Sport Horse Racing

Friday 20 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Race of a lifetime, and a race for life'

Ruby Walsh on Glen Of Aherlow, AP McCoy, on Moment In History, Paul Carberry on Punches Cross, Charlie Swan on Shadow Seven and Joseph O’Brien on Abyssinian last week. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Ruby Walsh on Glen Of Aherlow, AP McCoy, on Moment In History, Paul Carberry on Punches Cross, Charlie Swan on Shadow Seven and Joseph O’Brien on Abyssinian last week. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The five horsemen come up the hill together. We hear the drumming of hooves, the breathing of the horses and the jokes about weight passing between the quintet.

It's quite a quintet. Ruby Walsh, Tony McCoy, Charlie Swan, Paul Carberry and Joseph O'Brien. Or to put it another way, 10 Champion Hurdles, five Champion Chases, five Irish Grand Nationals, four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Grand Nationals, two Derbys, a 2,000 Guineas, a St Leger and 45 champion jockey titles.

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This is probably the most talented group of jockeys ever to ride out together on an Irish morning. Or anywhere else for that matter. But the jockey we're all thinking about, as we look down at the counties of Kilkenny, Waterford and Tipperary spread out before us, is the one who isn't here.

If he was here, Pat Smullen would add significantly to that combined roll of honour. The Offaly man was Irish champion jockey nine times, won the Derby, the 2,000 Guineas, the St Leger, the Ascot Gold Cup, nine Irish classics and the Breeders' Cup Marathon.

It takes a lot of effort to be that successful in the ultra-competitive world of top-class racing. But the battles Smullen fought for those victories pale into insignificance compared to the one in which he's currently engaged. Because Pat Smullen, 42 years old, champion, husband to Frances and father to three children, has been fighting pancreatic cancer for the past 18 months.

When racing people talk to you about him they're keen to stress what a special character he is. It's in our nature to speak well of anyone suffering from illness. But what they want you to know is that the gentlemanliness of Pat Smullen's nature and the sheer all-round niceness of his family were proverbial before he ever became sick. This is a very good man.

You can see that in the way he's exuded good humour and dignity when talking about his fight against the disease over the past year. And, above all, in the way that his thoughts unselfishly turned to how he could use his own misfortune to do good for others.

He thought of a special race at the Longines Irish Champions Weekend to raise money for cancer research. A Champions Race for a Champions Weekend, with the great Irish jockeys of modern times getting back in the saddle. So with the help of the people at Horse Racing Ireland he set about assembling his dream team. In the words of Ruby Walsh, "Pat didn't have to make a phone call twice."

Next Sunday, the five riders who rode out at Joseph O'Brien's stables near Piltown last Tuesday morning will be joined by four more legends. Kieren Fallon (six British champion jockey titles, five 2,000 Guineas, three Derbys, two Prix de l'Arc de Triomphes), Johnny Murtagh (five Irish champion jockey titles, three Derbys, three Breeders' Cups), Richard Hughes (three times British champion jockey, winner of the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks in England and France and Derbys in Italy and India) and Ted Durcan (Oaks, St Leger and seven jockeys titles in the United Arab Emirates) will try conclusions with their peers over the straight mile at The Curragh.

Asked on Tuesday if he'd ever faced opposition of such concentrated quality before, Paul Carberry quips, "I don't think anyone has." There has never been a race quite like it. Something special is in the air. Nobody thought they would ever see Tony McCoy, who swore four years ago that he'd never again ride a horse, take to the racecourse again. Yet he has rallied to the call and been exercising hard to lose weight. Nobody wants to let themselves down. Each of the nine riders will be going all out.

There should have been a tenth. Pat Smullen planned to ride the race himself. But two weeks ago came the news that he'd suffered a setback and will have to pull out. The news lends a slightly sombre flavour to the proceedings.

"Everything we can do in the world and still there are certain things that can't be fixed. It makes you wonder at times what way the world is working," muses Ruby, an uncharacteristically bemused note in his voice.

