pat met in Dubai, where they were working in winter 1998, although they had previously ridden against one another in a race in Tramore, where Pat beat Frances by a head. What first drew her to him?
“I would have been in the racing world for years, but I had a policy that I would never ever go out with a jockey. I would go racing with the lads, the jockeys, and I would be horrified by the things I used to hear in the car. I was like, I am never going out with a jockey! I was very firm about that,” she says.
“But he was different. He was very gentle, so focused on his career. There was just something different about him. We were very similar – attitudes to things, the same kind of values, all those things that attract you to somebody.”
Pat was some years younger – “at certain times of the year, I’d be five years older” Frances says.
“He was only 20 when we met, but he would have been out working since he was 15. He would have been a lot more mature than your average 20-year-old. He would have been out there, working, focused, making a living from a very early age. In numbers there was a gap but in life experience he was a lot more mature.”
For the first years of their married life Frances ran her own yard as a trainer, as well as running the house and caring for the children.
It was, Pat writes: “A great time, but a stressful time too. We were both very busy… there just wasn’t enough time in the day. It was impossible for us to find time for each other. It put our relationship under pressure. Something had to give and, in the end, it was Frances’s career as a trainer that gave way. I feel bad about that, because Frances was a very, very good trainer.”
That, Frances says now, “was a big decision, a difficult decision”.
“I would have been very career-driven. It would have really gone against my personality to give up my career for family and husband. That’s something I never ever thought I would do. And Pat would never have said, ‘it’s either me or the training’. But I could see it was becoming more and more difficult for him with me training. And although I loved training horses, I loved him more,” she says.
“At the end of the day I thought I could live without the training but I didn’t want to put us in a situation where we were going to end up falling out over the whole thing.”
Would she ever go back to it, I wonder?
“No, I wouldn’t. It’s a very difficult and high-pressured career. I’m involved, I do have horses, I put them in training, I have mares, I have the farm and I enjoy all that, but I wouldn’t attempt to do it now.”
After Pat was first diagnosed, he went through a complex operation to put a stent into his bile duct, then a 12-week course of chemotherapy aimed at shrinking the tumour on his pancreas to operable size. That operation lasted seven hours, and was deemed a success. It was followed by more chemotherapy, and then daily medication – a PARP inhibitor.
“The way we looked at it, it was like living with high blood pressure, or living with diabetes,” Pat writes.
He announced his retirement from racing in 2019, having known for a while he wouldn’t be able to go back. It wasn’t by choice, but there too he found the positives: “I was a much better husband after I got sick than I was before I got sick. I was a better father. A better person.”
He decided to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research, by staging a charity race at the Irish Champions’ Weekend. He hoped to raise around €500,000 – and ended up with €2.6m.
Pat had intended to ride in that race, but a few weeks beforehand, he found the PARP inhibitor was no longer doing its job, and the cancer had returned. That was September 2019. He started chemotherapy again, and when that didn’t work, an immunotherapy treatment, but by early June 2020, he was told the cancer had grown and spread.
By the end of July, Frances was pleading with him to go into hospital, where she hoped his pain could be better managed. He was reluctant, afraid that if he went in, he wouldn’t come out. All this she writes about in the final chapter of Champion – her account of Pat’s final weeks, and the aftermath of his death.
“We never really admitted that he was dying,” she says now. “I don’t think we could go there. How we coped with it was always saying that we were still trying to find something, trying to row back against the cancer. It was obviously getting harder and harder – one step forward, or even half a step, then two steps back. But I think if he had thought he was going to die, he would have died a lot sooner.”
She writes about crying in the car on her way up and down to St Vincent’s hospital so that Pat wouldn’t see her cry when she got to the hospital, and the children wouldn’t see her cry when she got home.
“It was a difficult time. I’m not sure how you get through those times. You wonder how you coped with all those feelings of fear and worrying about the future. Looking back, it was very difficult. But I have a way of taking things and sort of putting them away. I suppose a lot of women do it. Being able to get on with life, package away other things and deal with the present.”
