Sunday 18 February 2018

Vincent Hoagn: Faithful son Pat Smullen chasing more glory with Derby champ Harzand

Pat Smullen waves to the Curragh crowd after partnering Harzand to victory in the Irish Derby for Dermot Weld. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Pat Smullen waves to the Curragh crowd after partnering Harzand to victory in the Irish Derby for Dermot Weld. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Pat Smullen directs your eye to a framed collage of pictures on the living-room wall, mostly Hollywood shots from that stretch of twenty one days out of which Harzand was delivered as a champion of indomitable heart.

But his words tug your attention to maybe the smallest, least conspicuous image. Top, left-hand corner, a vaguely private tableau of man and horse in regal isolation. Smullen and Harzand are headed down to the Epsom start, yet the fabric of Flat racing's biggest day is nowhere to be seen. No stands, no people, no rival silks.

Just man and horse and an anonymous green landscape.

Three hours before that shot was taken, he'd been sat in the weigh-room, waiting for his phone to ring. Would Harzand run? The horse had pulled a shoe off en route to England, exposing two nails that caused puncture wounds in his foot. So somewhere out there, hidden to the inestimable glamour and wealth of Epsom Saturday, hearts were beating uncomfortably behind a stable door.

Talented thoroughbreds can be many things, but they are three-year-olds just once.

If Harzand did not make it, he would follow the same, cruel path of Free Eagle and Zawraq, two live Derby chances for Smullen and Dermot Weld who'd failed to make the starting stalls in 2014 and 2015.

In time, the call arrived, delivering guarded clearance. But expressions were still hooded. Out in the parade ring, Weld would turn to the Aga Khan, counselling gently: "It's Pat's decision now. If he's not happy with the horse at the start....."


So that picture? For Pat Smullen, it's liberation. The moment he knows they're going to the stalls. "If he wasn't right, as much as it would break my heart, you couldn't race," he says. "But he floated to the start. And that's that picture.

"After jumping into a canter and going ten strides, I was thinking 'There's no issue with this horse....'"

They were a mile and a half from a place in history. All those other pictures in the collage are self-explanatory, celebrating a storyline that resolves neatly and sweetly in thronged enclosures.

Two Derby wins in three weeks. A galaxy of smiles. Smullen is 39 but maybe something fundamental shifted in how the world saw him that day at Epsom when, having edged past Idaho, he could feel the white-nosed challenge of US Army Ranger begin to taper at his shoulder. At home in Rhode, in this same living-room, Frances and the childre were riding with him.

That night, they'd all sit down in front of the TV, reliving Harzand's victory. And around a furlong from home, Hannah and Paddy and Sarah were all laughing: "This is where Mam went crazy," they told him. And Frances Crowley was laughing too.

It's seven years since she called time on her career as a trainer, concluding that two obsessives under the one roof might not be compatible with a healthy family life. f she had an ego, the decision could have bred resentment. For Frances was gifted at what she did, saddling almost 350 winners, including an Irish 1,000 Guineas champion.

But training is a hard, predominantly cruel business and the higher her husband soared as Weld's No 1, the more she realised that one of them needed the unequivocal support of the other.

Home today is a splendid farmhouse on Brickfield Stud, an expanse of the very midland soil that Pat's father, Paddy, once worked for a man called Trevor Cotton. They have maybe 50 acres here, the broad reach of it offering asylum from the claustrophobic energies of riding thoroughbreds for some of the world's wealthiest owners.

Pat admits he needs that for a mind that can be starkly one-dimensional. "If ever things are starting to get on top of me a bit or I'm thinking too much, I can just pull on a pair of Wellington boots and head off walking through the fields," he says. "But, in truth, I don't unwind. There's no point in saying otherwise.

"Even if I go on holidays, Frances will be saying 'Will you just relax!' But I'd be on the phone, looking at results, thinking 'I could have ridden that if I was at home...'"

We suggest to him that this, above all, sounds like an articulation of insecurity and he doesn't summon an argument.

"I agree," Smullen replies. "You know, in my own insecure mind, if I don't ride a horse I'm thinking I'm leaving a door open You may have hit the nail on the head. Like you might be winning big races, but you want winners tomorrow too to keep the numbers up.

"So it's sort of a vicious cycle. But, at the end of the day, you do it because you love it too."

He seems at the height of his powers now, a soon-to-be nine time Irish champion and a man in demand both sides of the Irish Sea. Smullen still answers - above all - to Weld's schedule, but he has been increasingly busy of late in England too.