Because in a situation like this, words seem almost useless. What counts in the fight against cancer is medicine and the kind of scientific research being carried out by Cancer Trials Ireland, the charity who'll benefit from the money raised by the champions race.

They've two trials, one of a new drug to treat pancreatic cancer, one connected with radiotherapy, almost ready to go and the money will help them begin as soon as possible. This isn't just the race of a lifetime, it's a race for life.

As the jockeys paused at the top of the gallop, I thought of a photo taken in 1958 for Esquire magazine by the photographer Art Kane of the leading jazz musicians in New York, a photo so famous the movie A Great Day In Harlem was made about it. The significance of that shot was that it didn't just capture the protagonists of a heroic era in musical history, it somehow seemed to stand for everything they'd achieved.

In the same way that quintet outlined against the sky on top of a hill in Kilkenny seemed somehow to represent what has been the great heroic age of Irish racing, one of unprecedented success at Cheltenham and Aintree, of classic triumph for not just the great Aidan O'Brien but for Jim Bolger, John Oxx and Dermot Weld also, of AP and Ruby becoming household names with the Irish public in a way that no-one from their sport ever had before.

Since 2000, Irish-trained horses have won 11 Derbys, six Cheltenham Gold Cups and six Grand Nationals. The respective figures for the 20 years before that are two, two and one. So this moment too seems a unique souvenir of a glorious time. In normal circumstances you would never have got that combination of talents to ride out together. It took something and someone special to unite them like this.

It is a beautiful morning, the best in ages, and they turn their horses and head back down the hill. Behind them thunder another 40 odd horses from the O'Brien stable, largely piloted by young men and women whose dreams are of ascending the heights scaled by the giants who've moved among them this morning.

Back in the yard, a wolfhound is inspecting the visitors and licking their hands in turn, a lurcher pup turns over to have his belly tickled, a young woman rubs down a horse and steam rises from its flanks, a young man transports hay to the stables. There is not a puff of wind to disturb the weather vane crowned with the figure of a horse which sits atop the house inside which they are working away on computers in the office. In the hall stands a cabinet containing trophies from Naas, from Roscommon, from Ballinrobe and a replica of the Melbourne Cup O'Brien won two years ago and will bid to annex once more in two months.

The scene is of beauty and work and craft and abundant life, like some great Bruegel canvas depicting the simple joys of existence. You feel lucky to be here, happy and healthy on this glorious day. This is the world Pat Smullen knows and which, for now, has been taken away from him. He has already beaten the odds which say that only 20 per cent of pancreatic cancer sufferers survive a year. Now he goes up against the survival rate of seven per cent within five years.

Some of you reading this today will face a similar fight against what, in his history of the disease, the doctor and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee called the Emperor of All Maladies. Some of you may already be fighting it. And some of you will be saved by research of the kind which Cancer Trials Ireland are carrying out, and to which this champions race will provide invaluable assistance.

We can all help. If you're betting that day, why not put the money for one or more of the races towards this cause? If you strike it lucky, why not donate some of your winnings? Even if you're not much of a racing person at all, this is something which deserves your support.

The life you could save could be your own or that of someone close to you because there isn't a family in this country without experience of cancer. Whatever other differences there might be between us, this is the one fight we're all in together.

And after you've joined the fight, sit back and watch history being made as a race like no other takes place, nine great champions coming back to the track to do it one more time. Doing it out of abiding respect and out of camaraderie and out of that old competitive spirit.

But doing it most of all out of love.

NOTE: Anyone interested in donating to Cancer Trials Ireland can do so at www.cancertrials.ie. There's also an online auction in conjunction with the champions race (see app.galabid.com/Smullen). Lots include Ronan O'Gara coming to your club or school to give a talk and a kicking masterclass, lunch at Gigginstown House Stud's box on Cheltenham Gold Cup day, tickets for a host of sporting events including Liverpool v Manchester United in January and next year's All-Ireland finals and VIP racing trips to the Dubai World Cup, Royal Ascot and Cheltenham among others.

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