She writes about Pat, in those last weeks, and the feeling he had that “this was happening to him for a reason”.
“He said that to me a few times,” she says. “That he was getting this really strong feeling, that there was some reason behind his death. I don’t know what that reason was, and maybe it’s something that I’ll never know. But he said that a few times, and very close to his death the feeling seemed to be getting stronger.
“When I wrote my bit, I was really just trying to document what happened, rather than make sense of it. I thought it was important to put in there what he said. I’m not trying to make his death have meaning, but that’s what he said. I hope it gave him comfort, I’m sure it must have.”
She also writes, beautifully, about the appearance of butterflies, feathers and flickering lights in the time after Pat’s death – always when Frances or the children were thinking specifically about him.
“I never really had the experience of losing someone really close to me,” she says .
“My dad died in the March just before Pat, but he had many years of dementia and strokes, so I kind of felt I lost him in bits and pieces. Before Pat died, I never had that intense experience of losing someone very close to you. I had no expectations of what I would feel like. So when things like that started happening, it was mind-numbing for me.”
It wasn’t, she says, “just the fact that a butterfly or a feather would appear, it was actually when things happened at the exact moment that you would be thinking…
“I talk to Pat all the time in my head. I asked him, very early on, ‘are you somewhere nice and peaceful?’ and the lights just went off. It wasn’t a fuse, or a fault. A few weeks later, I said, ‘I really think you are happy and at peace’. At that second, a little light popped on in my room and flashed three times. It was like an answer to a question.”
On their wedding anniversary, a butterfly appeared in the house, flying into the room where Frances was. Another time, in the car with Hannah: “We were talking about how we felt Pat was at peace, and the volume on the radio just started changing on its own, moving between 3 and 4 on the dial. It felt like he was answering us, that it was such an intense peace, he had to let us know.
“Hannah kept saying ‘those numbers are significant’. A few weeks later, she said, ‘those numbers, it’s the age he was, 43’. There were loads of things like that, loads.
“It’s lovely that we have something that we can feel that he’s here. It may be complete rubbish, but I don’t think it is because the things that happen are just too coincidental. I fully believe that it’s him.”
And so, finally, what does she hope for the book?
“I hope it does well for Pat. But for me, it’s already been such a positive thing. For Pat to write it before he died, and for his family to have it. From my point of view, the little bit I wrote at the back, I would love if that gave people who are maybe facing into a terminal illness or people who have lost somebody recently, to take a bit of comfort in what we experienced.
“I think Pat went somewhere that he found so amazing that he had to let us know about it. Maybe that would bring people a bit of comfort in that way.”
‘Champion’ by Pat Smullen with Donn McClean, is published by Gill Books, €22.99, and out now
The Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland was a coming together of all the strands of Pat’s career as a jockey.
It took place on Irish St Ledger Day at the Curragh in September 2019.
The scope of the event took focus when Pat mentioned the idea to Margaret Heffernan at Royal Ascot that year. She asked him how much he hoped to raise. “I said a million. I was almost embarrassed saying it. She said good. No point doing it if you’re not going to do it properly.”
The first jockey to come on board was AP McCoy, who had ridden only one race since he retired some years before, after which he had said he would never ride again. He immediately said yes. Next came Ruby Walsh, Charlie Swan, Paul Carberry and others, all champion jockeys: “75 championships between the 10 of us.”
JP McManus donated €500,000 as soon as the race was announced; Eva Maria Bucher-Haefner, owner of Moyglare Stud, donated a million, and the Moyglare Stud box for the day. The late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum donated €500,000 the night before the race, and the general public donated in their droves: “One or two euro. People coming up to Dermot Weld or Ruby Walsh at the races and giving them cash and cheques to put towards the fun.”
That, Frances says, meant as much to Pat as the big donations. As for the race, it was won by AP McCoy on Quizical.