All of the dreams born during childhood days in the yards of Joanna Morgan and Tommy Lacey have, thus, begun coming to fruition. That day in Epsom was the most fulfilling of his career so far, not simply on a personal level but for the quiet recognition that he could see register in Weld's eyes of having finally won the most coveted pot in Flat racing.

It was towards the end of '98, at a low-watt meeting in Naas, that Weld (below) asked him to stop by Rosewell House on the way home.

For months, there had been speculation that Christy Roche would be retiring, freeing up a place for Weld's number one, Mick Kinane, at Ballydoyle. Pat Smullen was just 20 then, already paying the price for spreading himself too wide. He'd won the 1997 Moyglare on Tarascon for Tommy Stack and been on board again for the English 1,000 Guineas when she became upset in the stalls and, essentially, failed to run.

Stack subsequently asked him down to ride work one Tuesday morning, but Smullen was already booked by Weld and John Oxx. Exasperated, the trainer took him off a horse that would win the Irish Guineas.

"That was a huge blow" he remembers now. "It felt as if my world was ending. Devastating. I remember thinking 'That's it, my chance of making it is gone...'

"Horses like that don't come around very often."

In Weld's office one year later, the conversation was purposefully direct. "Mick is leaving, I need a stable jockey. Interested?" His response was delivered quicker than a sneeze.

Yet signing up as Weld's No 1 did not secure any promised destination.

Oxx especially had put him on good horses and in contact with big owners where he'd been glad of Lacey's counsel that smart horsemanship alone could never guarantee success. The best jockeys, Tommy told him, knew how to conduct themselves.

Looking back now, he can say that the Weld job might even have been "a year or two too soon" for him. The master of Rosewell House was, after all, hiring potential in place of genius.

"You have to remember I'm trying to fill Mick Kinane's boots," Smullen explains now. "There was huge pressure on me. I was at another level now.

"And the first couple of years were probably a little bit sticky in the mistakes that I was making. But, at that age, a little bit of naivety is a great thing. You probably don't know the real enormity of what you're doing. I'm sure Dermot was getting it from a lot of people 'That chap's not good enough!' But that all went over my head.

"I mean I got well used to coming back in and fellas shouting 'You're no Mick Kinane!' over the rails. But sure I wasn't!"

Over time, he suspects that something of Weld's personality began to fuse into his own.

"Dermot doesn't like losing any race," he explains. "You could be coming home from Ballinrobe of a wet Monday night and be on the phone for a long time getting a rollicking. That's just the way it was. And you know what? After two or three seasons in, I ended up being like him. He drove me to another level.

"Just where the hunger for success was probably infectious. For a time, I just couldn't cope when I got beaten on one that should have won. Like it would drive me demented. I'd be an anti-Christ.

"As you get older, maybe you just deal with things a bit better. But before Frances and the kids came along, there was nothing else in my life. And it's a hard thing to say but, at the end of the day, everything is about you. But maybe that's what makes you survive, never accepting second."

They had a celebratory dinner after Epsom and, of the guests present, it meant maybe most to Smullen that Mick and Catherine Kinane were at the table.

If he has followed any one man's template in the saddle, it has been that of the jockey he replaced at Rosewell. Why? Because something in Kinane always spoke of an independence you did not wisely challenge.

He tells the story of a day many moons ago in Roscommon, riding for Declan Gillespie. Back then, the turn into the straight tended to pitch runners into a slightly exaggerated arc and Smullen, unwisely, saw in that arc an opportunity to save ground.

He'd been traveling well behind Kinane and now dipped down his inside. "I got half-way there and was met with white rails," he says now laughing. "And that was a stand-out day that taught me a huge lesson.

"Mick put manners on me and I respected him for it. We came back in and he just looked at me. I said nothing, but I knew that I was wrong. No words were needed.

"You know, deep down, I think I always wanted to be him. Just loved the way he conducted himself."

Smullen goes to Leopardstown today with Harzand priced second in the market for a star-studded Irish Champion Stakes. Fitness permitting, they may go to next month's Prix de l'Arc in Chantilly with similar billing. He rode the dual Derby winner in work on Tuesday and says that he "couldn't be more pleased with him."

If Epsom delivered the dream, the Curragh three weeks later was - above all - an essay in relief. And anything that follows now is deep in bonus territory.

"Possibly the best horse I've ever ridden," he says of Harzand. "I don't think I've ever ridden a horse with more will to win."

Perfect match with his pilot then.

Irish Independent

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