Racing’s salute to Pat Smullen’s heroics

Pat Sullen with Frankie Dettori at the Cartier Racing Awards. Dettori was the last jockey to win the Cartier Award of Merit - 23 years ago. Photo: Cartier

Nine-time Irish champion jockey Pat Smullen became just the third jockey to receive the Cartier/Daily Telegraph Award of Merit at the annual Cartier Racing Awards evening in London on Tuesday. Smullen, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer and has become a substantial fundraiser for charity, received an emotional standing ovation as he went up to receive the award.

Born in Rhode, County Offlay, on May 22, 1977, Smullen was one of four sons. He initially was far more interested in football than horses, unlike eldest brother Sean, who worked for trainer Joanna Morgan.

One day when their father Paddy was dropping off Sean for work, Morgan put her head inside the car and enquired whether Pat would also be interested in horses. From that point onwards, his equine activities took off as he was introduced to riding, hunting, show jumping and preparing horses for breeze-up sales.

The racing connection developed further when his father got in contact with local trainer Tommy Lacy. Pat went on to serve a four-year apprenticeship with the Tullamore handler. The first winner came aboard Vicosa, trained by Lacy, at Dundalk on June 11, 1993, following an initial ride the previous September.

The apprentice gained the attention of several other trainers and the winners began to flow, leading to Smullen being crowned champion apprentice in Ireland in both 1995 and 1996. 

Then came the opportunity to ride as second jockey behind Johnny Murtagh for trainer John Oxx, where he improved again over a two-year spell. A first G1 success was achieved on the Tommy Stack-trained Tarascon in the 1997 Moyglare Stud Stakes at the Curragh.

He was also used regularly by leading trainer Dermot Weld. When Weld's number one, Michael Kinane, made the move to Ballydoyle, Smullen was the natural choice to take the job at Rosewell House in 1999.

The Weld connection, with Moyglare Stud the main owner, saw him crowned champion jockey in Ireland for the first time in 2000, thanks to the help of his agent and brother-in-law, Kevin O'Ryan.

He went on to be Irish champion again in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016 - the year he gained his highest winning total of 129 in Ireland.

Racking up the winners

Not long after his initial jockeys’ championship, he married trainer Frances Crowley in 2001. She hails from one of Ireland's most famous racing dynasties - her father, Joe, was a successful trainer under both codes ,while her sister is Annemarie O'Brien, wife of Aidan O'Brien.

Frances herself created history in 2005 when she became the first female trainer in Ireland to saddle a Classic winner - Saoire in the 2005 Irish 1000 Guineas. It was a great family day as Pat won the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup on the Weld-trained Grey Swallow. Pat and Frances have three children - Sarah, Hannah and Paddy.

In 2001, Smullen enjoyed the first of nine Irish Classic success on Vinnie Roe in the Irish St Leger and he would go on to partner the great stayer for a further three wins in the Curragh contest - in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

The duo also went down valiantly under top weight when runner-up to mighty mare Makybe Diva in Australia's Melbourne Cup in 2004, having won the Prix Royal-Oak in 2001.

The first of eight Royal Ascot victories was provided by Irresistible Jewel in the 2002 Ribblesdale Stakes, with British Classic success coming courtesy of Refuse To Bend in the 2003 2000 Guineas.

Over the next few years, Smullen’s career continued to go from strength to strength as he racked up the winners, with highlights including Grey Swallow (2004 Irish Derby), Dress To Thrill (2002 Matron Stakes, Sun Chariot Stakes and Matriarch Stakes) and Rite Of Passage (2010 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot).

2015 proved particularly fruitful as he landed two of Ascot’s major G1s - the Prince Of Wales Stakes (Free Eagle) and the Qipco Champion Stakes (Fascinating Rock). He also struck a great partnership with the Hugo Palmer-trained Covert Love, annexing the Irish Oaks and the Prix de l’Opera.

Even better was the come in 2016. After an early-morning injury scare involving a dislodged shoe, the Aga Khan’s Harzand was partnered to victory in the the Derby at Epsom. It was a dream come true for Smullen, who regards the victory as his biggest. The rider and colt teamed up again to capture the Irish Derby later the same month.

With a career in full flight, Smullen was rightly regarded as one of the world’s leading jockeys (he was a regular in the TRC Global Rankings top ten).

In March, 2018, he stood down from his booked rides after reporting “absolute agony”. This was initially thought likely to be a kidney stone and it was hoped that he would make a speedy recovery. However, it proved to be far more serious.


Pancreatic cancer was diagnosed and Smullen subsequently underwent surgery. On medical advice, he announced, his retirement from the saddle in May this year. 

Smullen has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the battle against pancreatic cancer. His fundraising efforts have yielded over €2.5 million, culminating on Longines Irish Champions Weekend in September this year, when the Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland saw nine former top jockeys, including Sir A P McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Johnny Murtagh, coming out of retirement for a special contest at the Curragh in September 15.

Originally intending to ride in the race himself, Smullen was unable to return to the saddle because of a setback in his recovery from cancer, although he was present on course to witness McCoy come out on top. 

He reflected: “You have to face it - what else do you do, lie down and give up? You can’t do that. I have tremendous support from an amazing family and great friends.

“The support from everybody is unbelievable. The racing community has proved itself how it rallies around in times of need.It is just great to still be part of this great industry. I can't thank everybody enough.

“I can reassure everyone that every penny donated is going to a very worthy cause, which what we always set out to do - to make a difference.”

The other jockeys to win the Award of Merit are Frankie Dettori (1996) and Lester Piggott (1992), although Tom Queally had a share in the award as part of Team Frankel in 2012.

Award of Merit winners

2019 Pat Smullen
2018 David Oldrey
2017 Sir Michael Stoute
2016 Aidan O'Brien
2015 Jack Berry
2014 Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum
2013 Jim Bolger
2012 Team Frankel
2011 Barry Hills
2010 Richard Hannon
2009 John Oxx
2008 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
2007 The Niarchos family
2006 Peter Willett
2005 Henry Cecil
2004 David & Patricia Thompson
2003 Lord Oaksey
2002 Prince Khalid Abdullah
2001 John Magnier
2000 Aga Khan
1999 Peter Walwyn
1998 Head family
1997 Sir Peter O'Sullevan
1996 Frankie Dettori
1995 John Dunlop
1994 Marquess of Hartington
1993 François Boutin
1992 Lester Piggott
1991 Henri Chalhoub

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