Can the young pretender hold off the champ’s mighty title drive? It’s just too close to call

Colin Keane: trainer Ger Lyons has never hidden the high regard in which he holds his 22-year-old stable jockey. Photo: gerlyons.ie

Colin Keane has been setting the pace in the Irish jockeys’ championship since the start of the season. Ger Lyons’ number one rider flashed out of the gate, got out in front from early, established his lead, built momentum, catch me if you can.

All season Keane has had Pat Smullen in his wing mirrors, the world-class rider Pat Smullen, the perennial champion, and there has been a sense of the inevitable: that Smullen would hit the front at some stage before the end of the season and come clear. It has oscillated though, and the duel for the title has morphed into an enthrall.

There have been pivotal moments, like the Galway Festival in early August, not because either jockey rode a clutch of winners, but because Smullen’s boss, Dermot Weld, did not have his customary wheelbarrowful. Weld had just two winners, one of them over jumps, and Smullen rode just two winners for the week. Colin Keane also had two and, at the end of Galway week, the pretender led by nine, 51-42.

On the last Monday in August, Smullen went to Roscommon and rode a four-timer. Sollertia, Knowing You, Ontheiflist and Lord Erskine, four winners for three different trainers, and none of them favourite. That brought him to within three of Keane, 62-59, and it looked ominous. The bookmakers bet 4/9 Smullen, 2/1 Keane.

Shortlived breathing space

Listowel week in mid-September was another landmark week in the championship.  

Smullen had a winner on Tuesday, another on Thursday and another on Friday. Keane had none. The young pretender rallied with a double at Gowran Park on the Saturday, but Smullen had one winner there. Smullen had two winners at Galway the following Tuesday while Keane had one, and Keane had one at Dundalk on the Friday as Smullen had none.

There’s the oscillation right there. In the opening maiden at Tipperary the following Tuesday, Smullen drove Court Queen home to force a dead heat, so that, with one flat meeting left in September, they were level.

At that final meeting last month, at Dundalk on the last Friday in September, Keane rode a treble and went three clear again. Breathing space. Keane had a winner at Tipperary the following Sunday while Smullen was at the Arc de Triomphe meeting at Chantilly. Then, last Friday at Dundalk, Smullen cut loose again. Five rides, four winners, and it could have been five out of five. Indeed, it looked like it was going to be five as he and Bold Knight joined Keane and Thunder Crash at the furlong pole in the finale.  

The championship was encapsulated right there in that race, the two riders going toe to toe in the final race, inside the final furlong.

“They’re level in the championship and they’re level with a furlong to go here,” said commentator Des Scahill.

The bob of a head

You couldn’t call it as they flashed past the winning line. The outcome was determined by the bob of a head and the judge needed every pixel.  In the end, the photo showed that it was Thunder Crash’s nose that had hit the line first so that, at the end of the night, Keane led by one. The youngster’s lead had been reduced to the minimum margin, but it was still a lead.

The world knows Pat Smullen well. Champion jockey in Ireland an astonishing nine times, he has won just about every big race inside Ireland’s boundaries and lots of big races outside: the Epsom Derby on Harzand, the 2000 Guineas on Refuse To Bend, the Prix Royal-Oak on Vinnie Roe, the Prix de l’Abbaye on Benbaun, the Ascot Gold Cup on Rite Of Passage, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Free Eagle, the Prix de l’Opera on Covert Love, the Champion Stakes on Fascinating Rock, the Matriarch Stakes on Dress To Thrill.

Smullen is the consummate professional. Every year he sets out with the objective of being champion, and most years he achieves that objective. Of course, he has the strength of the Dermot Weld yard behind him but, unsurprisingly, there is continual demand for his services from other trainers, both in Ireland and further afield. He has proven his class on the world stage.

Colin Keane is riding out of his skin. It is difficult to believe that he is still only 22, that it is less than seven years since he rode his first ever winner.

His appointment by Ger Lyons as his stable jockey in 2014 was a quantum leap. It was a fair call by the trainer, to appoint a 19-year-old to such a high-profile role. But Lyons has never made any effort to conceal the regard in which he holds his young rider, and Keane has repaid the trainer’s faith in spades.

Fifth in the jockeys’ championship in 2014, Keane finished second behind Smullen in 2015 and in 2016. He finished well behind the reigning champion on both occasions, but he finished a clear second best last year. This year, he has mounted a real challenge.

This is a thriller. The battle between these two riders has been an enthralling undercurrent to the season. Two top-class jockeys riding at the peak of their powers and going flat out for a title that they both desperately want and which they both actually deserve. Smullen’s tenth, Keane’s first, both significant landmarks.

They have ridden one winner each since Dundalk last Friday, Smullen at Limerick on Saturday, Keane at Navan on Sunday. That leaves Keane still with a lead of one: 82-81. This one could go all the way to the wire.

The final meeting of the Irish flat season is at Naas on Sunday, November 5.

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